The Home Run Derby gets scratched off Bryce Harper’s ‘bucket list’

Toni L. Sandys/TWP

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

The last time Bryce Harper participated in a home run derby, his life changed. He was 15 years-old. The baseball cognoscenti knew about him. His name meant little to those outside the world of high-level youth travel baseball and scouting circles.

In a competition against kids two and three years older than him, Harper hit a 502-foot home run off the back wall of Tropicana Field. The video went viral. The next year, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Five years later, Harper is a two-time all-star. Monday, he will participate not in a home run derby, but the Home Run Derby. He accepted National League captain David Wright’s invitation this week without hesitation.

Harper recalled watching the Big League Challenge, a short-lived, made-for-TV homer-hitting competition that filmed in his hometown of Las Vegas. He always wanted to compete.

“This is one of the things that was on the bucket list for playing ball,” Harper said. “I’m excited to win the thing.”

He will compete alongside the best sluggers in the world, Yoenis Cespedes, Prince Fielder, Chris Davis, Robinson Cano, etc. He still wants to win, perhaps in part because he actually lost back in Tampa Bay. Harper still remembers: He finished fifth out of 60 teenage hitters. The winner was Christian Walker, now a 22-year-old Orioles farmhand who was picked in the fourth round last year.

During a typical batting practice session, Harper sprays the ball to all fields, focusing in early rounds on smacking line drives the other way. Manager Davey Johnson said he was not worried about the derby affecting Harper’s stroke. “”Bryce is swinging as hard as he can every time, anyway,” Johnson said.

Harper plans to not stray far from his typical approach.

“Maybe a little bit,” Harper said. “If I get in a groove to right-center or center or left-center, as long as the ball goes over the fence, it don’t matter. Of course, a lot of my power is to right center and left-center. It’ll be hard to change my swing and go straight pull. We’ll see how I feel, see how it goes, and go from there.”

One question that remains: Who will pitch to Harper? Before Harper’s first major league camp, as an 18-year-old, he said he hoped to one day hit in the Derby with his father, a retired ironworker named Ron, throwing to him. Growing up, Ron Harper coached his son and threw him “millions” of pitches, Harper once said.

Cano’s father pitched to him in the Home Run Derby the past two years, and a few Nationals have speculated Harper’s father will throw to him in the Derby. If it happens, Harper will keep it a surprise.

“We’ll see Monday when that comes around,” Harper said. “It would be pretty cool. We’ll see what happens.”

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