In an ongoing offseason quest to interview some outstanding individuals within the world of baseball, this week I was fortunate enough to talk to Rob Miech, author of the book, The Last Natural. Rob spent the 2010 season in the dugout following the College of Southern Nevada and 17-year-old Bryce Harper in his only season in collegiate baseball on an eventual journey toward being the top overall selection in the draft.
The inclement weather of Hurricane Sandy last week afforded me some time, and I quickly finished the book in two days, consumed with the detail in which Rob describes Bryce at such an important point in his baseball life. I emailed Rob to compliment him about his book and to inquire if he would consider an interview: like a true baseball fan, he graciously agreed. Below is the transcript of our discussion…
Rob, thank you for joining me today and sharing some time with my audience… Before I get started, I must congratulate you on your book, “The Last Natural”, I thoroughly enjoyed it. How did this project come about and how did you come to follow Bryce Harper and the College of Southern Nevada team during his one year in Junior College?
RM: “I got very, very lucky in getting laid off by the Las Vegas Sun on Dec. 1, 2009. Journalism has been a horrible business since the mid-1990s, but this was the worst round of layoffs I’d ever been a part of. Not because I got the axe. I had been laid off before, in 2001, and that was invaluable. Didn’t know how to handle it, and it’s easy to be negative. However, you have got to be nothing but positive in that situation … that something good, if not better, is right around the corner. Plus, the ’09 incident was brutal in its numbers. A lot of mismanagement and many, many good people paid the price. My concern was with those people. Again, I stayed positive. Within a month, I was doing some freelance work for a new weekly magazine, Vegas Seven, and one of those assignments led me to CSN to do a simple 500-word piece on Bryce’s transition from being a sophomore at Las Vegas High to a freshman in junior college. A simple piece. But I went above and beyond the reasonable scope of getting material for the story. Had WAY more info than I needed. After two days, I was sitting in the tiny office in my tiny condo – where I’m sitting as I type these words – and lightning struck like I don’t think it ever has, or ever will again, in my life. I called Tim Chambers, the CSN coach and a great friend for nearly 10 years, and said, “Skip, if this season is going to be so epic, so historic, as you believe, shouldn’t every day be documented?” He said, Get your (bleep) down here tomorrow morning. I don’t think I slept. I got down there early, walked into the open door of his office, and he said, “What are you thinking about?” I said, Skip, if you think this is going to be a season for the ages, a young guy doing something like that that nobody has ever attempted and likely nobody ever will again, shouldn’t every day be chronicled? He didn’t even pause. He said, “It’s all yours. You are in the dugout for games, on the coach for road trips, everything.” I trusted Chambers, that I could devote every waking second, probably for a year or two, at least, to documenting the dynamics of this special player and this special team. And Chambers trusted me with his guys. No coach, from that level up, had ever allowed a writer such access. Sitting in the dugout for games? Unheard of. But Chambers knew me and we had forged a bond that, until then, I hadn’t taken for granted but maybe just didn’t realize. It was incredible.”
You shared some insights into this in your book, but I wondered if you might tell us about the dynamic between Bryan Harper, also a prospect in the Nationals farm system and his younger brother Bryce? How did they get along and how did Bryan handle being in his younger brother’s shadow, when he is a pretty impressive player in his own right?
RM: “Bryan was a major cog in that whole operation. He’s a bit older, but he’s also very wise and clever, with a sharp sense of humor. There were some moments in which his levity and keen comments were perfect. When Bryce, by all appearances, looked as if he had at the very least torn apart a knee in an ill-fated dive for a foul ball in Twin Falls, Idaho, Bryan was one of the few Coyotes who remained in the dugout. He knew his younger bro was tough, ultra tough, and would be fine. A moment later, Bryan said, “Is there a doctor in the house? No, but I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night … ” In fact, we had stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. But that right there told me a lot about Bryan, and a lot about Bryce. In another incident, Bryan bolted out of the dugout to corral Bryce soon after Bryce got ejected (for a very petty reason) in a home game against Western Nevada, a bitter rival. Bryan was there to stave off any further damage. Nobody else could have pulled that maneuver off with such aplomb. Bryan also put his brother in his place, when the moment required that. Bryce had moved a runner up in another game, but he returned to the dugout royally bummed about making an out. But he had executed the proper “baseball play.” On the right side of the dugout, Bryan congratulated him for doing the right thing. Bryce didn’t want to hear of it. He was steaming. Bryan yanked Bryce’s arm back, looked the kid in the eye and said, “Hey! Way to play the game!” Bryce instantly cooled and got it. You could make a viable argument that Bryan was the heart and soul of that squad. Bryan had a difficult season in 2012, at Single-A Auburn in the Nats’ system. But he also, in my view, was underused during his one season at South Carolina. The past two years haven’t done him many favors, in terms of consistently being used and refining his stuff during innings of actual games, but that’s one guy I openly root for and hope he has a long athletic career. However, he will be a success no matter what he does in life. In the offseason, he is a substitute teacher in the Las Vegas Valley. I’d love to sit in on one of his classes. Those are fortunate kids, because Bryan has an ease about him that would have to give any student confidence, and desire to learn.”
