CARY, N.C. (AP) - Bryce Harper didn't flinch with television cameras focused on him, even though his upper body was tangled in microphone wires.
"Part of life, I guess," the 16-year-old quipped Tuesday.
And it has been since the baseball phenom announced plans earlier this month to skip his final two years of high school, take an equivalency test and play next season at a Nevada community college - a move that could accelerate the catcher's professional career.
Harper, who recently appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as baseball's Next Big Thing, has embraced the hype and attention.
"I'm not LeBron yet," Harper said, referring to NBA star LeBron James, who also appeared on the SI cover as a teenager. "He's doing bigger and better things. He's in the pros. He's doing all his stuff and has endorsements, and all that good stuff. I can't say I'm LeBron yet. I'm Bryce Harper. That's what I am.
"You can't really just rely on that" hype, Harper said. "I love the target on my back, and I love how scouts come out and watch, just all that stuff. I've just got to keep getting better."
Harper's hope is that the improvement comes quicker at the College of Southern Nevada next spring than it did at Las Vegas High School.
Saying he modeled his game after Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose, Harper hit .626 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs as a sophomore this year. That, despite what he said was a lack of strikes thrown by pitchers determined to work around the slugger who hit the longest home run in the 12-year history of the Tampa Bay Rays' stadium, a 502-foot drive that came in a home run derby and off a metal bat.
"High school, you know, it was a great experience for two years, but I just wanted to get out of there (after) getting walked 42 times a year," said Harper, who is in the Raleigh suburb of Cary to play a weeklong tournament with his American Legion team at USA Baseball's training center. "I really wanted to swing the wood bat - if I could have swung the wood in high school, I would've.
"I'm not really skipping anything. I still get to go to the prom, still get to go to homecoming, still get to go do all that fun stuff. I get all the good things and just don't have to ... deal with the high school stuff, all that drama and everything. It was time to get out."
Harper's father, Ron, insisted the decision had nothing to do with giving his son a premature push into the 2010 baseball draft because "I haven't even gotten a 100 percent answer whether he is going to be eligible." Players may enter the draft at age 16 if they have completed high school.
"A lot of people say, 'You're the adult, you need to make that decision for him,"' Ron Harper said. "He is a pretty mature kid, and he's a good kid, and the level of baseball that he's been playing at, he needs to be pushed. I believe that, and he believes that."
He also brushed aside the criticism that his son has shortchanged his education, and said Bryce's backup plan is to become a fireman.
"We've taken every step to go in that direction (toward the draft) - if that works out, then so be it. If it doesn't, then Bryce will be playing again in junior college, which is fine with us," Ron Harper said. "We're planning for four years of college.... It's just that now, he's moving on just a little sooner than everybody else."
Ron Harper also dismisses any notion that leaving school early is a bad idea.
"They're thinking, 'Here he is, setting his kid up for failure,"' he said. "When I put him on the baseball field when he was 3 years old, I set him up for failure, because it's a game built on failure."
Bryce Harper isn't worrying about failing.
He's well aware of how many can't-miss phenoms in baseball managed to do exactly that, and he doesn't want to be another one.
"I want to be the best guy ever, the best player who ever played the game," Harper said. "I'm not going to sit back on everything, say, 'I'm on the cover of SI, I'm doing this, I'm doing that.' ... I'm not where I want to be yet. This is a stepping stone. I just want to get better, play the game and hopefully be in the big leagues one day."
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