Facing Tampa Bay Rays next, Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper hits the big time

By now, you've heard all the hype surrounding Nationals 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper.

Maybe you're already sick of it.

He was labeled "Baseball's Chosen One" on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore in Las Vegas, a prodigy like Tiger Woods and LeBron James. He blasted 550-plus-foot home runs that became YouTube sensations before he could legally vote. His junior college coach, Tim Chambers, said cameras flashed in his first game as if he were "Barry Bonds hitting No. 73."

"He's like the Justin Bieber of baseball," MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds said. "Everyone's like, 'Who is this kid?' "

That's not a clown question, bro.

As the Rays prepare to face Harper for the first time tonight in opening a three-game series in Washington, the 2010 top overall pick is viewed around baseball as a once-in-a-generation type player who has won over the industry with his skills, instincts and throwback, in-your-face style of play.

"To see a 19-year-old do some of the things that he's doing, it's pretty darn special," Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "He's the kind of guy I would want to pay my money to watch play. I'm sure well after I'm done, I'll be paying my money to watch him play and break all the records."

Some see the outfielder's eye black and think brash. They see the brisk home run trot and think showboat. But Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen sees a stone-cold competitor who should be emulated by others "playing his (expletive) off." Rays manager Joe Maddon notices that Harper is beyond his years in baseball acumen, going first to third and stealing home on a pickoff at first.

"He's the whole package," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "You're going to look up in a couple years, because of who he is and how good a player he's going to be, there's going to be 100 guys that are going to emulate what he does, because he'll make the game better. Because if they play as hard as he does, it's better for the game."

Guillen believes Harper is unfairly criticized and "hated" due to the oversaturated media coverage. The Marlins' recently demoted Chris Coghlan compares Harper to Tim Tebow, a lightning rod for controversy and "jealousy" due to attention he never asked for. Reynolds said no player in history has had this many eyeballs on him since his early teenage years, a product of social media and Internet booming like balls off the left-handed hitting slugger's bat.

"Mickey Mantle, you read about him once a week in Sporting News," Reynolds said. "Ken Griffey Jr., when he was on the cover of SI and did something on 60 Minutes, wow, that was big news. But now, you hear folk stories on Harper, you can see it on the Internet, instantly."

More than Harper's skills and stats — seven homers, 19 RBIs in his first 44 big-league games — Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has been impressed with the maturity and attitude that baseball's youngest player has shown in handling the hoopla, absorbing advice from veterans and "listening more than he talks."

Rays left-hander David Price, a former top pick himself, especially admired Harper's answer to a question by a Toronto reporter who asked him after a recent big game if he'd celebrate with a beer (he could legally drink in Canada).

Harper, a Mormon who doesn't drink alcohol, quipped: "That's a clown question, bro."

No surprise, the answer went viral.

•••

Chambers, who has known Harper since he was 8 years old, said he learned one lesson quickly:

"Don't take your eyes off him," says Chambers, now UNLV's coach. "Because you may see something every day you've never seen before."

There were the 15 homers Harper hit out of Southern Nevada's ballpark — at age 12. There was the 570-foot homer Harper ripped in high school. There was Harper hitting a 380-foot sacrifice fly — during an attempted intentional walk. Harper decided to get his GED after his sophomore year and enroll at Southern Nevada, bettering his competition in a wood-bat league and making him eligible a year early for the 2010 draft.

That didn't surprise Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison, who saw Harper play in high school and compared him, in some ways, to Josh Hamilton.

"This guy is different," Harrison. "He might be one of those generational-like players."

At Harper's first game, more than 2,200 fans showed up to the stadium which seated 500-600. Said Chambers: "Flashbulbs were going off like it was Barry Bonds hitting No. 73."

Harper destroyed Southern Nevada and junior college records, hitting 31 homers that season (dwarfing Nevada's previous mark of 12, set with an aluminum bat). He signed with mega-agent Scott Boras, and, as the top pick, inked a $9.9 million, five-year deal with Washington.

Harper, who slept with his bat as a kid and grew up wanting to be like Mantle, was going pro with mammoth expectations — and loftier goals.

"He wants to be the greatest player ever," Chambers said.

•••

Rizzo admits "there's really no template for a player with his skill set, this guy's baseball IQ and baseball instincts."

Harper, called up April 28, was all over SportsCenter a week later, when Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels made the much-criticized decision to hit him intentionally. Harper soon made the Phillies pay by stealing home on a pickoff throw to first.

Then, in a game against the Braves, Harper hustled to turn a routine single to rightfielder Jason Heyward into a double.

"Any time anybody plays the game hard, his hustle may show somebody up, they may take that as cocky or whatever, but it's not like (Harper) has wavered off it," Marlins catcher John Buck said. "I think that's just him playing the game hard. Chipper Jones and Pete Rose were the same way, and now that's the entire reason why everyone loves them.

"In my opinion, I definitely think he's lived up to the hype."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

Harper among MLB rookies

AVG. .294 2nd
OBP .370 2nd
HR 7 T-3rd
SLG .524 1st
OPS .893 2nd

Facing Tampa Bay Rays next, Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper hits the big time 06/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 1:53am]

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