Should Sports Illustrated refrain from putting top prospects (from any sport) on its cover?
Orioles 2007 first-round draft pick Matt Wieters was the SI cover boy in March of 2010, and Nationals "phenom" Bryce Harper appeared on the cover in June 2009 at just 16 years old.
At least Wieters was in the big leagues when the weight of the world was put on his shoulders, but Harper? Talk about pressure. The kid had yet to be drafted.
The question recently occurred to me after I was denied an interview with Bryce Harper because of a decision made by the Nationals to protect their young prospect from distraction. I was planning to travel to Hagerstown to catch the Nationals' low Single-A affiliate as they took on the Delmarva Shorebirds - the O's affiliate. It was a good chance to catch up with O's top pick Manny Machado and interview Harper as well.
The Nationals' reasoning was they wanted Harper to focus on playing and nothing else. The young outfielder has been inundated with interview requests, and so the decision was made to shut it down (after the SI cover). Considering the fact that Harper has dominated the South Atlantic League, it's safe to say he's pretty focused.
On the flip side, I interviewed Wieters numerous times before he made it to the big leagues. The O's took the approach of preparing him for the MLB hoopla by introducing him to, and training him to handle, the media.
It's important to note, both players are mega agent Scott Boras' clients and media training starts early with his players. Most have mastered the 10 second sound bite before their first big league game. Which approach do you think is best?
I asked a man who has had 33 years to think about the debate - Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. He was the Royals' first-round pick in 1975 and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March 1978. The headline under his name read, "This year's phenom."
Hurdle and I sat down to chat Monday while the Pirates were in D.C. He statistically and self-admittedly never lived up to the hype that surrounded him out of the draft. While Hurdle doesn't attribute the SI cover to his shortcomings, he does believe in training high-profile players to handle the media.
"I think society has changed so much since '75 until now," Hurdle said. "We have our players go through media courses. They spend time in the winter. We have media consultants spend time with players. They actually get an education on the process of talking to the media, spending time with the media, answering questions.
"That day I was put on the cover I went into a 7-Eleven. There were three magazines on the counter in 7-Elevens at the time. There's Newsweek, there's Time and there's Sports Illustrated. I can remember walking in not knowing what was going on and seeing my face on the cover of the magazine. I looked at the register guy, looked at the cover, looked at the guy, left my carton of milk and my Twinkie on the thing and split for my car. It just blew me away. I don't think that happened to Bryce and it probably didn't happen to Matt. They are probably much more prepared and in a better place for it than I was."
In my opinion, I can understand why the Nationals want to protect their prize prospect from distraction, but just as parents can shelter a child, I think shutting down media interviews completely can handicap Harper when he does get to the big leagues.
At the major league level, a player is expected to do interviews. Many are aware that media is the porthole to the fans who pay their salary. It's part of being a professional. It can also help them get noticed for things like Gold Gloves and All-Star voting as campaigns can be staged in the media.
Plus, it's a fact, whether fair or not, that players who aren't accommodating or rude to the media often get ripped the hardest. On the other hand, those who are considered "good guys" sometimes will get a free pass for mistakes.
When Harper gets to the big leagues, he will be thrown into the fire both on and off the field. The Nationals' public relations staff says they do have a plan to ease him into the limelight and they've learned from the Stephen Strasburg experience last year.
From what I hear Harper, has a great, outgoing personality and will adjust to the attention just as Wieters did.
Note: Catch Clint Hurdle's full interview on MASN Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. on the Mid Atlantic Sports Report.