When I was in high school, any athletic achievements of a personal nature were greatly overshadowed by those of a younger brother who stood 6 feet 5 inches and was our school’s starting quarterback, star forward and best pitcher.
Add in $330 million over 13 years and I might be able to relate to Bryan Harper.
Bryan Harper is mostly known for his sublime handlebar mustache and for being Bryce Harper’s older brother. The shadow cast by both was significant. But Bryan has shaved the ’stache, which might add a couple of mph to his fastball.
In case you hadn’t heard, brother Bryce is the most polarizing player in major league baseball, at least according to his peers. And last year’s Home Run Derby champion turned heads during the offseason by not signing that massive contract until after spring training had begun.
Cut to Tuesday, when Bryan was throwing fastballs, curveballs, sliders and change-ups on the side at College of Southern Nevada’s baseball practice. The still slender left-handed pitcher last week signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.
If you’ve never heard of the Atlantic League, it’s where major league baseball dreams continue to flicker.
It’s where former 51s manager Wally Backman is hoping to erase the perception that he can’t manage in the big leagues, as skipper of the Long Island Ducks. It’s where Bryan Harper will go to show he still can get guys out at age 29 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and being released by the Washington Nationals.
He was one step from getting guys out in the big leagues in 2016 while pitching for Triple A Syracuse.
“I blew out in one pitch,” he said, almost wincing at the memory.
Tank still full
“Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Aug. 6. Had Tommy John (surgery) Nov. 8. Took 2017 off. Came back on big league invite, still with the Nationals. Sent to Double A,” Harper said in the manner of a baseball announcer setting a defensive lineup. “I finished up strong, and now I’m just kind of waiting it out, to see if I can get picked up.”
He was 3-1 with a 3.69 ERA, allowing 43 hits in 46⅓ innings while walking 28 and striking out 38 at Harrisburg in 2018. It was the eighth time in nine minor league assignments his ERA was sub-4.00. He doesn’t throw hard. Never really has. Not even before that one pitch against the RailRiders of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
But Bryan Harper says he still can get guys out. The statistics prove it. The scouts armed with radar guns and baseball analytics aren’t as convinced.
“They’re telling me I’m too old — 29 is too old,” he said as if shaking off his catcher. “I’ve got too much left in the tank. I can’t look myself in the mirror and tell myself I’m not good enough to compete at the highest level. I can’t give up on something I feel so passionate about.”
Questions about his brother, who credits Bryan for making him a phenom during his formative baseball years, were kept to a minimum.
“I think it really helped him playing with kids three years older, playing with my friends and me,” Bryan Harper said. “He wanted to compete with us, and if he sucked, he’d be mad about it and keep working harder so he could keep up with me and my buddies.”
But like that Old Spice commercial, older brother said he’s comfortable in his own skin.
“I say that when you’re in Triple-A, you’re one of the best 1,400 players in the world,” Bryan Harper said. “I won a national championship at South Carolina. I’ve got my own accomplishments.”
He’s the more laid-back of the brothers. The funny one.
Rob Miech, a local author who wrote a book about Bryce Harper’s final amateur season at CSN when he and Bryan were teammates, tells a story about Bryce going down in a pile while chasing a foul fly.
The entire CSN team bolted from the dugout to check on Bryce and his future. Except for his older brother. Miech wrote about it in the book.
Miech said it wasn’t that big brother wasn’t concerned for little brother. But experience told him Bryce would bounce back up. Which, of course, Bryce Harper did.
“Bryan was and is so enjoyable,” Miech said. “A few times, he really put lil’ bro in his place.”
But not on the diamond. At least not yet.
Bryan Harper said the last time he pitched against Bryce was at CSN.
“I think he skied a double to left,” the other Harper said, breaking into a wide grin. “(That’s what) he says. But it was actually an error on the left fielder.”
The Other Harper
Bryan Harper’s cumulative minor league pitching statistics:
Hits allowed: 227
Highest level: Triple-A Syracuse (Washington Nationals) 2016