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Baseball prodigy Harper's jump to junior college makes perfect sense

In his first playing day after being celebrated on the cover of Sports Illustrated as The Next Big Thing in baseball, Bryce Harper, all of 16 years old and a high school sophomore at Las Vegas High School, drew a standing-room only crowd of 800 people to an amateur game in Oklahoma (at $5 a pop, he pretty much funded the host school's program right there), attracted a media horde that included six radio and television stations and a crew from an ESPN show, E:60, and signed autographs for more than 40 minutes. Oh, yeah: He also happened to bomb two monster home runs.

Just another day in the rest of the life of Bryce Harper.

"We thought it was cool to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated," said his father, Ron Harper, "but I guess we didn't understand just how big of a deal it really is. Now we know: It's a really big deal."

Then there was the call from USA Baseball asking Bryce to lend a hand in trying to restore baseball to the Olympics in 2016. Harper signed a stack of copies of SI, writing across the opening spread of the story, "I am ready to play in 2016. Bryce Harper." USA Baseball officials carried the loot to Lausanne, Switzerland, to impress members of the International Olympic Committee. He also threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game of the Las Vegas 51s, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Cover boy. Role model. Media star. Ambassador. The world is spinning quickly for the high-school catcher. And he is very happy, if a little tired physically, about all of it. Baseball fans now know what the scouts have known for more than a year: Bryce is a once-in-a-generation talent, maybe the best amateur player to come along since Alex Rodriguez, only more advanced than Rodriguez at the same age. The media requests have been overwhelming. "Put it this way: I'm glad I have unlimited minutes on my phone," Ron said. "My phone has been blowing up."

Soon Bryce will have another new role: college student. Ron confirmed last weekend the plan he described to SI: Bryce will acquire his GED and enroll in the College of Southern Nevada, a junior college, a move that likely will allow Bryce to be eligible for the 2010 draft, in which he's expected to be the No. 1 pick.

"But that's not the priority," Ron said, referring to Bryce's draft status. "We're preparing him for college. That's the priority. He's very bored in school. Maybe it's because he's always been around older kids. But he's ready move on. He was very forceful. He said, 'I don't want to be bored any more. I want to do it, Mom. I want to do it, Dad.' He definitely wants to do this. We spoke with his counselor, his principal and his coach, and they agreed he's ready for this."

Ron isn't even entirely sure that Bryce will be eligible for the 2010 draft. "We haven't got anything in writing yet," he said. But the Harpers have been in contact with officials from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to make sure they follow whatever protocols are necessary to be draft eligible next year, including making sure he completed all high school courses and exams at least 365 days prior to the draft.

"Even if he's not [draft eligible in 2010]," Ron said, "he will play 55 games a year with a wood bat and receive an associate art degree. It's a good situation for him."

It might be easy for someone not familiar with Bryce, his talent and his family to think the kid is being pushed too fast, but the move to the College of Southern Nevada makes perfect sense. Bryce will live at home, take online and night classes, attend classes three days a week, carrying 12 credits, and be allowed to attend high school events with his former classmates and buddies, such as proms and homecomings. His older brother, Bryan, a pitcher, will transfer from Cal State Northridge and also attend College of Southern Nevada. Bryan will live in an off-campus apartment and will be Bryce's roommate when the team plays on the road.

The Harpers did receive an offer from Howard Junior College, the 2009 junior college national champions from Texas, for Bryce and Bryan to enroll there. But the Harpers were not comfortable sending Bryce to a school that far away from home.

Unfortunately, too many people who haven't met Bryce Harper or his family or are not familiar with his talents write him off as the product of a hype machine who is moving too fast for his own good. Yet nobody hollered last winter when the Oakland A's gave $4.25 million to Michael Ynoa, turning him into a professional and a multi-millionaire at 16 years old, the same age as Harper. The only difference is that Ynoa, being born in the Dominican Republic, was not subject to the same draft restrictions as Harper. And who complains when a high-school math wiz takes college courses? Or when a teenage voice or violin prodigy leaves home to attend Julliard? Bryce is a baseball prodigy who comes from a happy, solid family background and is emotionally and physically mature for his age. His future is not guaranteed -- no more than that of No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg -- but he is ready for this next step. It's all we can go by now.

After I wrote the SI cover story on Harper, a veteran college coach told me he had seen Harper play as a freshman at the Area Code Games last year. The coach came home and told his own son, an eighth grader, "I just saw the best high-school player I've ever seen. And he's only a year older than you!"

Again: Nothing is guaranteed about his future. In fact, his father worries sometimes about how hard Bryce plays. He strained ligaments in his thumb while catching late in his high school season this year and endured two home plate collisions. "I told him, 'You have to prepare your body twice as hard as the next guy because you play so reckless and hard,'" Ron said. But right now we do know that his skills at age 16, according to baseball experts across the board, are undeniably superior.

The team most happy about the news that Bryce will attend junior college is the Washington Nationals, who look like a lock for the worst record in baseball, an indignity that would bring them the No. 1 pick in 2010. Inside of 12 months, the Nationals could wind up with Strasburg and Harper.

In the meantime, Bryce Harper is a happy, well-adjusted kid who loves baseball and plays it as well as any amateur player in the world. It is his chosen career, one that will enrich him personally and financially. And he is understanding of the responsibility and scrutiny that comes with such a profile.

"He signed autographs every day," Ron said about the tournament in Oklahoma. "Before games, after games, in between games. Twenty minutes would turn into 40 minutes and 40 minutes would turn into an hour. He's plum tuckered out right now. But Bryce felt bad about the little kids standing at the back of the line and never wanted to cut it off and stop signing.

"By the last day, we kept him out of the game, and he was signing away the whole time. He's back home now and he's a little tired. Just resting up."

Kids look up to Harper naturally. The eighth grade kids I coach have been buzzing about him ever since the story appeared. One kid told me he wants to be called Bryce now; I think he was kidding. The rest of us who aren't so young would do well to follow their capacity for hope and goodwill. Bryce Harper is a delighted kid, and we should be happy for him.

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