If Bryce Harper succeeds with his master plan for conquering the baseball universe, "The Last Natural" will be must-read material for any aspiring Harper biographer.
In his recent book, author Rob Miech captures the dusty details of a critical period in Harper's development — the 2010 season, when Harper was both the youngest and the best college baseball player in America.
Now a 19-year-old outfielder for the Washington Nationals, Harper first achieved national notoriety three years ago after appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated next to the headline “Baseball’s Chosen One.” Last month Harper became the first teenager ever to bat in the 80-year history of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been dropping Harper’s name in public since 2010.
“The Last Natural,” which takes place when Harper was 17 years old, pulls back the curtain on Harper’s final months before he became a multimillionaire. In the process, Miech reveals that family, faith and compassion are anchors the teen relied upon to stay focused and unfazed in the face of burgeoning celebrity and impending wealth.
Blazing a new trail
After Harper’s sophomore year of high school, he made an unprecedented decision for a baseball player. He earned his GED so he could skip his junior and senior years in high school and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada for the 2009-10 school year. The goal of this strategy was to make Harper eligible for the 2010 MLB draft — a full year earlier than if he had just waited to graduate from high school in 2011.
As a result, Harper was going to spend the 2010 season competing against college athletes instead of being a junior in high school.
Miech, a veteran sportswriter, had time on his hands at the dawn of 2010 after being laid off by the Las Vegas Sun. Miech enjoyed a tight-knit relationship with Southern Nevada baseball coach Tim Chambers that began with a profile Miech wrote about Chambers in 2003, so the scribe received full access to every aspect of the Southern Nevada Coyotes for an entire season in order to document Harper’s unique passage through college baseball.
“I think the best thing I had going for me was the fact that I didn’t know anything about Bryce going into that season,” Miech said. “I hadn’t seen him play — I had an absolutely blank slate. Obviously he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, but seeing him on that cover was actually the first time I heard his name.”
Bryce Harper did not lack for parental support in 2010. He continued living at home, and his father, Ron, was ever-present at practices and games. But an often-overlooked family tie that did a lot to galvanize Harper during his year at Southern Nevada was the chance to play baseball on the same team as his older brother, Bryan.
At 6-foot-5, Bryan Harper is two inches taller and three years older than “little” brother Bryce. A left-handed pitcher, Bryan went 11-1 with a 2.62 ERA in 2010 as a sophomore for Southern Nevada. He was a legitimate pro prospect in his own right, he just wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent like Bryce.
Bryan helped Bryce learn to stay even-keeled despite the frequent failure inherent in baseball, a sport where even the best hitters record more outs than hits. “Many teammates and (Southern Nevada) coaches considered Bryan Harper to be the most levelheaded and rational Harper male,” Miech wrote in “The Last Natural.”
Indeed, Bryan was so dialed into Bryce’s personality and mannerisms that Bryan had a knack for predicting what his younger brother was about to do before he did it. For example, when Bryce got ejected from a game for unsportsmanlike conduct after sarcastically bowing toward the opposing dugout from his position in right field, Bryan immediately ran onto the diamond to prevent a fuming Bryce from angrily confronting the umpire who issued the ejection.
“Bryce was ticked and he was running in at the umpire,” Miech said. “Bryan knew to get out there and contain (Bryce) and curtail him from any further damage with the umpire. So Bryan got out there, headed him off and escorted him off the field. Bryan’s presence on that team was so invaluable. He’s such a cool, levelheaded kid — so smart, so funny.”
During 2011, Bryan Harper pitched for the College World Series-champion University of South Carolina. He now toils in the low minor leagues of the Washington Nationals system — meaning that if Bryan can make it to the major leagues, the Harper brothers will probably find themselves playing on the same team again.
Bryce Harper is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2010 he manifested his faith by writing a Biblical reference onto the athletic tape around his left wrist (2 Samuel 22:33-34), and having “Luke 1:37” inscribed onto his wooden bats in the spot usually reserved for a player’s name.
Against that backdrop, “The Last Natural” describes a 17-year-old with a strong faith that often remained hidden just out of sight.
“Harper never preached,” Miech wrote. “If I asked about his faith or the passage on his bat, he would talk about it. To tap into the heart of his convictions, Harper had to be pressed. Only after weeks of getting to know him, and his getting comfortable with me, did I ask him about his faith.
“By many accounts, Harper regularly attended Sunday church services with his mother and sister. He agreed with his grandfather that baseball would serve as his mission — unlike the two-year commitments, highly encouraged but not required by church elders — that many Mormons (undertake) in (their) late teens to early 20s.”
Harper's softer side
Some major media media outlets have portrayed Harper as a foul-mouthed jock with a huge ego surpassed in size only by his mammoth homers. Miech confirms Harper does swear like many baseball players. The author also vividly depicts a compassionate side to Harper's personality.
For example, Miech's book reveals an anecdote from the next-to-last day of Southern Nevada's season. As the rest of his team was warming up on the field, Harper sat in the dugout with coaches and other officials in order to take weight off of a painful ingrown toenail. When a mentally handicapped man approached the dugout and asked where he could get Bryce Harper's autograph, one of the officials sitting on the bench tried to do Harper a favor by telling the man Bryce was stretching in the outfield and thus unavailable.
Without skipping a beat, though, Harper hopped up and introduced himself to the man. After Bryce signed an autograph, the handicapped fan asked where he could get Bryan Harper's autograph. At that point Bryce jogged into the outfield, ingrown toenail and all, to secure his brother's autograph for the enthusiastic man.
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Serendipitously for Miech, Harper absolutely dominated the competition while playing for Southern Nevada throughout the 2010 campaign. He smashed 31 home runs to set a school record (the previous mark was 12), and Harper also beat out every other college baseball player— even the guys playing in power conferences like the SEC and Pac-10 — for the Golden Spikes Award that annually honors the best amateur player in America.
The week after the 2010 college season ended, the Nationals selected Harper with the first pick in the MLB draft and subsequently signed him to a $9.9 million contract that included a $6.25 million signing bonus.
Thomas Dunne Books published "The Last Natural" on May 22. The book runs 365 pages, and is listed at $26.99.