College of Southern Nevada opened its 2020 baseball season Saturday by splitting a doubleheader against Arizona Western. There was little fanfare despite the Coyotes’ No. 12 preseason ranking.
It was the polar opposite from CSN’s season opener 10 years ago.
There was a carnival atmosphere at the CSN diamond in Henderson on Jan. 29, 2010, and a chill in the air. Arizona Western was the opponent that night, too.
There was no place to park, because it was the night Bryce Harper made his college baseball debut.
He was only 17 years old.
Sometimes one hears about piano prodigies playing Carnegie Hall at a precocious age. But one never hears of kids playing college baseball before their prom.
For starters, JUCO pitchers know how to throw cutters. Most also have facial hair.
The idea of Harper enrolling in junior college to expedite his major league draft status was so unheard of that Las Vegas author Rob Miech thought it would make a good book regardless of how the experiment panned out. CSN coach Tim Chambers granted him unfettered access to the team.
Miech found his scorecard from opening night. It shows Bryce Harper coaxed a walk in his first junior college at-bat.
Though coaxed probably wasn’t the right word based on what happened in the eighth inning.
Free pass declined
Sam Thomas, Harper’s coach at Las Vegas High, was firmly behind the decision of his star player (and his star player’s advisers) to play ball against guys with facial hair. Besides setting his draft clock ahead one year, perhaps he’d finally get a chance to swing at a few cutters from pitchers willing to challenge him.
He already had smacked a ball 502 feet during one of those power showcases at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. He already had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated — “Baseball’s Chosen One” it proclaimed on the cover comparing him to LeBron James.
“He had surpassed high school baseball by the time he was a sophomore,” Thomas said. “Nobody would pitch to him. We sat down with Bryce and said we’re gonna lead you off. That way we can guarantee they’re not going to walk you intentionally the first at-bat of the game.”
By the fourth at-bat of his first college game, guys with facial hair already were tired of pitching to Bryce Harper.
The catcher held out his hand. Four wide ones, as these were the old rules.
But rather than accept the free pass, Harper stepped on home plate as the third wide one approached, reached into the right-handed batter’s box and flicked a sacrifice fly to left-center field.
The notations on Miech’s scorecard look like Egyptian hieroglyphics.
“You see that exclamation point by the number two,” he said about marking Harper’s outrageous sacrifice fly as the second out of the inning. “That’s because I had never seen anything like that before.”
On Golden Spikes
The experiment proved to be much more than successful. It blew the roof off the chemistry lab.
Harper played in 66 games for CSN in the spring of 2010. He hit .443 with 31 home runs (19 more than the school record), drove in 98 runs (!), compiled on base and slugging percentages of .526 and .987. I don’t know what his WAR was, only that it probably was pretty good.
The teenage phenom led CSN to its second National Junior College World Series. The Coyotes did not win it this time after Harper was ejected for disputing a called third strike. He drew a line in the dirt to show the home plate umpire where he thought the pitch was.
Nobody had seen that before, either.
Two years after receiving the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s best college baseball player and becoming the first JUCO player to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB free-agent draft, he was selected for the MLB All-Star Game.
He was 19 years old, and he was playing Carnegie Hall.
You almost could have predicted it on that chilly January night when there was no place to park at the CSN diamond.
“From that moment on, there was a feeling of every time he got in the batter’s box to keep an eye on him,” Miech said in summarizing all the notes on the margins of his scorecards that became a book about Bryce Harper called “The Last Natural.” “Keep your eye on this kid, because he’s going to do something you’ve never seen before.”
Harper’s hit parade
Bryce Harper’s major league stats and highlights:
— Batting average: .276
— Home runs: 219
— Runs batted in: 635
— Six-time All-Star (2012, 2013, 2015–2018)
— NL MVP (2015)
— NL Rookie of the Year (2012)
— Silver Slugger Award (2015)
— NL Hank Aaron Award (2015)
— NL home run leader (2015)