On his way to school this morning, Bryce Harper could have stopped at a coffee shop or a magazine stand and seen a picture of himself.
Not only the one next to this story or in any other local publication, but one that also might be picked up in New York or Chicago or any number of places around the world.
The 16-year-old Las Vegas High School sophomore baseball standout is being honored in a way that most amateur and even professional athletes never achieve.
He’s on the cover of the June 8 edition of Sports Illustrated. Yes, that Sports Illustrated. The edition hits newsstands today.
“I was in shock,” Harper said of finding out Monday that he had trumped every other sports story in the nation, including the NBA Finals and the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals.
“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think some 16-year-old kid would be on the cover. It’s something you dream about.”
Harper’s family is just as shocked.
“None of us knew, including Tom (Verducci, who wrote the SI story),” said Ron Harper, Bryce’s father. “We found out (Monday), and it was like, 'Wow.’ It’s just amazing. There was laughter, tears, all kinds of emotion. It’ll probably really hit home when we go to the newsstand.”
Harper hasn’t been much of a secret in this area.
But the rest of the country will find out what baseball fans in Southern Nevada and professional scouts already know. Harper is a phenomenal baseball player. He catches, pitches, hits monster home runs and basically turns baseball diamonds into his own playground.
Next to a picture of Harper taking a swing are the words “Chosen One.” In slightly smaller print, the magazine proclaims Harper “The Most Exciting Prodigy Since LeBron (James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers).”
“I actually laughed when I saw the cover,” Harper said. “You can’t express something like that in words.”
James was, at age 18, the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick. He went straight from high school to the NBA and won the league’s Rookie of the Year honor.
Harper is only 16 yet is being projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, the first year he’ll be eligible.
“I just need to get better,” said Harper, who spent part of Tuesday afternoon at a batting cage, trying to improve his game. “It can’t change your work ethic. You can always get better.”
And as of today, Harper has rock-star status. No matter where he goes, he’ll be “that kid on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”
“My true friends won’t treat me any differently,” Harper said. “I get some of it now every day, teachers and other students recognizing me in school or if I’m just out with my friends. I just try to ignore it.”
Said his father: “Bryce has really taken it in stride.”
One scout to whom Verducci spoke called Harper “a once-in-a-generation talent.”
Verducci details some of Harper’s feats. Not all, of course. There wouldn’t be room.
Las Vegas coach Sam Thomas shared a story with Verducci of Harper belting a 570-foot home run in a game.
Oh, yeah, that was last year. When he was 15.
“The best thing about Bryce is every day there’ll be something new he does,” Thomas said. “He catches every day. To hit like that, to run the bases the way he does and to go on the mound and throw 96 (mph) with a curve ball and changeup, that’s what separates him.
“There have been a lot of great players out of this area, but none I’ve seen capable of going anywhere on the field and being one of the best at that position. The kid is so talented, you just try to focus him, and that’s not hard. He’s a coach’s dream.”
Major league teams send scouts to Wildcats games to the point where, at times, it almost looks like a convention. Representatives for super-agent Scott Boras often grab a seat, too.
“I notice the scouts. You’re going to notice that they’re there,” Harper said. “But I’m not going to change my game because someone is watching. I’m always going to give it my best. There’s always someone there seeing you for the first time, and you want to give a good first impression.”
Harper hit .626 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs for the Wildcats this past season. Forty-five of his 72 hits went for extra bases. He also stole 36 bases.
Thomas said a photographer from the magazine attended a Las Vegas game during spring break, followed Harper during the Sunrise Region tournament when the young star belted eight homers in seven games and came back after the playoffs to do a photo shoot.
“I kid you not; it was about a two-hour and 45-minute photo shoot,” Thomas said. “The whole thing really wasn’t a distraction. We knew about it in advance, but we didn’t make a point of saying anything to the team. It was like any other photographer being around.”
Harper already was the player opposing teams wanted to beat, but now he might face an even bigger opponent, the dreaded SI jinx, which sometimes haunts athletes and teams that appear on the magazine’s cover. Those who don’t perform well after being on the cover are said to have been jinxed.
The pressure on Harper to perform well probably just increased.
“I love the pressure,” he said. “That’s why you play the game, to be in pressure situations. If you don’t want pressure, you shouldn’t be playing.”
Contact reporter Bartt Davis at email@example.com or 702-387-5230.