Most Friday and Saturday nights, I can be found manning the sound system for various bands at a bar/music venue in downtown Windsor. I usually start work at about 9pm and from that point until about 1am, my laptop is set up behind me with a live baseball game playing.
Last night, I arrived to work at the usually time and immediately set up my laptop and tuned in to the Nationals-Dodgers game for the same reason everyone else did. I set my phone to alert me whenever Danny Espinosa was hitting so that I could get back to my laptop in time to watch Bryce Harper, who hit after him, no matter where I was in the bar at the time.
The bar filled up with middle-aged patrons eager to hear the ‘dad-rock’ band that had descended upon the stage and by the time 19-year-old Bryce Harper’s first at bat had arrived, there was a mini-crowd of about five or six around the soundboard in the back corner, staring eagerly at the laptop.
“Is that that Harper kid?” one of them asked, “I hear he’s pretty good.”
The important thing to understand about Windsor is that it’s full of Tigers fans who literally cannot name a single player on any team outside of the one they root for. They’re great fans who love their Tigers, but not many of them are more than casual. I suppose this is true of every fan base, but I digress.
But here were these leather jacket-wearing fifty-somethings asking me about Harper; asking just how good I think he’ll be; asking if all the things they’d heard about him were true.
“Does he really hit 500-foot home runs?”
“I heard he threw 98 MPH when he was 14.”
“I hear he’s kind of an asshole.”
At 19-years-old, Bryce Harper is already a living legend. A superstar. Or super-villain. And I have to say, nothing that happened last night suggests otherwise.
It started innocently enough, Harper stepped in against Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley to a chorus of boos from the LA crowd; something I’m sure he’ll hear a lot of on the road throughout his career. While Vin Scully lyrically regaled the viewer with a story of how Harper once went 12-for-12 with 11 home runs in a double in a little league tournament, Harper tapped a 2-1 pitch back to Billingsley who calmly threw him out for the final out of the inning. A modest start.
In the top-of-the-fifth, Harper once again strode to the plate to face Billingsley and by this time a slightly larger crowd had gathered by my normally ignored little corner.
“Is this kid going to do something tonight?”
“He looks like an asshole.”
“What’s with his hair? He looks like an idiot.”
Harper then sat back and prepared for the 1-0 offering from Billingsley which came in belt-high. He reared back and pulled the ball foul with such ferocity that it bounced near the wall just behind first base and skipped up in to the seats about 15 rows back.
“Whoa,” said the chattiest of the small gathering.
Harper then hit a 2-1 offering from Billingsley softly into left field for the flyout. 0-for-2.
By the top-of-the-seventh, the crowd around the soundboard had thinned a bit, but the chatter was still there.
“When’s this guy going to hit the ball?”
“He looks about 30.”
“What’s up with that hair?”
“He doesn’t look too great so far.”
“He’s a sexy man.”
That last one came from the bartendress.
After working Billingsley to a full count, Harper took a high fastball and violently attacked from the heels. The ball shot off the barrel of the bat and screamed over the head of Matt Kemp in centerfield smacking the base of the wall. Harper rounded first and apparently annoyed by his batting helmet, threw it off and flew into second.
In fitting fashion, Harper’s first Major League hit was no humpback liner or weak grounder that found its way between defenders. Nope, not even the BABIP dragon was going to stop this one. The replay showed the extent of the ferocity in Harper’s swing. He rears back and unleashes his entire body at the ball. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I’ve never seen anyone swing like that and actually make contact. It was surreal.
The boos rained down from the Dodger faithful.
Fast-forward to the bottom-of-the-seventh with the Nationals leading 1-0 on an Adam LaRoche homerun. The Dodgers were threatening for the first time against Stephen Strasburg who, oh yeah, was throwing a gem that would otherwise be the centre of attention. There were runners on first and second and patient catcher A.J. Ellis was at the plate.
Ellis grounded softly into the 5-6 hole on the left side and Harper, who had been playing deep, pounced on the ball quickly and unleashed a throw to home plate.
Had catcher Wilson Ramos been able to hold on to the ball, Jerry Hairston Jr. would have been out easily. By this time the crowd had dissipated. This, however, was far more impressive than his double.
Harper got one last chance at the dish in the top-of-the-ninth with the game tied at one. He struck a flyball, deep enough to left field to score the runner from third, giving the Nationals a 2-1 lead. Ramos followed with an RBI single and the Nats looked to be in good shape.
Then, at the start of the bottom-of-the-ninth, a fan decided he would like to meet Mr. Harper.
Fan on the field,running at Harper, who stood still, before a dozen men in black crunched him.
— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) April 29, 2012
You can’t make this stuff up.
The inning continued and the Dodgers managed to tie the game off of Nationals newly anointed full-time fireballing closer Henry Rodriguez.
A few minutes later, in the bottom-of-the-tenth, Kemp crushed a pitch off of Nats lefty Tom Gorzelanny to deep centerfield to walk it off for the Dodgers.
It was a phenomenal game.
A look at his box score doesn’t tell you a lot; 1-for-3 with double and an RBI. But clearly the legend of Bryce Harper is deserved. There’s no doubt that he’ll struggle and may even see more time in the minor-leagues, but it’s obvious to anyone who watches him that he’s going to be very, very good.
“It’s a great name for a novelist or a character: Bryce Harper.”
The words roll ever so elegantly off of Scully’s tongue as if he’d prepared the statement long before. Harper is a character. And I don’t mean that in the lame “that kid’s a character” way. I mean, he’s already established himself as baseball’s villain. Respectfully revered for his obvious talent and not-so-silently hated for his brashness and bravado. It is going to be a ton of fun to watch this guy play for the next twenty or so years.
The spectacle around Harper’s debut is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Even Strasburg’s highly-anticipated first start two years ago didn’t compare to this. Random casual baseball fans spent most of a night huddled around a laptop in a bar to watch him hit. Twitter exploded with his every move. There are many-a-column by baseball writers all over, just like this one. He’s 19 and already he’s the centre of the baseball universe.
That was one helluva night of baseball.
Hot GIF action via The Scott Lewis