Monday, June 15, 2009

Baseball's LeBron James

The hype machine for Stephen Strasburg may be the tip of the iceberg compared to the hype forthcoming for 16 year old Bryce Harper of (my hometown) Las Vegas, NV.

Harper has already made the cover of Sports Illustrated for prolific athletic ability for someone his age: he already throws a 96 mph fastball and has reportedly hit home runs as far as 570 feet. He's 6'3", 205 pounds, already a manly size despite not yet being old enough to attend the prom. He's reminiscent of the meteoric rise of LeBron James, who similarly dominated the HS ranks as a 16 year old and immediately turned pro upon his HS graduation.

Now it appears Harper won't even wait until 18 to enter the draft. He's going to get his GED, enroll in community college in Las Vegas and enter the 2010 MLB draft. Already teams like the perennially poor Nationals are angling to take Harper with the #1 pick. Polling from Yahoo's Duk shows 55% of readers say it's cool and 45% believe it's a bad idea. While there's a small leaning of support, it's still a divided issue.

Now, as someone who was far ahead of his peers with the books and felt at times held back and/or bored with high school, and as someone who himself considered taking the GED early and jumping to college... obviously I'm not morally opposed to the decision. It's clear that Harper is destined to take the next step, and finishing high school over the next two years simply delays the inevitable. That the Clark County School District sports a mostly mediocre curriculum only strengthens the notion that he ought to go for it. Harper himself definitely has the physical talent and the makeup to make it work.

Duk wisely points out the dangerous caveat.

The problem I do have with it, though, is that there are no doubt thousands of delusional parents who will see this news and think that maybe it's a viable path for their nowhere-near-as-talented sons and daughters. While the Harpers can't make their decision based on what other lemmings might do, I hope the door closes behind them.

The NBA had a revolving door of kids who vastly overestimated their abilities jumping into the draft and right out of relevance well before LeBron came along, and it led to NBA commissioner David Stern's dubious decision to impose an age limit on NBA entrants.

Granted, one thing going for MLB is its large minor league system. Many unprepared NBA teens got drafted and spent a lot of time on the bench as limited 12th men, because that was the only place for them. However, an unprepared 16-18 year old in MLB could easily step in and hold his own in the low minor leagues. The Venezuelan and Dominican Summer Leagues are rife with 16-18 year olds, and many of the players in the domestic rookie leagues (The Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues) are young themselves, in the 18-21 age range. While chances are likely a 16-17 year old could be a bit overmatched, the organization that drafts him could at least play him everyday (or as often as reasonable) and give him a chance to learn to play at the professional level.

While it's possible Bryce Harper could produce a deluge of early adoptee bonus babies, they won't end up rotting on the bench and washing out like their NBA counterparts. They'll at least get serious looks in rookie ball, and if they find that they screwed up, then they can go to college and/or keep working on their game in Indy ball or in the rookie leagues with their respective org's blessing.

It's easy to maintain a pretense that kids need to be among kids, have the life of kids and get a chance to 'grow up'. But like thrusting a kid into a pro ball setting, maintaining that pretense superimposes a reality onto that child, rather than giving said child the chance to push himself and discover what works for him. Duk himself noted a truism: Harper isn't going to be much more mature and grown up at 18 than he is at 16, so what is lost from going pro instead of spending those last two years in high school?

What did LeBron lose from getting super-famous before his 18th birthday? You can argue he gained far much more from his subsequent basketball exploits in the NBA than walking the line of a traditional college basketball career. Bryce Harper stands to gain just as much by taking the leap at 16. He's physically and, by all accounts, mentally/emotionally ready for it.

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