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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 3, 2009 at 11:17 AM

Bryce Harper — high school sophomore! — is on the cover of Sports Illustrated

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You might remember a blog post I had about a month ago on Bryce Harper, an impressive high school catcher from Las Vegas. Slightly tongue-in-check, I titled it, “Never mind Stephen Strasburg; check out this guy.”

Well, the Harper hype machine has been turned up to full volume. The latest issue of Sports Illustrated has Harper on the cover with the modest headline: Baseball’s CHOSEN ONE: Bryce Harper is the most exciting prodigy since LeBron.”

Wow. Talk about putting pressure on a kid. The article, typically well written by Tom Verducci, gushes over Harper, as you might expect. Like this, to take one excerpt:

So good and so young is Bryce Harper, however, that he explodes baseball convention. He has hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, and he did so in January, at age 16, with a blast that would have flown farther than the measured 502 feet had it not smashed off the back wall of the dome. Still only 16, Harper stands 6’3″, weighs 205 pounds, has faster bat speed than Mark McGwire in his prime and runs so fast that he scored on wild pitches six times this season from second base. As a catcher he picks off runners from his knees, and when he pitches, he throws a fastball that has been clocked at 96 mph. He also does volunteer work, holds down a 3.5 grade point average and attends religious education classes nearly every morning before school.

When James was 16, he was a high school sophomore with an NBA game and a body to match. Harper has been compared to Justin Upton, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., each a freakishly advanced high school player and each the top overall pick of his draft. But Harper, say the baseball men who are paid to make such assessments, has the ability as a sophomore that the aforementioned trio had as seniors. That is why Harper–to his own approval–is best compared to James. Indeed, Harper nearly fell off the couch one day last month when he heard a sports announcer call San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the presumptive No. 1 pick in next week’s draft, “the LeBron James of baseball.”

“What?” Harper exclaimed with playful exasperation. “Hey, they stole that from me!”

Hey, I hope he becomes the LeBron James of baseball. The sport could use a jolt of electricity like that. After reading ths story, I’m ready to declare him, sight unseen, the Johnny Bench of the 21st century.

But I can’t help but remember this cover, almost precisely 20 years ago. Jon Peters is the only other high-school baseball player ever featured on the cover of SI:

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You remember Jon Peters, right? You don’t? That’s because he blew out his arm, had a very minimal college career, and was never heard from again. Here’s a “Where is he now?” feature from 1997.

Bryce Harper sounds like a much better prospect than Jon Peters’ ever was. Yet I fear he is being set up for, if not failure, then a big letdown with hype like this.

Then again, so was LeBron James. And he turned out all right.

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