Cover boy stays grounded

Bryce Harper is human.

He proved that Friday when he fired the ceremonial first pitch into the dirt near home plate at Cashman Field before the 51s’ 9-8 loss to Portland.

But the 16-year-old sophomore catcher at Las Vegas High School already has displayed enough seemingly superhuman skills on the baseball field to be featured on the cover of the June 8 edition of Sports Illustrated.

The magazine hails Harper, who has hit a 570-foot home run and possesses a 96 mph fastball, as baseball’s “Chosen One” and “the most exciting prodigy since LeBron (James of the Cleveland Cavaliers).”

“I can see the hype, if he’s hitting with that much power already at a young age,” 51s second baseman Kevin Howard said. “He’s got a chance to be as great as I’m sure Alex Rodriguez was at that age and Ken Griffey Jr.”

Like Rodriguez and Griffey Jr., Harper is projected to be the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011. But Howard said it’s too soon to anoint Harper as an all-time great.

“He’s obviously got a lot of talent, so it’s not too soon to talk about him being a high draft pick and stuff like that, but … people tend to make the assumption he’s going to be one of baseball’s great Hall of Famers already. It’s too soon to go that far,” Howard said. “He’s young. He’s got a lot of adjustments he’ll need to make after high school, when the game gets harder.”

Las Vegas relief pitcher Bryan Bullington knows well the high expectations that come with being the first pick in the draft. In 2002, when he was 21, the Pittsburgh Pirates took him with the top pick.

“It’s obviously a lot of expectations, at that age especially,” said Bullington, who is 2-1 with a 4.13 ERA this season for Las Vegas (21-34). “I was a little older when I went through the process, so that definitely helped, but it’s definitely a lot on your plate.”

Bullington made the majors in his third professional season but has pitched only 33 innings in the big leagues overall, going 0-5 with a 5.45 ERA.

“You’ve seen guys come from the back end of the draft that have unbelievable careers in the big leagues, and you’ve seen a lot of guys from the first round do the same thing,” he said. “It’s a crapshoot. A lot of things play into having success.”

Howard said a key to Harper’s success will be continuing to work hard and not resting on his already large laurels.

“If you buy into all the hype and think you don’t need to get better and stop working, then it can really hurt you,” he said. “But if you stay grounded and still work hard, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Portland shortstop Sean Kazmar, who played at Las Vegas High School, has been impressed with Harper’s work ethic since he was 10 years old.

“He worked hard when he was 10 years old out there watching us. He’s always worked hard,” said Kazmar, who caught Harper’s first pitch. “I got a chance to see him this offseason in a scrimmage, and I was in amazement … I think he could definitely be one of the next big things.

“If he keeps his head on straight, he’s going to have a long career ahead of him.”

Harper said he thrives on pressure and has higher expectations for himself than any magazine article can create. “I want to be the greatest player who ever lived,” he said. “That’s always been my dream.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@ or 702-383-0354.

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