Sportswriter Rob Miech does not call his book about Bryce Harper a “biography” because, frankly, Harper may be just a little too young for that treatment (he turns 20 in one month). Age is important in The Last Natural, because the narrative closely follows Harper through his departure from high school at 16 to go to a Las Vegas junior college and maneuver his way into the Major League draft, where he was picked up by the Washington Nationals, as the league’s number-one draft pick, at age 17. The rest, so far, is sports history, however brief, because he only came up to the majors this year. Miech is proud that he caught the phenom’s one-of-a-kind and only amateur season, a season in which he led college scoring with 31 home runs using a wooden bat.
It’s interesting, too, because Miech was generally focused on basketball, not baseball. He covered the University of Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels, a D-1 team who usually rank well in the NCAA Tournament and have made it into the Final Four on four occasions. But when he saw Harper on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 2009, it turned his head. “It was when I first heard of him,” he says. “I was in Vegas, my main beat was college basketball, and here comes this cover with this kid who is 16. Absolutely incredible.” In short order, fate intervened and he went from covering hoops to embedding himself in Harper’s college team, and a book was born. Sports Illustrated called it a “fascinating eyewitness account, a baseball version of the Beatles in Hamburg circa 1961, just before the klieg get switched on.”
Miech was in Washington this week, and we caught up with him in a phone interview to get a clearer picture of Harper and his backstory.
How did this book come about?
I call it the project of my life, because I got so fortunate. It’s a book that’s never been done before, to be able to catch the last amateur season of a young prodigy. Ironically, I got laid off by the Las Vegas Sun on December 1, 2009, and one month later I fell into this. I have to thank Tim Chambers, coach at the College of Southern Nevada, this little junior college that hit with wooden bats, which is so rare in college.
Did you know going into the research that you had a book?
Chambers knew me well enough to trust me with his team, with being in the dugout, with getting the inside of that incredible season. He trusted me with his team, and I trusted them that the season would be historic.
This was because of Harper. How close were you with him?
I started in the first couple of days of January 2010, and I was with him every day of that season. Six months.
And what made him so intriguing to you, apart from his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
No one had ever done that before: leave high school after his sophomore year, get his GED, and graduate even before his high school class, so that he could get to the draft. He enrolled in the junior college that was ten miles from his front door. He was only there for a year and then put himself in the draft. The rules have since changed. That can’t be done anymore. He had a little window in time to pull off the maneuver that is baseball history.
What made the College of Southern Nevada the right place for him?
This could not have been a better set of circumstances. Not only was it close to home, but he’d also known Tim Chambers for most of his life, so it was a situation where he was comfortable with the coach. Also, his entire life, Bryce had “played up.” He’d always played against older competition, guys two to three years older. Most of the guys on the junior college team he knew. It was an incredible dynamic.
Are any of his CSN teammates also now in the big leagues?
A few are in the AA level—four, maybe. His older brother, Bryan, a pitcher, was also drafted by the Nationals, and he’s now at their single-A team in Auburn.
Do you think he’ll be brought up?
He had a difficult season. His ERA [earned run average] was north of ten. That’s not good. That’s not a recipe for advancement. I don’t know how difficult or challenging it is to regain that speed or if it is lost forever, but Bryan is a fantastic person, just like Bryce.
Did anybody think Bryce was moving too fast?
That has been on people’s minds for years. But look where he is. All he’s doing is learning and getting better. For him, this is business as usual.
Did he grow up in Las Vegas?
Yes, with his dad, Ron, and his mom, Sheri. She is a paralegal. Ron is an ironworker. He got into working with steel with his father-in-law. These guys laid the foundation for most of the properties on the strip. Ron is very driven.
Were they classic sports parents?
Ron would get on the job at 5 or 6 AM so he could knock off at 2 or 3, when the boys got home from school. He wouldn’t even change his dirty overalls. He’d take the kids to a middle school or a park to work on baseball skills—drills, hitting, and so forth. He pressed them and pushed them, and they responded to that by just wanting to get better. Bryce gets his work ethic from his dad. Both boys wear gold medallions that their parents made for them, simple gold pendants with the number 220. That means second to none.
What role does the Mormon faith play in Bryce Harper’s life?
It plays a big role, but it’s kind of a paradox. He will talk like a sailor, just like any other baseball player. He’ll just join right in, let the F-bombs fly. I asked him about that paradox between his faith and his talking and acting like a sailor. He summed it up by saying, “Yeah. Maybe [I] shouldn’t do that, but when you are on a team you do whatever you can to fit in, and that’s part of what being a teammate is all about.” He acknowledges he is a different person [away from the team]. You can talk about his competitive drive that way, too. He will rip your head off on a baseball field if that’s what it takes for him to get from second to third. He’ll put the Bible aside and do what it takes to win. But off the field, he’s very devout, and that grounds him.
Does he have a girlfriend?
I know at junior college he had a couple of girlfriends. I cannot tell you this for certain, but I believe he has a girlfriend who plays soccer at BYU [Brigham Young University].
At the junior college, did he have much of a social life?
It was a rare occasion if he showed for any type of party situation. He would never stay for long, and he’d always show up with his own water bottle. When he wasn’t drinking from it, he kept the cap on. That’s how he made sure nothing was going to get into his system that he didn’t want in his system.
Do you notice any changes in Harper since he’s come up to the majors?
Most of it is kind of business as usual. But when he hit with the junior college, he had a procession of antics in the batter’s box that belonged in Ringling Brothers circus. He would drop the bat, grab dirt, slide the dirt in his hands, look at the pitcher, growl, tap all the parts of the plate. What he does now in the batter’s box is a very toned-down version of that. There was also the gawdy eye black he wore in college. He looked like a WWE wrestler. When he hit the majors, that went by the wayside. What I see now is a very composed professional. It’s neat to see the change.
Was he pleased to come to Washington?
Definitely. From day one he talked about the Nationals and the National League East and battling for supremacy as baseball’s best division. He knew the Nats would be able to compete in this elite division. They are steaming toward the playoffs, which is exactly what he said the team would do when he was drafted. He’s prescient.
Do you see him as a lifelong Nat?
[laughs] That’s a funny question. I think he was born to be a Yankee. He grew up a Mickey Mantle fan. That’s why he wears 34, because it adds up to 7.
What can young ballplayers take away from your book and the lessons of Bryce Harper? Would his path work for others?
This is the major theme and the rudder to my story. If you think you’re a hotshot and can follow Bryce’s footsteps, here is a book that shows exactly what he endured to get where he is. He hit 31 home runs that [junior college] season with a wooden bat and led every level of college baseball, and all his competitors were using metal. What he did was extraordinary. Some would think it was easy for him, but it was anything but. If young kids think they can follow in his footsteps, they now have a blueprint. But they have to ask if they have what it takes to endure that.