NEW YORK — When Bryce Harper was a kid — before he was the most hyped power-hitting prospect in a generation, before the Sports Illustrated covers and endorsement deals, before the entire world followed his every move every night in the major leagues— he and his father, Ron, would spend their days on the baseball field at Las Vegas High School.
For hours, Ron Harper would throw his son batting practice with the mountains as their backdrop and the firehouse across the street standing as their gauge for the really, really long home runs. One year, as they watched the Home Run Derby on television, a pint-sized Bryce Harper told his father that if he was ever to participate in one of those things, he’d want him to throw to him.
Monday evening at Citi Field, with 43,448 people packed into the stands, Ron Harper donned a major league uniform and stood about 50 feet from his son on a major league field. By the end of the night, Ron had thrown his son 120 pitches, cutters that turned into sliders that, eventually, were the result of adrenaline masking pure exhaustion.
“It’s a dream come true,” Ron Harper said. “I had a blast. I wouldn’t trade it for (anything) in this world. Though I wish I could’ve done better for him. I would’ve loved to run into his bat a little more.”
Harper finished second in the 2013 Home Run Derby, his three-round total of 24 just not enough to beat the majestic swings of Oakland Athletics slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who clubbed 17 in the first round alone.
But the outcome hardly dulled the moment for the Harpers, who shared a hug after each round. When Bryce’s 30th out had been made, they shared an even longer one.
“I told him I love him,” Ron said. “I said ‘I enjoyed it. Thank you for the opportunity to do this with you, kid, and I love you. Absolutely.’”
“To be able to share this moment with him and have him throw to me in such a great atmosphere and share this with my family, it’s a lot of fun,” Bryce said. “I was so thankful for it. I’ve got to thank my dad so much for everything he’s done for me and the numerous amounts of BP he’s thrown to me. I love him more than anything in this world.”
Ron could not stop raving about the entire experience, from being in the clubhouse with his son to shagging fly balls during batting practice.
“I shagged on a big league field,” he said, his excitement obvious. “With (Andrew McCutchen) and David Wright and (Joey Votto) and laughed with all these guys. Cliff Lee’s sitting right there. It’s pretty amazing.”
He didn’t entirely know what to expect when he signed on to throw to his son last week. He’d rarely ever thrown in the type of oppressive humidity that blanketed New York on Monday. He was constantly wiping the sweat off his hands as Bryce, with a discerning eye, refused to swing unless it was in the zone.
His oldest son, Bryan, a pitcher in the Nationals’ organization for Single-A Hagerstown, flew up from Baltimore after Hagerstown’s 10:30 a.m. game Monday morning. He told him to grab a little rosin, but Ron refused. He even hit Bryce with one pitch, which provided a nice laugh for both parties.
“He’s never hit me during BP,” Bryce said. “He just got me on the back foot. Pretty funny moment. It was funny to laugh.”
“I went in on him,” Ron joked. “I don’t care. He was crowding the plate.”
When Ron entered the home clubhouse at Citi Field on Monday afternoon, he saw a locker with a big league uniform waiting for him, and a jersey with the No. 3 on it — his number when he used to play sports himself. The equipment managers were going to put Bryce’s No. 34 on it, but Bryce asked them to just do the No. 3. His father was floored.
“It made my day,” Ron said. “Add another (moment) to the list. Just keep writing ‘em down.”
Bryce Harper put on quite a show. He clubbed eight home runs in the first round, including a 471-foot bomb into the footbridge in right center field. It was the second-longest homer of the day, behind only Prince Fielder’s 483-foot shot in his first round.
He added eight more in each of the second and third rounds, too.
While Cespedes wowed the crowd with balls into the second and third decks in left field, Harper’s were missiles, leaving the ballpark on line drives. His two favorites, he said, were the 471-foot jack and one in the second round, his 14th overall, that clanked off the right field foul pole.
By the end of it, both were exhausted. A retired ironworker who spent 30 years working in the Las Vegas heat, even Ron admitted he might’ve rather laid down some rebar than thrown another round. And when Bryce’s 30th out finally came, the Nationals outfielder knew his total probably wouldn’t bring home the title.
“I came off the field and said, ‘That’s not enough,’” Bryce said. “I thought maybe 12, but the way (Cespedes) was swinging the bat that first and second round, he wasn’t even trying so it was pretty incredible to watch. He’s so strong. It’s incredible.”
When they left the field, and sat to watch Cespedes cap a simply unbelievable performance, Ron saw his wife, Sherri, in the crowd with their daughter, Brittany, and her son Colton. He and his two sons on the field soaked in the moment.
“(My dad) was so calm and cool about it,” Bryce said. “I wasn’t even thinking about the million people in the stands. All I was thinking was ‘My family’s here, my brother’s on the field, everybody that’s here is family to me.’ It’s so exciting to share this moment with them.”
“It’s about family,” Ron added. “That’s what it’s all about. If you’re strong in your family nothing else really matters, right?”