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August 29, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

It’s a swing of beauty

Vegas High slugger with modest streak is able to belt dingers that are anything but

Image

Leila Navidi

Las Vegas High student Bryce Harper, a recent entrant in an international home run derby for high-schoolers, takes batting practice Monday.

Hitting highlights

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“In order to fully understand and appreciate long-distance hitting, a frame of reference should be established. Any drive over 400 feet is noteworthy. A blow of 450 feet shows exceptional power, as the majority of major league players are unable to hit a ball that far. Anything in the 500-foot range is genuinely historic." — William J. Jenkinson, The Home Run Encyclopedia, 1996

“Oh, he got all of that one. He’s gotta be pleased with that.” — Bill Murray, 1980

•••

Five weeks ago, Bryce Harper of Las Vegas stepped up to home plate at Tropicana Field, home of the American League-champion Tampa Bay Rays, and hit a baseball 502 feet.

Five hundred and two feet. 5-0-2. It sounds like an area code.

Dialing long distance is one thing. This particular blow needed one of those international operators to place it.

It flew over those crazy catwalks at Tropicana Field and would have wound up on some railroad tracks had it not hit the enclosed stadium’s wall, a telltale giveaway to its majesty and prodigiousity. Here’s the thing about home runs: Any time you use landmarks — i.e., “it hit Old Man McGillycuddy’s outhouse on one bounce” — or railroad tracks to describe them, you know they went a long way.

Harper’s home run, struck during the third annual International High School Power Showcase Home Run Derby, was the longest ball ever hit at Tropicana Field. No member of the American League-champion Tampa Bay Rays has ever hit one that far. No visiting player has ever hit one that far. Not even Raffy Palmeiro, when he was on the juice.

You should see the video. Harper swings, and then you hear this loud report, which sort of sounds like two Buicks slamming together on a county road in the middle of the night. Then the public address announcer starts going crazy, like Mark McGwire has just given birth to twins in the first-base coaching box. Or something.

He got all of that one. And yes, he was pleased with that.

“When I hit it, I didn’t think it would go that far,” Harper said bashfully. “Then I looked up and said ‘Wow. That was a shot.’ ”

Yeah, I know, he hit it with an aluminum bat. Major leaguers don’t use aluminum bats.

But also consider this: Bryce Harper is only 16 years old. He’s a sophomore — a sophomore! — at Las Vegas High. He still has three more high school seasons before he has to start swinging a wooden bat in anger. He’ll adjust.

Here’s how Greg Rybarczyk, who tracks the trajectory of every major league home run for “The Hardball Times,” described Harper’s performance at Tropicana Field:

“Like a lot of hitters in the Showcase, Harper wasn’t able to hit any home runs with his wooden bat, but he showed a beautiful left-handed swing and hit several balls hard. My Hit Tracker assistant and I agreed that he was a good candidate to get some out with the metal bat, but nevertheless we weren’t ready for what we were about to witness. Stepping back to the plate with his metal bat, Harper knocked his first homer 443 feet on a line to the back of the right field seats. Three unremarkable homers and a number of outs followed, but then over the next 60 seconds, Harper unleashed an awe-inspiring series of hits to areas of Tropicana Field few major leaguers have reached.”

Harper hit six consecutive home runs, averaging 469 feet. He would go on to finish second in the derby, losing to Roy Hobbs Jr. in the finals.

Actually, he didn’t lose to The Natural’s offspring. He lost to a kid named Christian Walker, but that might have been because he hit 67th out of 69 sluggers in the preliminary round and had little time to rest before the finals.

Or it might have been because even the pitching machine was afraid of him and stopped throwing pitches he could hit.

“When you hit a ball like that, you can’t even feel it,” Harper says. “But it does not get old. Ever.”

You might ask what a 16-year-old kid knows about getting old. But Harper has been traveling across the country (and other countries), playing ultracompetitive baseball since he was 10. He’s that good.

He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 205 pounds. He’s got those Steve Garvey forearms, thanks to Chris Faircloth, the Las Vegas High football coach, who works with him in the weight room, even though Harper quit playing football last year after tearing ligaments in his hand.

Harper is a catcher, but he runs like Rickey Henderson. He stole 36 bases as a ninth-grader. His goal is 50 this year, which should be attainable, considering all the intentional walks he is going to receive.

He is mature beyond his years, yet more humble than a utility infielder in a contract year. His dad, Ron, an ironworker, and mom, Sheri, a legal assistant, were junior high sweethearts and have been married for 23 years. They are more down to earth than the dirt around home plate.

That’s where Bryce must get his humility.

“He’s all about team,” says Sam Thomas, the Las Vegas High coach. “I’ll give you an example. We couldn’t all get the same cleats in red this year. His size was available in red, and probably about eight other guys, but he says no, we’re going to get all black so everybody’s wearing the same thing.

“That’s what he’s about. He’s about the whole team. I’m very lucky that he’s a part of this program.”

The scouts say Harper is virtually a lock to be the first player selected in the free-agent draft two years from now. But all Ron talks about is Bryce taking his SATs and going to college, like his big brother Bryan, a freshman pitcher at Cal State Northridge.

If it’s possible for a 16-year-old kid to be old school on the baseball diamond, Bryce is Casey Stengel without the wrinkles. He told me his favorite player is Mickey Mantle and the reason he prefers baseball over all the other sports that came so naturally to him is that he loves the way the grass and his glove smell.

I was going to say the thing I admired most about Bryce Harper was how polite he was, but after seeing him take batting practice, that would be a lie. The thing I admire most about him is his swing. It’s beautiful.

I was talking to his dad when I heard a resounding PING! ... and looked up to see a baseball bouncing around dead tree limbs beyond the fence in right-center field. Harper hit a couple of outside pitches like bullets into left field, moving the invisible runners around, before I finally got to witness what I came to see.

There was another PING! ... and the ball took off in a majestic arc toward Hollywood Boulevard, about 400 feet from home plate beyond the right field fence at the Las Vegas High diamond.

“Car! Car! Car!” his teammates cried in unison.

Everybody craned his neck, first to see the ball kiss the sky like Jimi Hendrix at Montreaux, then to see whether it would hit the beige SUV that seemed to be in its flight path.

A loud discussion ensued. Did it hit the car? Did it miss?

One of the student managers asked me what I thought.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t see that far.”

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