CHICAGO — As Bryce Harper astutely pointed out before Monday’s game against the Cubs, he is not a pitcher. He will not face Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant in any isolated matchup during this week’s series at Wrigley Field, nor presumably in any other. One Las Vegas prodigy will not beat the other in the next three games — one player’s team will outscore the other. There will be no one-on-one heavyweight bout.
But because Bryant can remember the days when Harper was a pitcher, because 23-year-old Bryant and 22-year-old Harper have known each other since coaches pitched to them, the fact that they are on the same major league field inspires undeniable excitement.
“Obviously it’s cool. We grew up playing against and with each other, and now it’s a bigger stage,” Bryant said. “That’s obviously pretty cool to live out our dreams. It’s something we always wanted to do, so it’ll be fun today.”
Bryant, who played on the same Las Vegas Ballbusters as Harper did, said he first played with the Nationals right fielder when he was nine and Harper was seven. Harper always played with the older players because, as Bryant remembers it, “he was so good.”
“Just what I remember of him was he was just so much bigger and so much stronger than everybody. Better,” Bryant said. “He always threw hard, hit the ball farther. And I was like ‘wow, this kid’s gonna go somewhere.’ Obviously, he’s here doing what he’s doing. I expected nothing else.”
Harper pitched — “threw really hard” — but Bryant said he thought Harper was too good a hitter to make his living on the mound.
“I honestly thought he was a good enough catcher,” Bryant said. “The arm that he had, he threw out a lot of runners. That’s what I thought he was gonna be. But definitely did not think he was gonna be a pitcher. Too much talent hitting-wise, and he has all the tools.”
Bryant opted to play at the University of San Diego before beginning his professional career. He was drafted with the second pick of the 2013 draft, and played in the minor leagues until this April. The Cubs opted not to place him on their opening-day roster, instead calling him up amidst commotion and controversy that festered when they left him in Class AAA to begin the season despite a dominant spring, in order to limit his major league service time enough to maintain one more year of team control. In 35 games since his call up, he is hitting .273 with 35 hits, five home runs.
As the Cubs held Bryant back earlier this season, Harper — who played three full seasons before Bryant debuted — tweeted. “If (Bryant) doesn’t make the big league team out of camp, then that’s a joke!” he wrote, supporting the player he and his teammates used to call “Silk” because of how smoothly he maneuvered around the infield and the batter’s box.
“I mean, I think he’s a great player. I think he needed to be in the big leagues,” Harper said. “But I understand the business side of it, what goes on on that side. If I was the Cubs I would’ve did the same thing. I’d want him for another year, too.”
Harper called Bryant a “great talent,” and remembers him pitching, too.
“I’m excited for him,” Harper said. “I always cheer for guys that are from my area.”
Other than geography and prodigious power, Bryant and Harper are about as different as two stars can be. Harper is emotional, unfiltered and aggressive. Bryant is mild-mannered and less polarizing, though few players match Harper’s ability to inspire loud opinions.
“I think we have very different personalities, and I think that’s good for the game,” Bryant said. “It’s good to have guys who wear their heart on their sleeves and he’s one of those guys and it’s awesome to see that. He plays so hard for his team, and I think that’s respectful. He’s very confident and I think that’s cool to see. I think everybody can learn from that, because to play this game, you have to be confident. You have to believe you’re the best in the field. I do that in a different way, and he does that, and it’s pretty cool to see that.”