Along similar lines, how did Bryce’s teammates feel about him on the team? Most of the CSN players were 3,4,or 5 years older than Bryce and accomplished baseball players themselves, was there any resentment toward the young phenom? How did the team get along with Bryce and how did Bryce get along with the team?
RM: “That was a major aspect in my observations, the simple dynamics of they all got along with this kid who was so obviously marked for stardom from such a young age. Even Chambers, who had known Bryce for 10 years, had difficulty in navigating through the season with such a young kid. Chambers hadn’t coached high schoolers in more than 10 years. And, bam, here was one on his squad. He had to improvise. For better or worse, there were two separate sets of rules, basically, on that team – the one for Bryce, and the one for everybody else. Chambers gave Bryce a long, long leash … whose tension became incredibly taut by the end of the season. I think I cover that in the series vs. Western Nevada in Carson City. The situation nearly exploded into the end of Chambers’ relationship with Bryce’s parents, if not Bryce himself. Ultimately, the few times that happened, Bryce realized it and by the end of that given day he would apologize to Chambers via very heartfelt and dramatic text messages. But I think the many players on that team had many, many perspectives on what was going down and what they though of Bryce. On Opening Night, Tomo Delp, the usual third baseman during most of fall ball, found himself on the bench. Bryce, known widely as a catcher, was at the hot corner. You think Tomo took that lightly? He didn’t. That was just one situation. There were many. Local guys who knew him, who had played with and against him growing up in Little League and club ball, were eager to see him test himself, to see how he’d handle umpires watching everything he did with a microscope. Outsiders were curious about who he was and how he’d live up to such extraordinary expectations. Could he produce with all that pressure? Bryce tried just being part of the group as best he could. Most series or tournaments ended on Saturdays, and that’s the night there was usually a party or two at players’ apartments. I did not learn about this until very recently, but even at those bashes Bryce showed up once or twice. He wanted to keep that extremely quiet, so Chambers and his parents wouldn’t find out. Of course, he was 17, but he wanted to fit in, to make an attempt to hang out with his teammates in casual off-the-field situations. He is staunch in his vow to not drink alcohol, or do any other harm to his body in any way, so he always made sure that the cap was tightly screwed on a water bottle he’d lug around. He’d take a sip, then tighten that cap to ensure nothing foreign would somehow find its way into that bottle. But he wanted his teammates to know that he was a normal kid who wanted to hang out with them, to get to know them better and show that he was just one of them.”
You got to observe and watch Bryce Harper at a very interesting point in his life… What did you learn about him over those months and what changes, if any, did you see from him?
