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Big ticket: Top prospect Harper brings hype, attention to Syracuse baseball

first_imgAll eyes were on Bryce Harper on Wednesday as the Syracuse Chiefs introduced the baseball phenom to the media. While teammates stepped out of the clubhouse, waiting for reporters to fire off questions, Harper quickly became the center of attention. All eyes have been on Harper long before he arrived in Syracuse, though. They were there long before he reached high school and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and long before he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball amateur draft at just 17 years old. ‘I think growing up, playing every single day, trying to be the best I could be,’ Harper said at the team’s media day Wednesday, ‘ever since I was 10, 11 years old, I think that’s when things started to hit off.’ And since that point, the attention has only grown. Wherever Harper has played, fans have followed, all wanting to catch a glimpse of what he has to offer. With each step the 19-year-old takes to the major leagues in the Washington Nationals organization, the microscope continues to tighten. And now the hype has finally reached Syracuse.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text After being optioned to the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate, the Syracuse Chiefs, Harper will once again be on display and in the spotlight, starting Thursday when the Chiefs open their season at 2 p.m. at Alliance Bank Stadium. For a team that has lacked fan support, Harper is a player that’s always attracted fans, media and scouts to the ballpark, with all eyes on him. It’s something that teammates and coaches can’t fathom. ‘I can’t imagine being his age and dealing with the things he’s dealt with,’ first-year Chiefs manager Tony Beasley said. ‘It’d be easy to say if I had his money I could deal with it, but I don’t think I could deal with it to be honest with you because a lot of things he’s been up against, they haven’t been pleasant.’ *** Sam Thomas still remembers the day Bishop Gorman, a ranked high school team in Las Vegas, took on another ranked team in a highly anticipated matchup. But not a single scout was in attendance. They were all watching Harper play across town at Las Vegas High School. ‘We were playing a game the same time and one of the dads from Gorman called (Bryce’s father Ron) Harper and said, ‘Here we are playing a ranked team, and there’s not one scout out here,” said Thomas, Harper’s high school head coach. ‘Ron replied, ‘Well, I’m looking at 15 or 20 of them right now. They’re here.’ One player even transferred from another local high school just so he could play on the same team as Harper. The exposure Harper received helped his teammates gain attention from scouts as well. And with all the exposure surrounding Harper in high school, he faced even more scrutiny when he earned his GED and left high school after his sophomore year and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada. The coach at the time, Tim Chambers, said the junior college program made as much money in Harper’s first five or six games in 2010 as it had the entire previous season. For the opening weekend of games, Chambers said approximately 3,000 fans showed up to see Harper play, exceeding the 2,400-person capacity of the Coyotes’ home stadium. ‘We actually had to open all the gates around the stadium because we were worried about fire code. It was crazy,’ said Chambers, now the head baseball coach at UNLV. ‘… You couldn’t find a spot to stand, let alone sit.’ Waves of fans wanted his autograph after games. If kids asked, Harper always said yes. One time, the umpiring crew from the game went to the team bus and asked Harper to sign a box of balls and some Sport Illustrated covers for them. At the Junior College World Series, Harper struggled to even get to the team bus through the swarm of crowds after the first game. ‘And I’m not talking 50 or 60 people,’ Chambers said. ‘I’m talking 3,000 to 4,000 people.’ *** Rick Burton can rattle off a list of reasons why the Chiefs struggle to attract fans. The average Triple-A fan doesn’t know the players on the team. The weather at the start of the season is cold. Syracuse is a college town that supports Orange football and basketball. And Alliance Bank Stadium isn’t in the central part of the city. Mike Voutsinas, the Chiefs assistant general manager, said multipack tickets are really where the team has seen an increase in sales. And it helps Harper is here now. Fans might be more motivated to see a special talent like Harper, Voutsinas said. The goal for the Chiefs is to get those casual fans to come back for a few games throughout the summer. ‘I think the bigger question is how do they leverage it beyond just those games,’ said Burton, a sport management professor at SU. The Hagerstown Suns, the Nationals’ Single-A affiliate, leveraged the excitement surrounding Harper into business success last summer. Suns General Manager Bill Farley said attendance doubled to 2,000 fans on an average game day at the start of the season. And while Harper is in Syracuse now, his presence is still being felt in Hagerstown, Md. The Suns are already getting national attention for their Bryce Harper garden gnome giveaway scheduled for Aug. 4. ‘We’ll have lines of people trying to get their hands on these giveaway items of him,’ Farley said. For the Chiefs to capitalize on the attention, they must focus on the entire fan experience, Burton said. From clean bathrooms and good food to green grass and an impressive scoreboard, countless factors form an impression in the fan’s mind. And that total experience also determines if they come back more than once. ‘Maybe if they get you out and you have a great experience when you’re out at the stadium while Harper is there, maybe if they’ve done a comprehensive job, where the trick part of the answer is,’ Burton said. ‘Maybe you’ll come back even after he’s gone.’ *** But for now, Harper is in Syracuse. And the attention, positive and negative, has followed him. Beasley admits that there are things Harper has said and done that he shouldn’t have. But Beasley said that’s the case with everyone on the team. It’s just magnified for Harper. While Harper has been viewed as arrogant for his desire to be the best player in the history of the game, it’s a notion that bothers his former coaches Thomas and Chambers. To them, he’s been mislabeled. Badly. Thomas said if anyone asked Harper if he was the best high school player in Las Vegas, he’d be quick to rattle off several other names. Thomas thinks people confuse Harper’s quest for greatness with cockiness. Chambers said it’s sad to see how he has to defend himself. ‘Pretty sure if you put all eyes all the time on every other kid you would have found a lot more than that,’ Chambers said. Beasley, who managed Harper at Double-A Harrisburg, said the two often talk in his office after he is criticized in the media. His Chiefs teammates said they’ve never gotten a negative vibe from him. As for Harper, he escapes from all the attention and hype when he’s in the outfield or at the plate. ‘I don’t really worry about anything outside,’ Harper said. ‘I just try to play my game. I just try to play hard every single day and not worry about what this guy says or what that guy says.’ [email protected] Facebook Twitter Google+ Commentscenter_img Published on April 4, 2012 at 12:00 pmlast_img

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