Changing how the game’s played

Published 10:07 pm Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Baseball franchises sign Caribbean-born and Latin American-born players at ages 16 and 17 all the time, so the new, exciting story of Bryce Harper is largely just new because it’s coming from a different avenue.

Before the Washington Nationals give something along the lines of $30-40 million to this year’s super-hyped No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, 2010’s No. 1 draft pick (sadly also by the Nationals, most likely) is already being selected by the media. Specifically, Sports Illustrated had Harper as a super-imposed superhero launching and admiring a home run over the Grand Canyon on its cover two weeks ago.

All that was before the news of the last couple days, which will make Sports Illustrated’s feature on Harper just the prelude of the media frenzy.

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Harper and his father have announced that the 16-year-old, 6’3”, 205-pound sophomore catcher/pitcher is going to skip his last two years of high school, take a GED test, go to a community college, and be eligible for the 2010 draft. Normally he would’ve been eligible first for the 2011 draft.

Hopefully, this works out. Hopefully, Harper is a kid with a good head on his shoulders. Hopefully, this was just as much his decision as his parents’, and a well-thought out decision which was in line before Sports Illustrated found him.

Just because this story seems like a first on the surface, it really isn’t. Golf, soccer, tennis and gymnastics prodigies all leave “normal” high school early and go on to their sports careers. In women’s tennis and gymnastics, a world-famous career can be over and done with by age 19.

In soccer, even here in the U.S., where finding talented teenaged prospects pales in comparison to the youth soccer academies of Europe and South America, there is the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who have the potential to play professionally, either in the U.S. or abroad, are part of a full-time residency program in which students take the needed courses to graduate high school while focusing on soccer.

Go to the “philosophies” page at www.imgacademies.com and see if you can find anything about academics. Now, plenty of IMG’s players go on to college scholarships, and I’m certainly not suggesting there’s anything crooked or even distasteful about it. My point is that Harper’s idea is sort of new, but only new for high school baseball players in the United States.

If we never hear of Harper past double-A ball, which does happen to a good percentage of first-round, even No. 1-overall, draft picks in baseball, my only concern about this news would largely be laid to rest on its own.

If there’s a 16-year-old kid who truly is the most dominant high school baseball player in the country, this plan should work, although that percentage is still way below 100 percent.

But we can only hope that this story doesn’t lead to a bunch of kids and parents who think, “if this guy can do it, why can’t I?”

ANdrew Giermak is the sports editor of the Suffolk News-Herald. He can be reached at andrew.giermak@suffolknewsherald.com.