NEW YORK — It was always him and his dad. That’s how Bryce Harper remembers it. He would wait for Ron Harper to come home from his shift as an ironworker, a 5-year-old bundle of energy pleading for a pitcher. Out they would head, either into the family garage or to one of the dusty Las Vegas diamonds near their home.
“I’d just swing and try to hit the ball as hard as I could,” the son recalled.
One day when Bryce was 10, another of the batting sessions he never tired of had just ended. He turned to his father and told him if he ever made the Home Run Derby, he wanted him to pitch to him.
On Monday night, they stood about 50 feet apart in the middle of a packed major league stadium. Behind a screen in front of Citi Field’s mound was Ron, wearing an orange No. 3 National League jersey. At the plate was Bryce, who had grown up and become a 20-year-old Washington Nationals superstar. Bryce had made it to the Home Run Derby, and his dad had come to pitch to him.
“Dream come true,” Ron Harper said.
After Bryce popped up his last pitch of the first round, he met his dad in the field and hugged him. The final result seemed not to matter so much anymore, but both Harper men had come to win — “that’s my big thing,” Ron had said. They almost did.
Harper advanced to the final round of the Home Run Derby and applied pressure on Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland Athletics. Cespedes responded, launching his ninth home run after only five of his 10 outs had expired. He flipped his bat before his homer had landed on the other side of a Chevy pickup beyond the center field fence.
Harper may not have won, but he outlasted Prince Fielder, Robinson Cano, Chris Davis and three other top sluggers. Like Cano, he got to hit pitches thrown by his dad.
For most hitters, ideal batting-practice pitches are straight fastballs. Ron, though, knew his son well enough to stray from that norm. He threw his son cutters, pitches that curled slightly toward the left-handed batter’s box, right into Harper’s swing. Harper lashed them to right field, screaming into the upper deck.
“He’s a pretty incredible BP thrower,” Harper said earlier in the day.
Harper blasted eight home runs in his first round, including a 471-foot smash onto the faux bridge beyond the right field fence, the second-longest homer of the night. He crushed the first pitch he swung at deep to right. He watched several low pitches float past as Ron found a rhythm. Harper vowed to use the whole field, and he drilled one homer to left-center field, an “oppo boppo” in Harper’s vernacular.
In the final four, Harper joined Michael Cuddyer, Davis and Cespedes, who belted 17 homers in the first round. Harper creamed homers on five straight swings at one point and finished with another eight home runs, enough to make the finals by one over Cuddyer.
Harper had been chosen to participate in the Home Run Derby by David Wright, the “captain” on the NL team and the biggest star of the host New York Mets. Ron, a ballplayer of local renown as a high school kid, had been training for the past week. He was not going to let a bad back keep him from throwing to his son.
Earlier last week, Ron played catch with his wife, Sheri. He threw a ball against a wall. On Thursday, he traveled to Hagerstown, Md., where his oldest son, Bryan, is a reliever for the Nationals’ Class A affiliate, to play catch with him.
“I just hope he hits my bat,” Bryce said. “I’m just trying to go out there, have some fun, and hopefully do what no one else has done.”
He credits his father as the foremost influence in his swing, which this year has produced 13 home runs. Ron rarely offered his son complex instruction. He told him to find what felt comfortable and use the entire field. The rest came with work. Today, on Bryce’s right wrist is tattooed the word “Pops.”
At 15, Bryce participated in a home run derby at Tropicana Field for the nation’s best teenagers. He finished fifth out of 60 players, but the 502-foot bomb he hit off the back wall launched him to Internet fame. A year later, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
As he has been for most of his life, he was the youngest player on the field. If Harper had played Sunday in the Futures Game, an annual showcase for the sport’s best prospects, he would have been the fifth-youngest player on the U.S. roster.
He still approached the derby with his typical bravado. He batted without a hat, revealing a spiky haircut that made it seem as if sea urchins had colonized the top of his head. Under Armour specially made a pair of spikes for him, just for the derby, a metallic kaleidoscope on his feet.
“I don’t know if his dad is going to be able to throw strikes with the cleats he’s got,” Nationals all-star pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said Monday afternoon. “They’re pretty shiny. They’re pretty loud. Orangish-chrome. He’s got about four pairs of cleats in there, so who knows what he’s going to wear.”
Before the derby started, the eight participants took turns taking their final warmup hacks. Harper walked into the batting cage for his turn. Fans filed into the stands, and later they would fill the seats. Ron threw strikes, and Bryce tried to hit the ball as hard as he could.
After the final round ended, Harper walked toward the screen to meet his dad. They embraced. Harper smacked his dad on the shoulder. It was, again, him and his dad.