On the Precociousness of Sports Prodigies and Their Peculiar Development Paths

Cup'pa JoeI love nothing so much as a great American sports story, and this spring has delivered a special one by the name of Bryce Harper. If you haven’t read Tom Verducci’s Sports Illustrated profile of Harper, you should. The gist of this seemingly hyperbolic tale is this: Harper is a 16-year-old high school sophomore who hits baseballs farther than any Major Leaguer and throws it harder (96 mph) than most Major Leaguers. He is, as Verducci plainly states in his feature’s headline, ‘Baseball’s Lebron.’

There is something subtly heroic about the fringe participants in professional sports — the utility infielder no one selects in fantasy leagues, the 12th man on the Sacramento Kings, Quintin Laing — but there is an intoxicating quality about the sports prodigy. Tiger. Jack. Wayne. Lebron. They seem to represent the zenith of humankind’s physical aspirations. In some instances, they expand our conceptions of the limits of those aspirations. 

Reading Verducci’s mythology-narrative of this Las Vegas catcher-pitcher-third baseman dream-stud, I was taken back six years and a visit I made to the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md., in spring for the Midget Nationals tourney, which featured Shattuck-St. Mary’s and this Nova Scotian named Sidney Crosby. I remember seeing the Caps’ Ross Mahoney hard against the glass at the Ice House closely following Sidney’s every shift. I remember watching all of Crosby’s games there, and leaving the tourney thinking two things: (1) that’d be the last time I saw Sidney play hockey for free; and (2) ‘It’d be damned swell if the Caps somehow landed him.’ 

Verducci’s SI account opens with a dramatic recounting of a baseball Harper hit some 570 feet last season.

“One rainy February day in Las Vegas . . . Sam Thomas watched two men stretching a tape measure across South Hollywood Boulevard, reaffirming that there was at least one real deal in town. Thomas is the baseball coach at Las Vegas High, and the two men were his assistant coaches. The pair had come out in the rain to revisit the spot where, in a game the previous spring, a baseball had made landfall, a dimple in the desert, a tiny crater left in the sand by a home run off the bat of Las Vegas High catcher Bryce Harper, then a 15-year-old freshman.

“The lefthanded Harper had hit the ball over the rightfield fence, two trees, another fence, a sidewalk, five lanes of traffic on elevated South Hollywood Boulevard and yet another sidewalk, until it finally landed in the brown, undeveloped desert. It might as well have been a flying saucer, judging by the grin on Thomas’ face as he recalls the distance the ball traveled.”  

There really doesn’t appear to be any potential of a Ryan Leaf or Patrick Stefan flameout here — baseball scouts who’ve been around a while, who’ve peered down on the diamond on which Harper competes today but once also did so for the likes of Griffey Jr. and A-Rod — testify that Harper is the real deal. But also this: he’s better than anyone they’ve scouted before, at this age.  

Just this week Harper’s parents decided to pull their prodigy son out of high school, where opposing pitchers simply won’t throw to him anymore, immerse him in GED coursework, and hope that he lands in community college baseball come the autumn, thereby improving the competition he faces and, more importantly, making him eligible for the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. Hockey has long been shadowed by debates over the development methodology for young teens supremely gifted in skates and with sticks. To billet or not to billet? Gretzky left his family at age 14 to further his development in Toronto. When you read accounts of that moment in his life, you’re overwhelmed by the heartache of separation that consumed the Gretzky family. In his case, rather obviously, it paid off. But in how many instances hasn’t it? 

We might all agree that in too many instances, too many Canadian and American families steer their gifted hockey children out away from the shelter of family and the normalcy of adolescent maturation and into the uncertain frontier of elite athletics’ dream chasing. But we might also agree that in very specific, very rare circumstances, the uber-gifted athlete, like the virtuoso 14-year-old violinist who simply must be moved to New York and Julliard, merits an extraordinary development migration. It’s an easy call with a Tiger or a Lebron or a Bryce Harper, but what of the slightly lessers in athletic ability?

Alexander Ovechkin and his family never confronted such a dilemma; they resided in Moscow, and his talent and Russia’s hockey culture simply allowed him to don a Dynamo sweater at age 16. But in North America, and especially in America, the development decision-making is anything but so linear and reflexive.

A relatively recent hockey development stratagem in the States is the USNDTP in Ann Arbor. It’s a highly competitive slate of tryouts for the U-18 and U-17 national teams that yields a fair bit of cherry-picking of American hockey’s best talent, directing them to full-time residence in Ann Arbor. By its design the program was meant to make the elite American hockey teams in international competition more competitive. It’s sure produced its share on first-round talent in the NHL draft. But is there any downside to it? And is it the best development approach for the gifted individual hockey player here?   

We’ve come quite a way from merely pitching a puck out on a frozen pond and telling our kids to go chase it, haven’t we?

Now this Harper story is of particular interest to Washington sports fans. The Nats aren’t an expansion team, but they’ve played like one this summer and last. As reward, they drafted first overall in baseball’s draft last week, nabbing San Diego State right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, he of the 103 mph fastball. Absent a meteor strike taking out all baseball cities save D.C., the Nats will select first again next June, when Bryce Harper could be there for the taking.      

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2 Responses to On the Precociousness of Sports Prodigies and Their Peculiar Development Paths

  1. Juan-John says:

    Thanks for the continued good work on this blog, even in the offseason. The SI story you feature is great, especially the unspoken connection between a once-crappy-team-turned-contender (Caps) and the possibilities and promise that holds for a currently-crappy-team-hoping-to-become-a-contender (Nats).

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