“That…by far, was the most stressful year I ever had in my life.”
Imagine dropping out of high school at 16 years old.
You take the GED and enroll in junior college.
Because the world’s biggest sports magazine has declared you “Baseball’s Chosen One”.
You’re the talk of every big league scout and every young ballplayer in the nation.
Your working-class parents have taken on debt to send you to showcases around the country.
An MLB scouting director says you’re “not going to make any more money [by] playing two years of high school ball.”
The pressure is on.
You need to become draft-eligible as soon as possible.
And the quickest path is to play one year of junior college baseball.
After skipping your final two years of high school ball, you step in the box against a pitcher in their 20s throwing in the 90s.
And, they blow you away.
At-bat after at-bat, you don’t have a prayer at the plate.
That was Bryce Harper’s reality in the fall of 2009.
“I came back home, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, I’m bawling my eyes out,” he said in a 2020 interview.
What happened to that confident 16-year-old slugger on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
“I said to my dad, ‘I can’t do this, pop…I gotta go back to high school.'”
Despite his father’s reassurance, Bryce insisted. So they set a meeting with his then-former high school’s athletic director.
“I wanna come back,” Harper said.
“You can’t,” she said. “You tested out. You cannot come back…you’re done.”
Those words were a gut punch.
He was backed into a corner. Forced to return to the college ballfield where it felt as if his dreams were going to die.
He only had one option.
“If I don’t perform, what do I do? Like do I go back…am I just gonna be an ironworker, and go work with my pops? I had more people counting on me than just myself…it was bigger than me.”
“My whole life was on the line that year.”
So his coach gave him a week off to relax and reset.
But the thought was still percolating through his mind.
“I have to be the number one pick…if I’m not, I’m a failure.”
“I have to be able to get my family out…and take care of them forever.”
When he came back, he hadn’t swung a bat for a whole week.
And of course, it was an intrasquad scrimmage, where he’d once again face some of the best college pitchers in JUCO.
“My first at-bat I go deep to right-center. And it kind of clicked where I was like, ‘Heads up, you got dominated. You know you can do this. Get your ass back out there and start playing to the ability you know how to play.'”
With one swing, Bryce Harper restored his confidence. In baseball, sometimes that’s all it takes.
But his back was still against the wall. He still had to play a full college season. And he still had to prove why he deserved to be the number one overall pick.
“It was either cowboy up and play your game, or go home and dig a ditch.”
“My dad worked his ass off and provided for my family, made sure we had meals on the table no matter what. My mom did the same thing…I wanted to be bigger…and I owed that to my dad, I owed that to my mom, and I owed that to myself.”
The pressure wasn’t just internal. There were plenty of people who expected him to live up to the highest of expectations.
“Every single night, we had 5,000 people at a JUCO game with a thousand scouts…I have to perform day in and day out no matter what.”
And countless others were rooting for his downfall.
“I had coaches yelling at me from the other dugout…I had all that all the time. But it was tough because I never understood it until it really started happening a lot.”
In spite of all the pressure, all the criticism, and all the early struggles, Bryce Harper came through.
In 66 games at the College of Southern Nevada, he hit 33 home runs – shattering the school’s previous home run record of 12.
His slash line was utter insanity:
- .443 batting average
- .526 on-base percentage
- .987 slugging percentage
He won the 2010 Golden Spikes Award, given to the best amateur baseball player in the nation.
When the 2010 MLB Draft came around in June, he was selected with the first overall pick.
Two years later he was in the big leagues.
That JUCO year shaped his entire career.
Now, whenever he’s up in a big spot – late in the game, playoffs, clutch situation – he doesn’t feel pressure.
“That [JUCO year] was the pressure. Now all this, this is cake,” he told Pat McAfee. “This is what it’s all about. This is the fun part of that.”
“The pressure’s all behind me. This is what I love to do.”
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