RM: “I think a major advantage I had was the fact that I had never seen him play and I did not know much about his “reputation.” Many around here saw him as an arrogant, brash kid who flaunted his immense talent in the face of lesser players, or people. But I went into this with a blank slate, his actions, and words, and performance, would speak volumes about who he was and what kind of player he yearned to be. The first I had heard of him was when he appeared on that Sports Illustrated cover the previous summer. I moved to Vegas in October 2002, and my main duties for the Sun revolved around UNLV basketball. But I soon learned about that junior college baseball team down in Henderson that hit with wood. That intrigued the hell outta me, so I’d go down there when I could to meet Chambers and give his guys exposure when I could. During my first few weeks in town, the first young up-and-coming baseball prodigy I heard about was Joey Gallo. Geez, he must have been 8 or 9 at the time. But it was impressed upon me that he should be watched. Gallo is now in the Texas Rangers’ system. He had a fine rookie season this past summer, and he deserves further attention. He’s a 6-5 lefty slugger, and he’ll be the next big star to come out of Vegas. Hoops had been the main focus of my career for nearly 25 years, but I had covered quite a few major league games in Southern California. So the first thing that stuck out was Bryce in batting practice. The sound is so different than any other player. You didn’t have to be an expert to know that he was special. As the season progressed, he often looked and sounded like a big leaguer. Like an adult wise beyond his years. When an assistant coach of his boarded the bus after the first doubleheader in Twin Falls, his teammates exploded around him when the coach asked him to sign a sock of seven balls and a clipboard of three of his SI covers; the umpires had wanted Bryce’s autograph! And there was another doubleheader to play the following day. The Coyotes around Bryce, sitting across from me in the fifth row, were pissed. But Bryce remained calm. He looked at the ceiling and quickly deduced that, yeah, “I have to sign ‘em … they’re doin’ our games tomorrow.” Adults infringed upon him regularly, but he was mostly cool and calm. What he did at BP the day of the JUCO World Series game in which he ultimately got ejected told me all I needed to know about his character. I hate to tease you, but it’s in the book. There were many, many scenes and situations that highlighted how classy he is, but until my last breath I will vividly recall how he treated that guy in the Denver Nuggets cap.”
Tim Chambers, CSN’s manager is a large figure in the book… Can you describe him a bit and how did his relationship with Bryce affect both men?
RM: “I can’t believe Chambers didn’t go bald that season. He was a tangle of nerves. That was compounded early on when he kept Bryce off-limits to just about every media outlet on the face of this planet. Oprah? No, sorry. The 60 Minutes crew? Thanks, but no thanks. He did not want Bryce dealing with such outside B.S. Concentrate on baseball and school, Chambers always told him, and family. That’s what matters. But it drove Chambers bananas having to deal with all sorts of media calls and requests, every day. Chambers is very driven. He was very successful at Bishop Gorman High, in Vegas, and led CSN to a JUCO World Series title in 2003; he had predicted such success within five years of starting the program, and he did it in four. Before they left for that series, I went down to Morse Stadium to do a profile of Chambers. That’s when he opened up to me about his shitty father, who at the top of his list of faults was beating Chambers’ mother. Chambers did not hold back. He told me how, at the old man’s funeral, Tim had forced the parlor director to open the casket. Chambers want to know FOR SURE that that son of a bitch was in that box, that he could forever close that chapter of his life and move on, knowing he would never hear the whiny screech of his voice again. Finally, the guy relented. The casket was opened. Tim saw his pop lying there, with a pack of Marlboros and a square of chocolate on a paper plate on his chest. The chain smoker had a sweet tooth. I wrote that story exactly how Chambers told it to me, and he couldn’t believe how raw and true it was. I did not do anything exceptional. I just told his story how he had told it to me. But Chambers was visibly moved by it. We have been very close since. He has many phobias and superstitions, and as well as I thought I knew him I can’t believe I used his john in his hotel room in Lamar, Colo., during the district playoffs in May of 2010. I didn’t exactly know that he doesn’t even use the toilet in the master bedroom of his home … he goes to the one farthest away from his bedroom. I waddled into his commode in Lamar and, I guess I sort of thought he was kidding. But the aftermath was not fun. That was the cleanest loo in this country later that night, after I had scrubbed every square centimeter. Chambers has no gray area, you are either with him or against him, a friend of a foe. He has no fear and believes he was born too early, because he is certain that he’d be a helluva MMA fighter today. Says he was in more than 150 fights growing up, when his mother moved him, his brother and his sister around more frequently than if they had been in the military. Some of that was Tim’s doing; without a stern father figure, he strayed often and got booted from, uh, a few schools. But it’s because of what he didn’t have as a kid that drives him to be the best father he can be to his two daughters, and, surely, his players.”
One theme that is consistently mentioned is how important Bryce’s religious faith is to him… His Mormon faith has not been talked about much here in DC since his arrival, but at one point in your book Bryce mentions an appreciation for Tim Tebow and how he uses his sports prowess to increase awareness about his religious faith. Do you expect Bryce to make his religion a bigger part of his identity in the upcoming years?
