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September 19, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

Talent sky-high, feet on ground

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Sam Morris

Las Vegas High School baseball player Bryce Harper, 16, a sophomore, straps on his catching gear for a game this week against Canyon Springs High.

A Closer Look at Bryce Harper

Las Vegas High catcher Bryce Harper runs to first base during the Wildcats' game against Chaparral Apr. 23. Launch slideshow »

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The last time I had talked to The Kid, he mentioned how important it was to stay one, which is hard to do when you are only a sophomore in high school and are capable of hitting 502-foot home runs at Tropicana Field in national home run derbies, which is what The Kid did in January.

Bryce Harper said the only things on his mind were winning a state title at Las Vegas High School, hanging out with his buddies and perhaps going to the prom — when he is old enough. He’s 16.

This week he is featured in “Sports Illustrated KIDS.” At Tuesday’s game against Canyon Springs, Tom Verducci, who writes for Sports Illustrated for grown-ups, was sitting in the bleachers behind home plate. Kurt Stillwell, the former All-Star infielder and a friend of a friend of a friend of super agent Scott Boras, stood under a nearby shade tree. Every time The Kid came to the plate, spectators inched forward in the bleachers, waiting for him to hit another baseball to Boulder City.

So what does he say after the game?

“I just want to be able to do what other kids my age do. Win the state championship, hang out with my buddies, go to the prom.”

You gotta love The Kid.

Harper batted five times in the 31-0, five-inning victory. At least I think he batted five times, because, to be honest, I stopped paying attention at 24-0. He hit a triple, walked, hit a double, walked again and reached on an error.

The two knocks improved Harper’s batting average to .640, which ain’t too shabby for a catcher, even in the Texas League. Who knows how high it would be if the pitchers challenged him now and again? The two walks made it 41 in 126 plate appearances.

The Kid would never say it, but he has outgrown the competition here. Maybe it would be different if the Wildcats got to play 162 games against Bishop Gorman, which could probably beat the Washington Nationals. But the only way the best player in the state will meet the best team in the state is in the state tourney.

Harper is to high school ball what Kelly Leak was to the Bad News Bears’ league, which is the biggest reason he is thinking about finishing school early. He could be drafted then, after playing a year of junior college baseball which not only would give him the competition he desires, but would enable him to swing a wooden bat. You know, the kind the pros use.

He’d have to take summer classes and maybe a correspondence course or two, but The Kid is a 3.8 student; he could get it done. Sam Thomas, the Las Vegas High coach, is all for the idea, says it would be the best thing for Harper.

Anyway, it’s not a decision that needs to be made now.

“We’ll sit down as a family and talk about it,” says Ron Harper, Bryce’s dad.

I’m sure when they do, The Kid will make the right choice, especially if he listens to his coach and his old man, who, totally and refreshingly, seem to have his best interests at heart.

Earlier, when Harper was getting frustrated about not getting good/any pitches to hit, Thomas asked him how many home runs Hank Aaron hit in high school. Harper said he didn’t know. Then Thomas asked how many homers Aaron hit in the big leagues.

Point made. Point taken.

Instead of complaining about those walks, Harper began to accept them. Then he stole second and third.

As for the kind of guy Ron Harper is, well, put it this way: Even after Verducci arrived, he made sure I had everything I needed, then apologized for ending our conversation so he could chat with the writer from Sports Illustrated.

After the game, the guy from the local paper got the first interview.

The Kid reached into his equipment bag and showed me his cap and some messages written on the underside of the visor. One said “PLAY FOR HIM.”

“Who’s him?” I asked.

“God.”

(I guess The Kid has his bases covered for when they start throwing him the splitter.)

Another was a Bible passage — “LUKE 1:37.”

“Anything is possible with God.”

(Got the nasty slider on the outside corner covered, too.)

And then something a little more cryptic: “2 MIN OF FURY.”

(Maybe The Kid had a sawbuck on Mine That Bird at the Derby.)

Nope. He says that’s how long an average baseball at-bat takes. Only The Kid and maybe The Other Kid, the great Ted Williams, would know that.

In the middle of Harper’s visor, just before the sweatband starts, there are three letters: “WIN.”

Like the state championship? Well, yeah, sort of, The Kid said.

“What’s Important Now.”

“What is important now?” I asked.

“The next game, the next at-bat, the next pitch.”

“What about the prom?”

The Kid told me he had a girlfriend — Alicia Rodriguez, a star soccer player at Green Valley High School. Been seeing her eight months, he said.

I asked who is the better player. He hesitated, as if trying to decide what is more important, being honest or being humble and going to the prom — when he’s old enough.

I told The Kid he didn’t have to answer, that there was a guy from Sports Illustrated standing over there who wanted to talk to him about baseball.

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