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Monday, August 10, 2009

Bryce Harper shrugs off national attention

Jim Ecker        
Bryce Harper just wants to play ball against the best competition he can find. It's that simple. For him, anyway.

The cover of Sports Illustrated? No big deal. A special report on ESPN? Maybe he'll watch it, maybe not. Skipping his last two years of high school and starting college this summer? He can't wait to get started.

Bryce Harper is just 16 years old, and everyone seems to have an opinion about his decision to leave Las Vegas High School early -- two years early -- so he could enroll at the College of Southern Nevada, play baseball next spring and be eligible for the 2010 draft. If he'd stayed in high school, he wouldn't have been eligible for the draft until 2011.

Lots of people have offered their opinion about the benefits, or drawbacks, of leaving high school after their sophomore year for college. Math and science geniuses do it. They leave early for MIT. So why not a baseball prodigy who SI dubbed baseball's "Chosen One"?

Harper seems amused, or bemused, by all the fuss.

"I don't really care about what other people think," he said in an even tone, not meaning to be rude or insult anyone. "As long as it's OK with my family and my coaches and we're all OK on it, that's all that matters to me."

Harper is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound catcher with impressive skills on a baseball field. He's been selected to play in the Aflac All-American High School Classic this Sunday in San Diego. And by the way, he's carried a 3.6 GPA in high school, so it's not like he's a one-dimensional monster who just wants to pound a baseball. But he's pretty good at it, however. Pounding a baseball, that is.

Sports Illustrated put him squarely in the national spotlight with its flattering cover story on June 8, detailing his exploits, his 570-foot home run and his thoughts about the possibility of skipping his last two years in high school and heading to college. Shortly after the article appeared, he made it official and announced he was heading to college.

Lots of people read that article and formed their own conclusions. And Harper? It sounds like the magazine might be collecting dust somewhere.

"It wasn't really big for me," he maintained. "I didn't care about it that much. I don't know, it didn't really bother me that much. Everybody blew it up to more than I thought it was. It was just a magazine for me, it was just another article."

And here comes the kicker.

"I didn't read the article," he said. "I don't read articles about me, at all. I don't read that stuff."

Harper has registered for classes at the College of Southern Nevada. He'll take anthropology, psychology, a computer class and a couple of other classes that he couldn't remember off the top of his head. He'll be in classes with students who are at least two years older, but that doesn't seem to faze him a bit. He's looking for the next challenge in baseball, and he's also looking for the next challenge in school.

"High school just came easy to me. I was very bored with school," he said. "It wasn't fun for me. I just wanted to get out of there and do some college stuff and see if it would help me."

Harper said he plans to take his GED exam in October. He said he was allowed to enroll at the College of Southern Nevada without the GED, but said he won't be able to play baseball next season if he does not pass the high school equivalency exam.

"You can do it (take the test) any time you want," he said, "except I have to pass it to play."

Harper said it was his idea to leave Las Vegas High School early and enroll at the College of Southern Nevada, which he said is about a 20-minute drive from his home. He'll live at home and commute to the school.

"I hit .650 in high school this past year. I mean, it was boring for me. It wasn't something I wanted to do (anymore)," he said. "I really wanted to get into that college level and play with those college guys and stuff. And just going out and watching those guys play, I knew I could do it.

"It's going to be a great thing for me, and I'll get to play with my brother," he said. "It will be a great experience. It will be better competition and a bigger challenge for me."

Harper's brother, Bryan, was a freshman at Cal State Northridge this past year, but he's transferred to the College of Southern Nevada and will be teammates with Bryce next season. They were teammates once before, when Bryan was a senior at Las Vegas High and Bryce was a freshman.

Bryan is a pitcher, so the brothers will be battery-mates in college. "We work well together," Bryce reported.

Harper said his friends and teammates have been supportive of his decision to start college early. Supportive, and perhaps blase.

"My teammates could actually care less," he said. "My friends could actually care less. They don't really care about what I do or how I do it, because they know what I do is helpful to me. And so whatever is comfortable to me, they're all for it."

Harper has been quoted as saying he wants to make the major leagues by the time he's 18 or 19. He also wants to make the Hall and Fame and, when his career is done, he wants to be viewed as one of the greatest players of all time.

"I want to walk on the field and people go, 'Hey, there's the greatest hitter who ever lived.' I want that," he said. "Who wouldn't want to have that?"

Harper said he fell in love with baseball when he was 5 or 6 years old. "Just the smell of leather, the green grass, just waking up in the morning and smelling the dew," he said poetically. "All that stuff. There's nothing like baseball."

He's excelled at every level of the game, often against older competition. And he said his parents, Ron and Sheri Harper, fully support his decision to start college this summer.

"We sat down as a family and we talked it over. We talked it over a lot," he said. "It was a family decision, more than just my decision."

Some major league scouts think Harper would have been a high draft pick this past June as a high school sophomore, if he'd been eligible, and the consensus seems to be that he'll be a high pick next June.

Harper said he has a "Plan B," however, which would include going to a four-year college if something goes awry.

For now, Harper is catching his breath from a busy summer and getting ready to head to San Diego for the Aflac Classic at PETCO Park this Sunday. He'll report to San Diego on Wednesday to begin the week-long event, which includes visiting kids in a hospital.

"I'm really excited to do that," he said. "To be able to go and talk to the little kids and talk to just anybody about what their day is like and what their life is like, just hang out with them. I think that will be a great experience for all of us to be able to do that."
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