SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The youngest player on the field by 4 ½ years, Bryce Harper also had the dirtiest uniform by two pants legs and a shirttail. It was opening day for the Syracuse Chiefs, a day for the 19-year-old phenom and his new home town to take stock of each other – for Harper to experience baseball in the cold gray of an upstate New York spring, and for the good folks of Syracuse to see, for the first time, what all the fuss is about.
Harper, for one, delivered – going 2 for 4 with a double and a stolen base in his Class AAA debut. Syracuse and the Chiefs, on the other hand, had little to show Harper, other than a half-full stadium, four defensive errors and a 7-4 loss to the visiting Rochester Red Wings.
Batting fifth and playing center field, Harper, the top-rated prospect in baseball, appeared far more comfortable than the “out of whack” roster hopeful who was sent out of the Nationals’ major league spring training camp on March 18, with instructions to learn center field and keep plugging away.
“I think the best thing was me getting sent down to Triple-A and getting into that grind of playing everyday, and working in the cage and getting my routine back,” Harper said. “When I was up [with the Nationals] I tried to work as hard as I could every single day, but I was still trying to . . . do way too much. Getting sent down made me calm down and stay within myself.”
In 2010, when another Nationals phenom, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, made his Syracuse debut, a record crowd of 13,766 turned out at Alliance Bank Stadium to witness it. But on Thursday for Harper’s debut, and opening day for the Chiefs, the official attendance figure was 6,178, and by the end of the game there appeared to be less than a thousand hearty souls left in the stands.
At first pitch, the temperature was 39 degrees, with a wind chill of 30. In center field, Harper, wearing a black ski mask under his white uniform top, blew into his bare throwing hand between pitches. Although the clouds eventually gave way to sun, the cold never left.
This may not be the place Harper would have chosen to spend opening day, but as he may soon discover, there is something about the great Rust Belt towns of the International League — Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Toledo, Allentown, Scranton — that suits this son of a union-card-carrying steelworker, whose favorite mantra for his son is, “Keep it blue-collar.”
On Thursday, from his seat behind home plate, Ron Harper could hear the fans around him talking about his son – something he typically tries not to do. For the most part, the Syracuse fans chatted more about the younger Harper’s hard-nosed style than about his ability.
“That made me smile,” Ron Harper said. “They liked the way he played the game – hard.”
Harper didn’t just run out ground balls – he ran out half-inning changeovers. At the end of the Red Wings’ half-innings, Harper, especially if he was due to bat, dashed from his center field spot to the Chiefs’ dugout, occasionally beating the his own second baseman and first baseman there, despite starting at perhaps a 50-yard disadvantage.
Harper’s two hits – a soft liner over the head of the first baseman for a double, and a line-drive single – both came off Red Wings pitcher P.J. Walters, a 27-year-old finesse right-hander. After the single, Harper took off for second, narrowly avoiding the tag with a head-first slide.
“They pitched him inside. I saw the catcher kept [setting up] way inside, so they could pound him in, and then go soft away,” said Chiefs Manager Tony Beasley. “I was impressed with the way he hung in there and battled.”
The most revealing moment in the game for Harper came in the bottom of the sixth, when Rochester Manager Gene Glynn, with a runner on first, one out and the Red Wings leading by a run, brought in lefty Tyler Robertson to face Harper – a matchup move that was both a sign of respect for the phenom’s talents, and a reflection of “the book” on Harper: that he destroys right-handers but can be neutralized by lefties.
Robertson struck out Harper. For the pitcher, it might be a tale to tell his grandchildren some day. But for the phenom, it was just another at-bat, just another bit of information to process, just another moment passing by on his march to the big leagues.