CHRIS MORRIS / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Friday, Jan. 29, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporters Steve Silver and Ray Brewer discuss baseball phenom Bryce Harper's decision to leave high school early and enroll at the College of Southern Nevada. Silver and Brewer also applaud the decision to televise high school football games on Thursday nights.
- SI cover boy leaving high school after two years (6-13-2009)
- Magazine's past cover kids found mixed success (6-6-2009)
- Las Vegas 'prodigy' makes Sports Illustrated cover (6-2-2009)
- Talent sky-high, feet on ground (5-7-2009)
- It's a swing of beauty (2-7-2009)
This is how carefully the baseball coaches at the College of Southern Nevada are protecting their prodigy catcher and hitter, Bryce Harper: Not even CBS's "60 Minutes" is getting a crack at the kid.
The national news program has been after Harper since June, when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was proclaimed as "Baseball's Chosen One." The article compared the slugger to basketball icon LeBron James, instantly turning the local teenager into a nationwide sensation.
But when the attention went from controllable chaos — the brand of hype any high school athlete dreams of — to a distraction, his handlers decided to pull the plug on his availability.
The 17-year-old Harper, who smashed a mammoth 570-foot home run for Las Vegas High as a freshman in 2008 and is credited with the longest home run at the Tampa Bay Rays' Tropicana Field, has been off-limits since the summer, when the frenzy was at its peak.
He'll remain that way at CSN.
No autographs, handshakes, interviews or conversations. Just baseball.
"It became relentless after the Sports Illustrated article," CSN coach Tim Chambers said. "He would have to stay after games for an hour and a half signing autographs."
The Coyotes open their season today against Arizona Western at their Henderson campus, and Chambers expects a circus atmosphere with everyone trying to get a glimpse of Harper.
Harper left high school after his sophomore year last summer for better competition in the junior college ranks, and more important, to be eligible for baseball's First-Year Player Entry Draft in 2010. Harper is expected by several to be the first pick of the Washington Nationals in June and has long been advised by mega-agent Scott Boras, who represents the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees.
So, when most CSN games receive little or no attention, Chambers is preparing for the onslaught.
He remembers a tournament Harper played in summer in Oklahoma City, about a month after the Sports Illustrated cover story, and how the stadium was packed. Television cameras lined the stadium fence and fans jammed the bleachers until they were turned away.
Game days at CSN will require added security, media will go through a credential application process and Chambers will have the final say on who his players speak with before and after the game.
He knows what to expect; he had to close off practice in the fall because of interruptions caused by autograph hounds. A Harper autograph on auction site eBay.com is listed at $299. His autograph on the Sports Illustrated cover has been sold for $800.
Harper, who hit .626 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs last spring for Las Vegas High in being named Baseball America's high school player of the year, is well worth the hassle.
He gives a talent-rich Coyotes roster that extra weapon in their quest to return to the Junior College World Series for the first time since winning the title in 2003. CSN is a junior college power and always nationally ranked.
Part of the reason why the Harper family allowed Bryce to leave high school after two years — a move that drew much national criticism — was because they trusted their son under Chambers' watch. Harper, who hit a combined 25 home runs with 93 RBIs in two seasons in high school, could have followed the traditional route and flourished his final two years at Las Vegas High.
But it was time to bring in Chambers.
In addition to being a veteran baseball man, Chambers, also the school's athletic director, is savvy in dealing with the media and public.
"I try to protect all of my guys, let alone someone who should be a junior in high school," Chambers said.
It was Chambers, who after watching Bryce go through an uncharacteristic slump following the magazine article, was behind restricting access to him.
Harper went without a hit in more than 10 at-bats, including one contest where he struck out four times, and the stress of living up to the hype was obvious. Harper was still a teenager and the pressure of hitting a 500-foot home run each at-bat to appease the masses became overwhelming.
"Everyone wanted a piece of him and you could tell it was wearing on the kid," Chambers said.
Now, some five months later, that is far from the case.
Chambers said Harper is fitting in well in junior college — athletically and socially. He passed his GED in November and received an 'A' in both classes he took, computer science and anthropology courses, during the fall term. He is taking a full load of classes in the spring.
Harper, who is described as humble and down-to-earth, also went to the homecoming and Sadie Hawkins high school dances (remember, he's the age of a high school junior).
"He still hangs out with high school kids, and his girlfriend is still in high school," Chambers said.
Harper has also returned to his old self on the diamond.
The Nationals' assistant general manager, national scouting cross-checker and a slew of other personnel headed West to evaluate Harper during a fall game against Modesto (Calif.) Junior College.
Swinging a wooden bat, he knocked a three-run triple in his first at-bat, a three-run double in his second at-bat and closed the day with a 385-foot opposite-field home run. With that performance, the first pick and a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $15 million — what Boras negotiated for last year's top pick, Stephen Strasburg, also of the Nationals — became more of a reality.
Harper's circle of trust at CSN also includes his brother, sophomore pitcher Bryan Harper. Bryan transferred to CSN this summer after playing one year at Cal State Northridge.
While several believe Bryan's move to CSN was calculated by his brother's handlers, the older Harper disagrees. A former 31st-round draft pick of the Nationals in 2008, he said he needed a change to further his career.
Playing alongside his brother, and high school teammate Marvin Campbell, is an added bonus. The brothers were first teammates during T-ball, when Bryce, then 3 years old, played with children mostly double his age.
"He's still my little brother and playing with him is going to be amazing as always," Bryan Harper said. "Anytime you get to play with your brother, it is something special."
Bryan remembers Bryce's famous 570-foot home run at Las Vegas, a blast that was described by Sports Illustrated as traveling "over the right field fence, two trees, another fence, a sidewalk, five lanes of traffic on elevated South Hollywood Boulevard and yet another sidewalk, until it finally landed in the brown, undeveloped desert."
It was a home run that changed Bryce Harper's life.
"When he hit that bomb onto Hollywood, I just thought, 'Are you kidding me?' " Bryan Harper said.