The first phenom I fell in love with was Dwight Gooden, back in the summer of ’84. We didn’t have cable yet and I lived 3,000 miles away from New York, so the only time I actually saw him pitch would have been on the local TV sports report, or if the Mets appeared on the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon.
So for me Gooden was mostly a name in the box score in the newspaper the following morning, but what numbers I would find in that box score! An 11-strikeout shutout of the Dodgers on May 11, or 14 strikeouts two starts later, also against the Dodgers, followed by four games in a row where he allowed one run. He was only warming up: From mid-August through the end of the season, across his final nine starts he went 8-1 with a 1.07 ERA and 105 strikeouts, including back-to-back 16-strikeout games.
With Gooden leading the way, the Mets were contenders for the first time in my baseball lifetime, battling the Cubs for the NL East title. They fell short in the end, but I was a Gooden fan. The next season he went 24-4, I even bought a Mets shirt and cap, and my mom brought home a poster that read “Dr. K Says No To Drugs” from the school library where she worked.
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Rome, Ga., is located 60 miles northwest of Atlanta. It’s the home of the Rome Braves of the Low-A South Atlantic League, and they were hosting the Hagerstown Suns and Bryce Harper in their home opener on Thursday. Technically, it wasn’t Harper’s professional debut; he received a few at-bats in the Arizona Fall League and went 7-for-18 with three doubles in spring training.
This seems like the dawning of Harper’s career to me, because it’s his first real professional game that mattered in some sense, a game where the stats would eventually go on the back of a baseball card. For some reason it seems ESPN had sent all of its crew to Augusta, Ga., rather than Rome, so I tried to follow along on the Hagerstown radio broadcast.
Harper wore No. 34 in spring training with the Nationals and he’ll wear that number with the Suns. He was batting third and playing right field, a bit surprising since the Nationals have talked about him having the speed to play center.
In his first at-bat, he came to the plate against Rome left-hander Carlos Perez, whom Keith Law rated the No. 7 prospect in the Braves organization. With a runner on second and a full count, Harper lined an RBI single to shallow center field and then stole second base.
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The first time I saw Ken Griffey Jr. play was on Sunday, May 14, 1989. My friend James and I had driven all night from college in Montana after the semester ended. We somehow saw the Lakers play the Sonics in a playoff game and then the Mariners host the Red Sox the same afternoon. The NBA game must have started at noon or 1 p.m. for TV purposes (the Lakers won), and the Mariners game started just after 3 o’clock. I remember getting there a few innings late.
Griffey hit sixth and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
Two nights later, we went to the Kingdome again. Griffey wasn’t in the starting lineup; even phenoms go into slumps and need a day off sometimes. But in the bottom of the eighth, with the score tied 4-4, Griffey pinch hit for Mickey Brantley against Milwaukee’s Bill Wegman -- and hit a home run over the right-field wall.
He was 19 years old, just a few months younger than me. I was hooked. An entire city was hooked. The kid with the golden grin and the backward hat would save baseball in Seattle.
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In his second at-bat, Harper reached on a bunt single down the third-base line, as Perez apparently missed picking up the ball. It seems a strange bunt, considering there was one out and a runner on first. Regardless, he was officially 2-for-2.
When Griffey joined the Mariners, they had never had a winning season. Phenoms had come and gone, guys like Darnell Coles and Danny Tartabull and Ivan Calderon. When Harper joins the Nationals, he will be joining a franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 1981. Griffey grew up in a major league clubhouse; Harper grew up with baseball in his blood. Both were born to hit.
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The Mariners called up Alex Rodriguez in 1994 when he was just 18 years old. He wasn’t ready for the major leagues and it would prove a costly mistake for the Mariners. I don’t really remember that first game in Boston, but I remember watching it because John Valentin turned an unassisted triple play for the Red Sox.
Alex was 20 years old at the beginning of the 1996 season. He had played some in 1995, and we knew he was talented, but we didn’t really know what to expect as he became the full-time shortstop. As it turned out, I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun watching a player than watching Rodriguez that year. He hit .358 to win the batting title, smoked line drives all over the place (54 doubles, 36 home runs), scored 141 runs, and got robbed of the MVP award. Yes, great things had been predicted for him, but that great? What a season, teaching me that sometimes you can never expect too much.
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In his third at-bat, I heard the announcer say “Two minutes of fury,” which is apparently how Harper describes his at-bats. I kind of like that, although I hope he learns baseball is a long, slow grind.
Harper swung and missed, grabbed some dirt, took a fastball high and away, fouled a pitch back off the screen and then swung and missed for a strikeout. His first taste of disappointment.
In his fourth at-bat, Harper hit a ground ball to second base. He finished 2-for-4, his team won the game, he probably ate a postgame peanut butter sandwich and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for his second game.
He’s hitting .500. The majors, for now, probably seem a long ways away.
I’ll be waiting.
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