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Bill Conlin: Top baseball prospect Bryce Harper lives up to the hype

BRYCE HARPER IS Ozark Ike come to life. Out of the comic pages of the 1940s and '50s and onto the arid ballfields of Nevada.

BRYCE HARPER IS Ozark Ike come to life. Out of the comic pages of the 1940s and '50s and onto the arid ballfields of Nevada.

The creation of cartoonist Rufus A. Gotto, Ozark Ike was a large, handsome hillbilly from the mythical hamlet of Wildweed Run (pop. 49). Gotto turned Ike into a multiple sports superstar based loosely on Al Capp's wildly popular strip "Li'l Abner," who was a handsome lout with a heart of gold. Abner Yokum kept Dogpatch safe for Mammy and Pappy Yokum and his curvaceous girlfriend Daisy Mae.

Ike was a prodigious slugger who pitched no-hitters when he wasn't pounding home runs. To make sure the strip kept in tune with the changing sports seasons, Ike McBatt also starred in football and basketball. In the brief lulls between seasons, he was a heavyweight boxer.

Bryce Harper just plays baseball. But he has had a lot of Ozark Ike moments as a stupendous talent whose precocious baseball skills are being compared to the basketball mastery of LeBron James at a similar age.

That age is 17.

He should be playing baseball as a junior at Las Vegas High School. Been there, done that. Uber-agent Scott Boras has been shadowing the 6-3, 205-pound six-tooler since he was ripping tape-measure homers as a 15-year-old freshman who was already the best high school player in Nevada. His sixth tool is a fastball in the 90s.

Harper is no longer a high school player. As a junior, he would not have been eligible for major league baseball's June draft. So Harper's final 2 years of high school flew by faster than home runs leave his bat. Armed with a GED diploma he earned in 6 months, Bryce enrolled as a freshman at the College of Southern Nevada, a juco baseball powerhouse currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.

On June 7, he is expected to be the first player selected in baseball's amateur draft. The Washington Nationals have the No. 1 pick once more and are said to be committed to making Harper, whose multiple positions include catcher, Stephen Strasburg's future receiver.

Think of it, Phillies fans, 19 doses a year of the Nats' dynamic duo . . .

Last Saturday, in wind-raked Lamar, Colo., Bryce Harper had an Ozark Ike moment that not even his creator, Ray Gotto, could have drawn up for McBatt. The Southern Nevada Coyotes had been pounded 21-14 by Central Arizona in a NJCAA regional tournament game that featured 45 mph winds and 11 homers.

Harper, who had hit for the cycle the day before, was held to a modest 2-for-5 with three RBI in the first-game loss. The winner of the second game that day would go to the Juco World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., this weekend. Harper knew it could have been the final game of his brief, meteoric, college career.

So he did what superheroes are supposed to do . . .

Bryce Harper, using an aluminum bat for the first time in the tournament (Southern Nevada's conference uses wood), had a game nobody in the tiny crowd will soon forget. In six at-bats, he ripped six hits. Four home runs. A double. A triple. Ten RBI. In his final at-bat, Harper needed a single for his second cycle in as many days. Instead, he launched a long homer to dead center. Southern Nevada extended Harper's career for at least two more games with a 25-11 victory. Nice pitching, guys.

The kid who showed up on the cover of Sports Illustrated last year has become a news beat in Las Vegas, the same way high school phenom LeBron James became a must-watch brand in Akron. Reporter Matt Youmans was in Lamar, covering history's most hyped 17-year-old ballplayer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Youmans captured the moment: "This tiny town is best known for hosting the annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival, and there was a chance it also was about to be remembered as the place where Harper played his final college game."

A lot of baseball people, who thought Harper was moving way too fast in a sport where success often requires years of seasoning, nodded sagely when the kid got off to a slow start against stiff competition. He was competing at a juco level where many players are there for two purposes - to be scouted and drafted. It is commonplace for juco baseball factories like Houston's San Jacinto to have more players drafted each June than D-I powers like Rice and the University of Texas. Further, the mechanical flaws in his catching game would be exposed and he would be swinging a wood bat in competition for the first time. No more 502-foot launches like his epic over-the-top-catwalk shot at the Tampa Bay Rays' Tropicana Field last summer in the Power Showcase home run derby for elite high school stars. The video of that bombing run has had more than a million YouTube views.

Well, here's how the Southern Nevada season has worked out so far for Vegas Ike: 62 games, 95-for-215, .442 batting average, 88 runs, 22 doubles, four triples, 29 homers, 89 RBI, .524 on-base percentage, .986 slugging percentage, 18-for-22 in stolen bases, 35 walks, 39 Ks.

In other words, indescribably off the charts. The only major categories he didn't lead were triples and sacrifice flies. That's because his triples and sac flies usually left the ballpark.

As a catcher, however, Harper is very much a work in progress. Some scouts think he is a corner outfielder, period. Others believe that holes in his swing will be exploited once he faces a higher level of pitching and that catchers are not expected to carry a heavy offensive load. The kid's arm is a weapon, but if you watch his workout videos, his release is slow. Like the Twins' Joe Mauer, Harper could play all nine positions and not embarrass himself, with rightfield being the most logical for him.

Whatever . . . With the countdown to baseball's draft under way, get ready for heaping servings of Bryce.

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