April 3, 2016


SORRY NOT SORRY : Bryce Harper -- his play, his attitude, his hair! -- is on a mission to change baseball forever. (TIM KEOWN, 03/10/16 • ESPN THE MAGAZINE)

The swing is raging and primeval, a broken dam, a convulsion. It appears to have been engineered for a different time -- perhaps to slaughter animals for sustenance or enemies for land. Its grace is as undeniable as its brutality, and to employ it strictly for the purpose of striking a moving baseball, as Bryce Harper is doing inside a warehouse in an industrial park near the Las Vegas airport, could classify as a serious underutilization of resources.

This Tuesday afternoon offseason hitting session is off-the-record -- observation is welcome; description is not -- but it's no betrayal of confidence to report that Harper goes about his work with forensic vigor. He trains with his father, Ron, and the two move about the cage in silence. There's an easy, liquid flow from drill to drill, a choreography of blood, with Ron pushing a double-decker shopping cart full of baseballs from station to station and musician Chris Stapleton's voice carrying that same kind of brutal grace through a tiny speaker behind home plate.

The sound of these baseballs hitting the 34-inch, 32-ounce Marucci bat is what I imagine lightning sounds like when it splits an oak. Inside this warehouse, where four-time National League batting champion Bill Madlock is one cage over employing a career's worth of expertise to teach a couple of overindulged 10-year-olds to keep their weight back, it sounds like an entire forest is falling, one tree at a time.

BRYCE HARPER IS the rare prodigy who appears destined to fulfill his promise. Baseball's culture -- uniquely unkind to prodigies -- is built on earning dues, bus rides, failure, grinding, surviving and then lording that over the guys who arrive after you. It's kind of like the military, with Danville and Gwinnett instead of Forts Bragg and Hood.

Harper was different. He was 13 the first time he remembers every person in a stadium turning as one and saying, "That's Bryce Harper." He was in Alabama, at a tournament called Rocket City, and he spent the weekend going 12-for-12 with 11 homers. All along, he's been the kid whose childhood prowess reads like a series of clerical errors. He hit a 570-foot homer as a freshman at Las Vegas High, threw 96 off the mound as a 16-year-old, hit .569 his sophomore year, then got his GED to jump directly to junior college to be drafted ahead of his class.

Prodigies, whether their instrument is a piano or a 34-inch Marucci, share a trait Boston College psychology chair Ellen Winner has dubbed "the rage to master." It's not so much anger as persistence. "You can't tear them away," says Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. "They're single-minded. They just want to get better and better."

Harper played 120 to 140 games a year as a preteen and hit nearly every day with his dad, an upright, puglike man who spent decades swinging 300-pound bundles of rebar high above the Vegas Strip. "He'd get up at 2, at work by 4, work 'til 2 in the blazing heat and then walk in the door and say, 'OK, let's get the hittin' in,'" Bryce says. "He was never too tired."

Bryce also played football through his freshman year (a broken wrist took care of that), basketball through middle school (he was the offensively challenged lane enforcer) and spent a month each year on the beach in California with his family. His only regret, he says, is not leaving high school after his first year, since he felt his rage had mastered prep baseball and his brother, Bryan (a pitcher in the Nats' system), had graduated.

"I can't remember a time when Bryce didn't have big calluses on his hands from hitting," says Tanner Chauncey, a friend and teammate of Harper's since elementary school and a baseball player at BYU. "He was working when the rest of us weren't."

Posted by at April 3, 2016 9:50 AM