Before Bryce Harper was a 19-year-old major league rookie playing with much more seasoned competition, he was a 17-year-old junior college player in precisely the same boat. To be completely honest, you could say that about just about any of Harper’s stops along his way to the Washington Nationals. But up to this point, only one of those seasons has had a book written about it.
The Last Natural, by veteran Las Vegas-area sportswriter Rob Miech, takes an insider’s view of Harper’s 2010 season at the College of Southern Nevada, playing in junior college when he should have been a junior in high school. The back-story here is well known: After dominating Las Vegas area high schools as a sophomore and bursting into national recognition with a Sports Illustrated feature and a USA baseball youth team gold medal, Harper made the decision to skip his final two seasons of high school, get a GED and play wood-bat JC ball down the road at national power CSN for long-time family friend Tim Chambers. It was Chambers who planted the seeds for this book with Miech, inviting the reporter to embed himself with the ballteam, in dugouts and on buses, in order to chronicle history.
“Chambers knew it would be a special season. He knew Harper would dominate. He knew every day had to be chronicled. He knew the makeup and interactions of the rest of his players would be compelling; they were the ones who would protect Harper, and they would be the ones who would correct, guide, and temper him, to prep him for the next level.” (pg. 77)
While the book is focused on Harper, these teammates are not ignored. There were plenty of opportunities for Harper’s new peers to immediately go the jealous route, and turn a cold shoulder toward the kid, but Harper had some help in the form of his older brother Bryan, a left-handed pitcher who also came into the CSN program, as well as a handful of other former teammates and foes from high school. Chambers also made sure his players knew what was expected of them.
“None of you know what he’s going through, what he’s thinking or what he’s feeling,” Chambers told his team, minus Harper, in a pre-season practice. “He’s why we have that new scoreboard. Why we have those new seats. Why we have that new parking lot. Protect him. Watch out for him. If we have no jealousies, we’ll be fine.” (pg. 17)
What follows throughout the book is a chronicle of how the Coyotes did just that. It seems to be a pattern with Harper, that whatever is said or written about him from the outside, those on the inside — his teammates — almost universally take to him, respect his talent and competitiveness, and speak about him using nothing but praise. The bond between Harper and his teammates grew throughout the season until its premature end at the Junior College World Series, as Harper was ejected from a game and subsequently suspended for a loser’s bracket game.
With its 17-year-old star forced to watch the game online from his hotel room, the Coyotes rallied around him. Scott Dysinger wore Harper’s jersey, while Marvin Campbell smeared nearly every teammate’s face with Harper-style eyeblack. Alas, the Coyotes fell on a walk-off home run and the season came to an end.
Harper’s numbers that season were exactly of the sort that would warrant a book: .a .443 average, 31 home runs, 98 RBIs and 98 runs scored in 66 games. He became only the second JC player to win the Golden Spikes Award as the country’s top amateur player, all as a 17-year-old playing much of the season with wooden bats. But a lot of the output, the results of the games, are secondary in Miech’s book to the team itself, how it went about its season and the many obstacles and pressures that Harper faced doing something no one had ever tried.
The writing is mostly solid. After an overly florid beginning in which it appears Miech might have tried too hard to be a “book writer” as opposed to a sportswriter, he settles into an easy story-telling mode that is very comfortable to read. He fleshes out most of the supporting cast in the book and includes a lot of local flavor, which might be extraneous for some but made for some gleeful Easter Eggs for me, living in Vegas myself. When Harper details his first over-the-fence home run as an eight-year-old, I was thrilled to see that it came at the same complex that my six-year-old son Dylan hit his first legit triple in a game just last month.
What stands out the most for me after reading the book is that for all that has gone on in Harper’s career since that junior college season, it was only two seasons ago. Despite not being all that far removed, it is remarkable to see the growth in Harper’s maturity level just since 2010. Besides his two ejections in that season, both ostensibly for grandstanding, there were at least two other instances chronicled where Harper got into it verbally with opponents on the field, something you couldn’t see happening now. Another “warts-and-all” detail was the numerous times Harper, being a perfectionist on the field, would react to his periodic struggles by snapping in the dugout. His silver and blue batting helmet, the most frequent object of Harper’s abuse, was held together by duct tape toward the end of the campaign.
At the same time, though, there are some things that have not changed. Harper’s steal of home on Cole Hamels in May is now quasi-legendary, but Miech details two occasions in the book where Harper pulled off the same trick, including once at the JC World Series. You might also recognize this, as Harper gave a post-game interview in Grand Junction, CO:
“After a minute, Bryce abruptly walked away when the [reporter] tried to ask him about his childhood. ‘Huh? No! You believe this clown?’ Harper said with mocking laughter to some of his bewildered nearby teammates.”