BY MIKE COPPER, Erie Times-News
Harper, the Harrisburg Senators’ celebrated 18-year-old outfielder, is likely to be in their starting lineup tonight when they open a weekend series against the Erie SeaWolves at Jerry Uht Park. He would be the fifth former No. 1 overall pick to appear here since the amateur draft began in 1965.
But even current big leaguers like Pat Burrell, Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer, or former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Bryan Bullington, never arrived with the national hype that Harper has received.
The 6-foot 3-inch, 225-pound Las Vegas native was only 16 when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Baseball’s Chosen One” for his beyond-his-years feats as a high school catcher.
“He doesn’t look like he’s 18,” said SeaWolves manager Chris Cron, who first saw Harper in person when Erie played at Harrisburg July 4. “He’s a man already.”
Harper earned a high school general-equivalency degree after his sophomore year in order to fast-track his professional career. The Washington Nationals, Harrisburg’s parent club, selected him with the first pick of the June 2010 draft.
The Nationals then converted Harper to an outfielder to eliminate the physical wear that comes from playing behind the plate, and accentuate his batting prowess standing next to it.
Harper officially turned pro when he opened this season at Single-A Hagerstown (Md.) By the time of his Independence Day promotion to Harrisburg, he had a .318 batting average with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs in 72 South Atlantic League games.
Harper didn’t always shine with the Suns.
On June 6, he famously blew a kiss at Greensboro (N.C.) Drive pitcher Zachary Neal while rounding the bases after his final homer for Hagerstown. The incident was caught on video and led to verbal scorn in the baseball world.
Still, SeaWolves pitcher Drew Smyly couldn’t imagine the pressure of being a teenager with the kind of stress that surrounds Harper. And that’s coming from a 22-year-old whom the Detroit Tigers chose in the second round of 2010’s draft.
“It’s pretty amazing what he’s doing right now,” said Smyly, who is expected to start for Erie tonight. “He has all the talent in the world and is moving up fast. I’ve never met him, but it’s impressive what he’s doing.”
Smyly wasn’t with the SeaWolves for Harper’s first Double-A game. Hitting sixth and playing left field, Harper went 2-for-3 with a walk and a run scored in the Senators’ 8-1 win before a standing-room only crowd of 8,092 at Commerce Bank Park.
Harper tapered off after he hit .357 in that four-game series against Erie. He took a .233 average into Harrisburg’s Thursday night doubleheader at Reading.
Cron believes that will change.
“He’s definitely not afraid to take a good hack,” he said. “He’s extremely aggressive swinging the bat. I know he was struggling there for a little while, but he’ll be fine.”
Fans still have the chance to find out for themselves this weekend.
SeaWolves general manager Greg Coleman said that, as of 2 p.m. Thursday, 212 seats remained for tonight’s game and 430 for Saturday’s. More than 1,400 are available for Sunday’s 1 p.m. series finale.
This isn’t the first experience Coleman has had in directly marketing a No. 1 overall pick.
Two years ago, he worked in sales for the Single-A Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods when shortstop Tim Beckham played for the South Atlantic League franchise. The Tampa Bay Rays chose Beckham with the first overall pick in the 2008 draft.
“But that was an entirely different animal because Tim didn’t necessarily come with the fanfare as Harper,” Coleman said. “He was a high school guy, and was a ‘signability’ pick (by the Rays).”
Coleman admitted to some awkwardness in promoting an opponent, even one of Harper’s status, because he didn’t want to give short shrift to the SeaWolves.
Cron, though, already understands why Coleman would.
“He’s got a hell of a future in front of him,” he said of Harper.
MIKE COPPER can be reached at 870-1614 or by e-mail. Check out the Extra Innings blog atgoerie.com/blogs/extrainnings.
- Is Bryce Harper Worth the Wait? (sports.gunaxin.com)
- Harper unfazed by expectations of big stage (mlb.mlb.com)
- Bryce Harper blows a kiss at pitcher (fanaticsportsandcards.com)
- Bryce Harper: Harper Displays Picture Perfect Swing at the 2011 MLB Futures Game (bleacherreport.com)