RM: “I don’t think Bryce will be Tim Tebow II by any stretch of the imagination. As well as I got to know him, and as comfortable he might have been around me, it took a lot to press him on his convictions and faith. I thought that was impressive. He doesn’t hit you over the head with his beliefs, unlike that football guy. Tebow is quite polarizing, but I can’t ever imagine Bryce landing in that territory. Bryce’s religion drives him, and even though he had the Luke inscription on his bat in 2010 all of that is hugely personal. Off the field and away from the game, if he’s asked about this or that, he will respond. One fan challenged him that season, wondering if he actually knew the Luke inscription. He ripped it off in a heartbeat, and it gave him pride to go there with that fan. It is common for Mormons of a certain age to take a two-year mission, but Bryce’s grandfather told me, as he glanced to the Morse Stadium diamond, that “that field” will be his mission. I’m sure Bryce will welcome inquiries from inquisitive fans, depending on the time and place, but I doubt he’ll be running around, being overly demonstrative, with a bullhorn like that quarterback. I think Bryce will be true to his faith and might explain how it drives him and helps him, but I don’t expect it to polarize him. I bet those situations will be more classy and sublime than over the top and in your face.”
I think many of us have overlooked how impressive what Bryce Harper accomplished truly was, mostly because of how effortlessly he made everything look and how successful he has been? Can you talk about just how difficult what Bryce was trying to do was?
RM: “From his first fall ball game, he struggled. There were seven strikeouts in his first two games, and especially a diabolical curve for a strike on a three-two count that messed with his noggin. He and his dad were serious about wanting him to return to high school. Chambers was extremely challenged to convince them that the junior college was the only place for Bryce. He would accomplish nothing by going back to high school, where he had hit .600 as a freshman and .620 as a sophomore. Plus, the CBA between major league owners and players was about to change. It made perfect sense for Bryce to continue challenging himself against older competition, to be eligible for the draft a year before his high school class graduated, to forge his own end-around to the pro game. He would fail, but Chambers knew CSN was where he had to wean himself of his immature antics and learn how to deal with failure, prepping him even more for the rigors of professional baseball. He had incredible challenges from his first junior college pitch to his last, and it was impressive how he often picked himself up and learned from many of those situations. He knew better than anyone how he tested Chambers and maybe took advantage of having such a long leash, but he often learned plenty about himself, and he corrected or refined, or polished, those rough edges. Ask him a question, he’ll answer it. But you better be ready for it, because if you don’t want a certain answer you better not ask the question and then hold it against him. I think he’s a classy individual who will only become classier as he gets older.”
After watching Bryce up close for an entire season, what was the most spectacular play (at-bat, throw, accomplishment) he made all season? Was there one specific play that made you say, “Wow he’s special?”
RM: “Opening night was wild. It sticks out because you could see your breath. Remember, this is Vegas. So that was different. Late in the game, he was being intentionally walked. No big deal. Always happens. But on the third pitch (I think it was) he reached out and nearly poked that damn ball over the left-center wall. The guy on third tagged up and scored. That told me, right from the jump, not to stray. To keep my eyes on him at all times, because otherwise I’d miss something I’d never seen and never would see again. The four-HR game in Lamar, to get the Coyotes into the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., was insane. Winds blew above 50 mph. It was truly a dry, hot, horrible day from hell. But he flexed and just about single-handedly nudged his team into the national-title stage. And each homer was different. He strolled over to me before his fourth homer. He had hit for the cycle the previous day and he wanted to do that again. We couldn’t figure out if an earlier hit was officially ruled a single or a double. We kind of gawked at my scorecard and I think I said something like, “Aw hell, just park another one.” I think he smiled and turned. Seeing him always try to turn singles into doubles, and doubles into triples, told me plenty, early on, about his motor. That stood out. As did his sense of humor. Being in the dugout as he skipped across it, mimicking Angus Young of AC/DC to “TNT-Dynamite,” has remained etched in my brain, for some reason. He was holding his bat like a guitar. And when he altered the words to Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out For Summer,” in a way that I can’t exactly reproduce here (this is a family-read publication, right?), was just as poignant – plus, it told me and every player in the vicinity just exactly where Bryce intended to go. Again, I got way, WAY more than I bargained for and I will forever be indebted to Chambers, Bryce and every Coyote from that season.”
Thanks so much Rob that was excellent… Where can my readers find your book and where can they keep up with you?
RM: “The book can most easily be had at Amazon.com, I believe. But I have had events at Barnes & Noble branches all over D.C. and Vegas, and I believe they plan to keep it in regular stock. I heard that Costco has stocked it well. Thank you for your interest, and many thanks to readers who have perused the project of my life!”
Thanks again to Rob for being so generous with his time. I encourage everyone to get a copy of his book, it is a terrific read and a nice holiday gift for any baseball fan.
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