The first thing you need to know about Ron Harper – father of Bryce, the Nationals’ 18-year-old prodigy – is that he’s no Marv Marinovich. Remember Marv? He was the Dr. Frankenstein who created Todd Marinovich, the “Robo Quarterback” who was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 1991 but had all kinds of problems on and off the field.
A celebrated story in Sports Illustrated detailing Marv’s obsessiveness contained this horrifying passage:
[Todd] has never eaten a Big Mac or an Oreo or a Ding Dong. When he went to birthday parties as a kid, he would take his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour. He would eat homemade catsup, prepared with honey. He did consume beef but not the kind injected with hormones. He ate only unprocessed dairy products. He teethed on frozen kidney.
When Todd was one month old, Marv was already working on his son’s physical conditioning. He stretched his hamstrings. Pushups were next. Marv invented a game in which Todd would try to lift a medicine ball onto a kitchen counter. Marv also put him on a balance beam. Both activities grew easier when Todd learned to walk. There was a football in Todd’s crib from day one. “Not a real NFL ball,” says Marv. “That would be sick; it was a stuffed ball.”
I was chatting with Ron before Bryce’s debut against the Mets on Monday and mentioned Marv’s unusual parenting style. He smiled his Sunburned Las Vegas Iron Worker’s smile and said, “Not me. Bryce and I ate our fair share of hamburgers and milkshakes, don’t you worry about that.”
It’s easy to see where Bryce’s groundedness comes from, why he’s been able to handle, most of his baseball life, being the youngest guy in the locker room. His father is an old-school sort who doesn’t believe in over-orchestrating his children’s lives – and certainly isn’t one to coddle.
“I was hard on ’em,” he said. “I just want ’em to work hard and give back to the community, give back to this country that gives you so much. I’m an American through and through.”
Bryce, he wanted to make clear, isn’t this one-dimensional, all-baseball-all-the-time android. Fans sometimes have that perception of him because, well, how else could he have gotten so good so quickly? (And besides, lots of these athletic early bloomers are one-dimensional androids.) But Ron encouraged his son to play other sports – lots of sports.
“He played soccer until he was 12 or 13, basketball through the eighth grade, football until he was 15. Most people don’t know that. Heck, I wish he could have run track. He’s an athlete. We’d go snowboarding, boogie boarding. He loves everything. When baseball became more of a priority for him, it wasn’t me dragging him to the hitting cages, it was him dragging me.”
When Bryce launched one well beyond 400 feet in batting practice, Ron said, “He’s got some lightning [in his bat], no question.” But then he added: “I’ve got no expectations for him [in this training camp]. I’m just happy he’s playing baseball and doing what he loves. I hope he can contribute to the team – whatever team he’s on – and I hope he learns as much as he can from the veterans, because it can only help him.
“I told him, `You’ve worked hard for this, so enjoy every moment. Don’t ever feel like you’ve been given anything. You’ve earned this. Just treat the game right, and it’ll treat you right in return.’”
Never mind Bryce getting to the big leagues; I can hardly wait for his father to get to the big leagues.