Bryce Harper debut magical for father, fans

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
7:00
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Bryce HarperHarry How/Getty ImagesBryce Harper faces the media horde assembled to document his major league debut in Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES -- Dan Tison drove 200 miles to see into the future.

He made sure he was there as the world got its first peek at Washington Nationals wunderkind prospect Bryce Harper as a major leaguer on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

Tison hails from Fairfax Station, Va., but lives in Hanford, Calif., roughly 40 minutes south of Fresno and 200 miles from Chavez Ravine, and he wasn’t about to miss watching his hometown team and the debut of Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect.

Tison took in the scene -- the lively pregame media session with Harper flanked by a swarm of reporters; the raucous boos that rained down on Harper in the second inning during his first at-bat, a meek groundout to the pitcher; the deep shot Harper delivered over Matt Kemp’s head for a seventh-inning double to center, his first hit; and Harper’s gorgeous throw from left field to the plate later that inning, a laser that would’ve nailed Jerry Hairston had catcher Wilson Ramos been able to hold on to the ball; Harper’s first RBI, a sacrifice fly in the ninth, which scored the go-ahead run; and, ultimately, the bitter ending to the sweet debut, a walk-off homer by Kemp in the bottom of the 10th.

Was it worth the drive?

No doubt.

“This is a big deal for the Nationals,” Tison said. “[Harper has] been talked about for so long as being the next big savior, and there was no reason not to come see it.”

The ballyhooed debut was unexpected, and it even caught Nationals fans by surprise.

Antonio Perez, who lives and works in Los Angeles but grew up in Washington, D.C., and plans to return home for law school soon, had tickets for the game even before Harper’s promotion, which was expected later this season.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesThe eyes of nearly 55,000 fans
are on Harper as day turns to
evening at Dodger Stadium.
Even after Harper rapidly ascended the high school and travel ranks -- he famously decided to skip his final two years at Las Vegas High in order to enroll at the College of Southern Nevada for one season before entering the MLB draft a year early -- the Nationals talked about bringing Harper along slowly, making sure he hit each level of the minor leagues along the way.

But an injury to Ryan Zimmerman prompted Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to make the call, and the 19-year-old Harper became the youngest major leaguer since Felix Hernandez in 2005.

“I was going to come to the game anyway because I'm a Nationals fan and I live in L.A., but after I realized it would be Harper's first game, that was just an added plus for me,” Perez said. “I'm super excited about Bryce Harper to see him play. I hope he lives up to the hype and he becomes the player everybody thinks he can become. I think he can help our franchise for years to come."

He certainly looked the part on Saturday.

Harper handled the boos from Dodgers fans with aplomb, remaining patient at the plate and carrying himself confidently. Already accustomed to attention and fame -- he has received extensive press, both positive and negative, since he was barely a teenager -- Harper deftly handled the media horde.

Before the game, he talked about getting the call, about staying in the moment, about trying to approach the game like any other.

“I've just been trying to take it all in, take it one step at a time and really enjoy myself every day,” Harper said. “It was a long trip out here, coming from Syracuse -- seven-and-a-half-hour flight. The emotions are going, they're running through.”

Not just for Harper.

Harper’s parents have been there every step of the way, including Harper’s final steps off the field and into the seats of Dodger Stadium, long after the game was over and after the crowd had dispersed. It was there that Ron and Shari Harper waited along with other family members and friends, including his older sister, Brittany -- older brother Bryan, also a Nationals prospect, is in Florida at extended spring training -- to await the man of the hour. They embraced, father Ron first, swallowing him whole, then Brittany, then mom Sheri.

“There’s so much more for him to do -- this is just the start -- but I remember when he was a kid playing every sport imaginable, and never did I dream it would be like this,” said Ron Harper, who estimates that he has seen about 90 percent of his son’s lifetime at-bats. “Every kid dreams of being a major leaguer -- first Bryce dreamed of being a fireman -- so for this to come true is just a thrill.”

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Jake Roth/US PresswireHarper is locked in during his first MLB at-bat.
Ron Harper said the enormity of the event finally hit him early Monday morning, after the family returned to Las Vegas. A reserved ironworker with a firm handshake, Ron admittedly “doesn’t get giddy very often.”

“It really didn’t hit me until today: Whoa, my kid is in the big leagues,” Harper said Monday. “I’m just in awe. I actually got a little choked up this morning at home. I was up at 5 a.m., couldn’t sleep. Just thinking about it. … I don’t know if words can describe this feeling. Especially with it being at Dodger Stadium. I mean, Don Drysdale’s daughter is singing the national anthem? Maury Wills is here. Tommy Lasorda is here. Steve Garvey, Ron Cey. Don Mattingly. Vin Scully calling the game. You’re just in awe of all these guys, and my son, at 19 years old, is getting his first start in Dodger Stadium.”

The Harpers will only stay home for less than 24 hours before flying to Washington, D.C., for Bryce’s home debut before a friendlier crowd.

For a player considered a once-in-a-generation talent, the Dodgers faithful paid him few pleasantries. He’s going to have to earn it.

“He'll get there, but it depends on how he plays,” Perez said. “Talent speaks for itself. If he is the type of talent that people think he is, and he comes up here and has instant success -- puts up A-Rod numbers, Ken Griffey-type numbers -- I don't think it matters much what he does off the field. People are going to embrace him and come out to see him. He's going to be a superstar, and that's what people pay for.”

Lost in Harper’s bazaar was the Dodger Stadium debut of Stephen Strasburg, the 2009 top pick out of San Diego State who missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2010 during his rookie season. Strasburg commanded more hype for his debut on June 8, 2010, against the Pirates, but it followed a lengthy buildup. "I would say we were more jazzed up for Strasburg being that big, dominant ace pitcher, but Bryce has sort of been waiting in the wings," Tison said. But Strasburg got little of the attention on Saturday.

No, that belonged to Harper, the phenom, The Kid, and he delivered.

It was well worth a couple tanks of gas.

“He's been really built up since we drafted the guy,” Tison said. “It's amazing; he's been groomed since birth to be this amazing baseball player. Graduating high school early, playing in a college league with wooden bats so he'd be even better for the pros. Is he going to be as good as he's made out to be? I dunno, probably not. But you saw him tonight. Extra base hit, RBI on his first night? Will he keep it up, who knows?

"But it's certainly exciting to see it begin."

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