You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.
ON THIS DATE IN 2010, the Nationals selected Bryce Harper with the overall No. 1 pick in the draft. This was essentially a formality ever since Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 15, when he supposedly hit a 500-foot home run. He is the perhaps the most famous No. 1 pick ever given his story, his agent (Scott Boras), his historic contracts, his complicated haircuts and what he’s done in his major league career: Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, six All-Star appearances and 219 home runs at age 27.
The legend began in Las Vegas when Harper was a catcher/pitcher at 8 to 10 years old. He struck out, which he never did at that age, and was so angry, he went to the mound and started throwing as hard as he could. When Harper pitched, Joey Gallo, now with Rangers, was his catcher. Harper bounced a couple of violent fastballs, Gallo turned his back on one, the ball hit him in the ribs. He started crying. The coach took him out. He spent the rest of the game in the stands eating ice cream with Harper’s mother. Gallo never caught again.
“And you know baseball wasn’t Bryce’s best sport growing up,” his dad, Ron, once told me. “He was a linebacker in football. You should have seen him when he arrived at the ball carrier.”
Harper played all sports with that anger. It fueled him, including during junior college at the College of Southern Nevada, which he attended after his sophomore year in high school. Harper broke the school record for homers in a season with 31; the previous record was 12. In Harper’s first spring training, in 2012, with the Nationals, I asked veteran Ryan Zimmerman about Harper.
“I can’t believe how he can already get on top of a good fastball,” he said. “He’s the most confident kid I’ve ever seen. But it would be good if he failed once before he got here because this isn’t a place that you want to fail for the first time.”
Harper rarely failed in his rookie year (2012), hitting 22 homers and becoming the youngest position player to start in an All-Star Game. On May 7 that year, Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who wasn’t pleased with Harper’s histrionics, hit him intentionally with a pitch. “Welcome to the big leagues,” Hamels said after the game. In that inning, Harper stole home against Hamels, with an emphatic slide. There were several of those, as well as collisions with walls. In 2013, Nationals manager Davey Johnson told me he told Harper, “I love you, I don’t want to take away your aggressiveness, but you have to enjoy playing the game more.”
Harper is happier now. He is a father, he’s in the second year of a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies. His days with the Nationals were memorable. I remember his first batting practice after signing a five-year, $9.9 million contract to be the No. 1 pick. It took place at Nationals Park. In his first round of BP, he hit nine ringing drives, most to the opposite field. The last pitch, the 10th one, he hit in the third deck in right field, he looked at those around the batting cage, as if to say, “And I can go up there whenever I want.”
Other baseball notes for June 7
In 1936, the Indians did not strike out once in a 5-4 loss to the Yankees in 16 innings.
In 1998, the Orioles retired Eddie Murray’s uniform No. 33. Orioles manager Earl Weaver told the writers during Murray’s rookie year (1977), “this guy will be a Hall of Famer.” He was right. Murray is one of the greatest switch-hitters ever. He learned to switch hit as a kid in suburban Los Angeles by playing in the backyard with his brothers. They often would try to hit the flying top of a can of Crisco. In Double-A ball, Murray’s manager told him he should try switch-hitting. That night, batting left-handed for the first time in his pro career, he got two hits.
In 1966, Reggie Jackson was selected second overall in the draft, behind catcher Steve Chilcott, who never played in the big leagues. Jackson is a Hall of Famer. He is now a special assistant for the Yankees. In 2017, he was denied entrance to the Yankees clubhouse before a Yankees-Indians playoff game in Cleveland because he didn’t have his credential. The young security guard asked him for his name, then asked how to spell it. Jackson, indignant, said, “How do I spell it? M-R-O-C-T-O-B-E-R.”’