Bryce Harper’s brother strives to make his own name in pro baseball
By James Wagner,
The moment when Bryan Harper went from being known as “Bryan Harper” to “Bryce Harper’s brother” occurred about three years ago. He was playing in an Alaska summer baseball league when a teammate caught a YouTube video of Bryce hitting a 502-foot home run at a high school showcase event in St. Petersburg, Fla., earlier in the year and turned to the Harper in the room.
“Is that your brother on there?” the teammate asked Bryan.
Bryan, one of Bryce’s closest confidantes, always handles questions about his brother the same way: as an older sibling overjoyed with his younger one’s achievements. As 22-year-old Bryan carves his own path through the Washington Nationals organization as a pitcher on its short-season Class A affiliate, his identity as Bryce Harper’s brother persists. The questions aren’t often about him.
“I’ve grown to embrace it,” said Bryan, sitting in the Auburn Doubledays dugout last month before a game against the Aberdeen IronBirds.
“I’m proud as hell. I’m never going to be bitter that I’m Bryce’s brother. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll ever be bitter about that. I’ll never be jealous of that. Honestly, it’s a great title for me because the fact that my brother is so successful and I’m Bryce’s brother, that’s a great thing.”
The spotlight has shone brightly on Bryce Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft, for much of his teenage life and more so now that he has become one of the sport’s most recognizable figures. But through it all, Bryan is trying to create a name for himself.
“It’s unfair actually to Bryan,” Auburn Manager Gary Cathcart said. “It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way it is. It’s unfair to him. He’s trying to carve out his own niche here. He’s just getting started.”
“He’s taken that tremendously,” Bryce, 19, said about his brother. “That would be the hardest thing for me, seeing everybody talking about my little brother.”
Before the Nationals selected Bryce, they picked Bryan in the 31st round of the 2008 draft, his senior year. But he attended Cal State Northridge instead because he wanted to experience college and earn a degree.
Early in his freshman season, Bryan realized it wasn’t the best fit for him and transferred to the College of Southern Nevada for the 2010 season. It was closer to home, and the junior college’s coach, Tim Chambers, was a longtime friend of the Harper family. There, Bryan was later reunited with his brother, whom he played with for one season at Las Vegas High when Bryce was a freshman and Bryan was a senior.
The two grew up playing baseball at the same time, starting in T-ball when Bryan was 6 and Bryce was 3. Their father, Ron, would throw batting practice to both. And because Bryce usually competed against older players, they had the same group of friends — which, at times, bugged Bryan. He would tease and elbow Bryce, like any older brother would.
“No one really picked on him because he was just as big as all of us,” Bryan said. But “you don’t want your little brother hanging around all the time.”
Bryce, then primarily a catcher, caught his brother in junior college. Bryce was the power-hitting prodigy with a .443 batting average and school-record 31 home runs. Bryan was the left-handed starting pitcher with an 11-1 record, 2.62 ERA and a fastball that sat in the low 90-mph range.
After one season together at Southern Nevada, Bryce was selected with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft and Bryan chose to play at the University of South Carolina, spurning another offer, this time from the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him in the 27th round. He went from a starting pitcher to a setup man, tossing only 181 / 3 innings with his velocity dropping to the mid-80s. Bryce came to visit and watch his brother pitch. That season, South Carolina claimed its second straight College World Series title.
“I’m so happy for him to be able to get that national title,” Bryce said. “I can’t say that I have a national title or an SEC championship. I can’t say that I’m even close to a degree, and he is.”
The Nationals drafted Bryan again in 2011, this time in the 30th round, and he signed even though he had a year of eligibility remaining. He felt ready for professional baseball and wanted to be in the same organization as his brother.
The Nationals would have been interested in him even if his name was John Doe, said director of player development Doug Harris. “He’s 6-foot-5 and left-handed; that in itself is a nice combination,” he said. “And coupled with the arm strength our scouts had seen in the past, it was a chance for us to try and catch lightning in a bottle.”
Bryan is adjusting to life in professional baseball. He is working to build his arm strength, stick with a consistent arm slot and slider, and, possibly, find higher velocity again.
In constant communication
The brothers’ baseball schedules keep them busy and apart. They are, however, in constant communication through text messages. They text each other about baseball, life and anything. There are some “I love you” texts sprinkled in as well. Bryan tells his brother about the minor leagues and Bryce shares what he has learned from his major league teammates, giving him tips and advice.
“Some people think that it’s me taking care of him always,” Bryan said. “But he’s also looking out for me a lot.”
When Bryce went 0 for 7 and struck out five times in a game against the New York Yankees on June 16, the worst performance of his short MLB career, Bryan shot him a one-line text: “It happens to the best of them.” Bryce responded: “Yeah, I know. It’s fine.”
“He’s there for me all the time,” Bryce said later.
When he was younger, Bryan was closer to their older sister, Brittany, 24. But since high school and especially since he started in the minor leagues, Bryan has watched his brother mature — and as a result, they’ve grown close, too. Bryan sees Bryce still as a confident teenager but a calmer one. Their interests became more similar and they now share a common experience. And being apart for longer stretches of the year, they cherish each other’s company when they are together at home in Las Vegas, where they put away their gloves and bats and just hang out and shoot the breeze.
“Nowadays, he’s really my best friend,” Bryan said.
When Bryan works out his mechanics and develops more as a pitcher, he hopes to be known more for his own achievements. Bryce’s quick ascent through the minors drives Bryan to push himself to do the same. And though he has a long way to go — his ERA is 13.11 in 112 / 3 innings — he dreams of one day playing alongside his brother again.
“I want people to know my name and one day hopefully they will,” Bryan said. “And they’ll know us as the Harper brothers and not Bryce and Bryce’s brother.”