- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Bryce Harper is not participating in the Home Run Derby — and I’m fine with that.

“Yeah, I’m not doing the Derby,” he told reporters before Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park. “It’s a great event, and you know, a lot of people have been looking forward to me hopefully being in it, and, you know, I appreciate the MLB asking me … but, you know, definitely going to pass on it this year and just try to enjoy it and see if some of those guys can hit it out of the ballpark that night.”

Normally, this would set me off — a 22-year-old kid has a chance to participate in a unique and sometimes memorable exhibition, and represent not just the Washington Nationals, but the city and its fans. Instead, he says, “Naw, I’ll pass” — especially being the leading vote-getter in National League balloting.

But the reason Harper, second in the NL with 25 home runs going into Tuesday night’s game, has for declining the invitation is a personal one that should hit home for all fathers and sons.

His father, Ron Harper, is coming off rotator cuff surgery, and isn’t able to be the pitcher that night for a moment that the two of them probably talked and dreamed of many times.

“Me not having my dad throw with me — it’s a huge issue for me,” Harper said. “I think being comfortable on a stage like that with somebody that I know can throw strikes for me, knows where my sweet spot is at, you know, that’s huge for me. So, hopefully in a couple years, he’ll be OK, and you know, we’ll see where I go.”

The comfort is more of an emotional one, because this is a Field of Dreams moment — “Dad, want to have a catch?”

Remember the feel-good moment of Robinson Cano batting against his father, Jose, in the Derby? Like that, the connection between Bryce and Ron Harper is a special one.

Brian Domenico has seen the connection first-hand, in a Home Run Derby for high school players where, at the age of 16, Harper put on a show that has become the stuff of legends.

Domenico operates the annual International High School Power Showcase Home Run Derby, and in 2009 in St. Petersburg, the contest featured a particularly impressive group of young players. Harper was one of them.

“Everybody from scouting directors and others in the industry who had seen him at various events were all talking about him, saying nobody had ever seen anyone hit a ball that ferociously for a long time,” Domenico said. “You had your skeptics thinking overrated. He had this very competitive attitude, and there was this allure and legend about him.”

The event featured swings with both wooden and metal bats — 10 outs with wooden bats and 25 with metal. When Harper’s turn came at Tropicana Field, he put on a display of hitting that was “absolutely incredible,” Domenico said.

Harper didn’t show much with the wooden bats. “Then he had eight or nine home runs with the metal bats,” Domenico said. “He stepped out of the box, looked at his father and gave him a little nod, and within 60 seconds he hit six home runs, all of them traveling more than 469 feet.

“One of them [was] a 502-foot home run that was a line drive off the top of the dome that left the bat at 124.4 mph,” Domenico said. “The hit tracker was tracking this. It was all legit.”

A writer from HardballTimes.com was there, and reported the barrage:

⦁ 460 feet to the top edge of the Jumbotron in right field; 119 mph off the bat.
⦁ 484 feet to the back wall of the stadium, 15 feet above the Jumbotron; 122 mph.
⦁ 485 feet to the back wall, just below the orange Bright House “target” sign; 123 mph.
⦁ 405 feet on a blistering line drive around the RF pole; 118 mph.
⦁ 502 feet to the back wall, in the vicinity of the first “A” in the Tropicana Field sign, 20 feet above the top of the Jumbotron; 124.5 mph.
⦁ 477 feet to right-center field, halfway up and a few feet to the left of the Jumbotron; 119 mph.

“It was as if he said, enough is enough, and seized the moment,” Domenico said. “It was one of the most incredible displays I had ever seen. There was a scout from the Yankees who was watching the event on line. He called me and asked, ‘Did that just really happen?’”

So we know the Yankees have been watching the Bryce Harper channel since 2009.

Two years later, when he was playing in the Nationals farm system, Harper returned to the Showcase — moved to Chase Field in Phoenix — as a guest speaker. Domenico watched as Ron Harper threw batting practice to his son for about an hour, with about 150 Little Leaguers shagging balls. They all pocketed one for themselves, and Harper signed all of them, Domenico said.

“It was a magical moment, watching Ron out there throwing batting practice for about an hour to Bryce,” Domenico said. “You could see they had a special connection — a certain look, a hand gesture or a word, and Bryce would lock back in, and it was go time. It was incredible.”

So, be patient. Ron Harper will recover from his rotator cuff surgery. Bryce Harper will likely get another invitation to a Home Run Derby.
And it will probably be worth the wait.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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