Watching Bryce don a Phillies’ uniform and cozying up to Philly officials yesterday, I could not help but to flash back to one of Bryce’s early games, and the first time I saw him play. It was on May 6, 2012, a Sunday evening game, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.
Bryce then was a brash, swaggering and somewhat over-hyped 19 year-young rookie who clearly loved the game of baseball and played it with great potential and a somewhat reckless abandon. Three years earlier as a high school prospect he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, calling him “Baseball’s Chosen One” and the inside article entitled “Baseball’s Lebron,” led with the following words:
"His name is Bryce Harper. You don't know him, but every big league scouting director does. He hits the ball a desert mile, clocks 96 on the gun, and he's only 16, more advanced than A-Rod and Junior were at the same age. And his ambition is as great as his talent."
On that Sunday night TV’s Game of the Week, with a swelled TV audience, the eighth big league game of his career, Bryce was to face Cole Hamels, an (up-to-then) classy Phillies ace lefty. Harper strode to the plate for his first taste of this epic battle--seasoned ace vs. brash, highly-touted rookie--with a sense of entitlement that may have rattled even the veteran Hamels. His walk-up music loudly played in the background--equally brash and percussive.
There was a sense of excitement and expectation that noisily filled that night air of the four-year old DC stadium; the fans rising in unison to greet the unlimited potential of this spirited rookie. For DC and its fans, that night, in just its seventh year of major league baseball after a drought of more than forty years, it was a just reward for all that patient wait, and road trips to Baltimore to take in the nearest major league play. Could it truly be the start of a new era for this revitalized Federal City?
Cole Hamels was known for his pinpoint control when he wanted it, and the fans sensed that he wanted it for this battle. With his control intact, Bryce was quickly taken down, plunked in the small of his back near the numbers with a message from Hamel, a 93-mile-per-hour fastball. The fans loudly gasped at the moment and quickly recovered—fighting back with a loud chorus of boos at this brazenly-cowardly turn of events.
The TV announcers shared that stunned moment with a sense of shock, and one commented (prophetically perhaps) that Bryce was hit in the wallet. They remarked that Hamels was sending a pitched message to the youngster that this was still a game owned by an earlier generation of established stars and you, brash youngster will need to earn a place to play in their game.
Bryce quickly brushed himself off and strode to first quickly, taking a wide lead, and Bryce was quickly driven to third by a sharp single by ex-Philly Jason Werth (who might have later steered Bryce towards his signing with the Phillies). At third, Bryce studied Hamel’ pitching stance, and quickly stole home on the Phillies ace—a rare treat for the now screaming hometown fans. The rookie gave notice that night that he would earn his place in the game. The Phillies ultimately won the game 9 to 3, but Bryce singled sharply in his next at bat against Hamels, and Hamels later had to serve a five-day suspension for his purposeful deed (some thought that Hamels should have been suspended for a longer time).
“I was trying to hit him,” Hamels told reporters after the game. “I’m not going to deny it. It’s something I grew up watching. That’s what happened. I’m just trying to continue the old baseball.” Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo was clearly hot and not appreciative of Hamels’s so-called tribute to a bygone baseball time. In comments to The Washington Post, Rizzo said he had “never seen a more classless, gutless” act in his 30 years in baseball, and added: “Cole Hamels says he’s old school? He’s the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough.”
It made a mark on me that night, when a veteran of a rival team needed to send a fast ball message to the back of a gifted rookie that could have physically harmed his career. I know that baseball is a kid’s game played by grownups as a business, but remembering the bush league act of a Phillie made Harper’s signing with the Phillies for the highest salary in North American professional sports history, a little bit harder to take in baseball’s latest turn of events.
P.S. What bothers me the most about the Harper deal is its ultimate effects on the fans and the players. All overpriced, long-terms baseball contracts as pointed out by Bill Madden in today's NY Daily News --the Yankees re-signing Alex Rodriguez for 10 years/$275M in 2007, Texas signing an initial deal with A-Rod deal for 10 years/$252M in 2000, the Tigers signing Prince Fielder for nine years/$214M in 2012 and extending Miguel Cabrera for 10 years/$292M in 2014, the Angels signing Albert Pujols for 10-years/$254M in 2011, the Marlins signing Giancarlo Stanton to his 13-year/$325M deal in 2014. Even going back to 1996, the White Sox set a new contract record with a five-year/$55M deal for Albert Belle. All of these contracts ultimately failed and most led to keeping the players in prominent roles past their prime, and kept younger players in the minors or in bench roles. And ultimately, I believe they resulted in more over-priced deals and caused owners to raise ticket prices.
So, when Bryce talks about his middle class family roots, I ironically think about how his contract may result in less families being able to afford the price of baseball tickets, and see him play. But maybe I am just being another unrealistic and idealistic fan of baseball, America's beloved (or used to be at least) pastime, and I am fine with that.