As Harper's profile soars, his accessibility shrinks


If you’ve been watching UNLV play home basketball games on TV, you’ve probably noticed that whereas the cameras used to show Greg Maddux watching the Rebels hoop it, now they mostly show young Bryce Harper. You’ve probably noticed, too, how the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year also appears to have scored primo seats.

These are seats in the Cliff Findlay section. This probably explains why Friday was Bryce Harper Day at Findlay Toyota in Henderson.

It was the first time the Washington Nationals’ wunderkind had made a public appearance in his hometown since hitting .270 with 22 dingers and stealing home when Cole Hamels of the Phillies wasn’t looking last summer — the first time since signing a pro contract, really.

The Findlay people, who are much easier to deal with than Harper’s management people, sort of promised we’d be able to chat with the 20-year-old flash if we showed up early, and that’s just what happened. But a proxy gathered us ’round for the ground rules: No controversial questions. Keep it to RBIs, not PEDs, she said.

Ask young Bryce anything about the size of Ryan Braun’s biceps, why Braun’s eyes always look crazed, like Charles Manson’s, or a long-haul truck driver haulin’ hogs in bad weather, and that would be it. End of interview. You would be sent to the showers, like Gaylord Perry with a lozenge of slippery elm.

The proxy didn’t say anything about asking a clown question, bro.

Still, I didn’t want to risk it by asking about Bozo or Bubbles or Clarabell or Eric the Clown, who put out a fire with his big shoe on “Seinfeld.” Or even Max Patkin, the original baseball clown. Before John Rocker.

I didn’t want to mess it up for the TV guys and for Clay Baker of ESPN Radio, who had arrived before I did. So I just lobbed a batting practice fastball up there. I asked young Bryce what it was like to return home a hero after hitting those homers and stealing home when Hamels wasn’t looking.

He said it was pretty cool to “represent the 702.” He said the first thing he did upon returning to the 702 was “lay in my bed” after a season he called “mentally draining.” The second thing he did was go get an In-N-Out burger; they don’t have those in the 202.

He thanked his baseball coaches before Davey Johnson — Sam Thomas at Las Vegas High and Tim Chambers at College of Southern Nevada.

He said he will leave for spring training Tuesday or Wednesday.

He said the Nats’ Jayson Werth took him under his wing, out to dinner, was the one who suggested he could steal home when Hamels wasn’t looking.

He said he doesn’t have goals for 2013, other than to keep hustling, keep running out ground balls, whether he’s “hurt, sick or on his deathbed.”

Which is why even old guys like me admire him.

Finally, he said it was “very, very cool” to be working with the Miracle League — after much of the autographed swag was distributed to a showroom crowd of around 300 potential Toyota owners, he presented one of those big checks for $2,500 to the local baseball program for cognitive and physically challenged kids.

To me, this was the best thing about Bryce Harper Day. To Norbert and Maria Kubiak, it might have been the autographed swag.

Maria got to go on stage and have Harper present her with a two-toned autographed baseball bat. Norbert got to take it home.

He told me he was a collector and had an Orlando Cepeda bat at home, which I thought was pretty cool, because you usually don’t hear collectors mention Orlando Cepeda.

Another collector complained the autographed Bryce Harper baseball he received was stamped.

Blame it on his people, I said.

Before he was a pro — before the neatly groomed beard, the natty blue duds — young Bryce always was accessible, always was friendly, always was smiling. He even would show you Bible passages he had inscribed on the inside of his baseball cap.

If you came out to watch him play, his father, Ron, would take you into the Las Vegas High equipment room and try to give you stuff. Like a cap or something.

At the end of the Harper press chat, which lasted 7 minutes, 33 seconds, Channel 8’s Chris Maathuis asked young Bryce if he would cut one of those little promos, in which Harper would tell people that when he’s home, he always watches Channel 8 for ball scores and whatnot. It would take all of five seconds. After turning toward his people, Harper said he couldn’t do it.

Anyway, it was good to see young Bryce give a little something back to the people at home who root, root, root for him.

But first, Rick Glenn, the friendly Findlay Toyota marketing director, told the crowd there were a lot of Priuses and Tacomas and Land Cruisers, starting around $78,555 with an estimated 13/18 mpg, that were practically begging to be test driven.

Plus, they could make you a heck of deal on a pre-owned 4Runner.

“We do this not just to honor Bryce Harper,” Glenn said, “but because we also need to sell some cars.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

 

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