Minor League Baseball: No. 1 pick Harper excites fans in Kannapolis
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS — Hagerstown’s Bryce Harper’s first at-bat on Saturday evening produced a mild buzz from the 2,572 fans in attendance, at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium and a lazy flyball to left field.
“Who’s No. 1 now!” barked a pleased Kannapolis Intimidators fan.
The 6-foot-3 Harper’s second at-bat yielded his 26th walk of the season, and his third at-bat won’t be forgotten by anyone who saw it.
Harper, who bats left and throws right, mashed a 2-0 fastball the way Mickey Mantle used to hit them when he was healthy — maybe the way Babe Ruth launched them in the Roaring Twenties.
“He had to come to me on 2-0,” Harper said quietly. “I’m just looking for something I can drive. I haven’t been going that well lately, but sometimes it happens.”
There was no doubt where that severely bruised baseball was headed as soon as it was introduced to Harper’s bat, but it still took quite a while to get there. After a majestic flight, it finally descended, way out there beyond the center-field fence.
“He actually hasn’t hit many homers that looked like that,” said Hagerstown play-by-play broadcaster Bryan Holland. “Most of his homers are hard-hit liners that just keep carrying.”
Harper received a signing bonus of $6.25 million from the Washington Nationals, who made him the first pick of last summer’s draft. He won’t turn 19 until October, but he’s thriving in the South Atlantic League where almost all the players are in their early 20s.
“There’s a reason he was the first pick, and you saw it on that home run to dead center,” said Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach, who enjoyed four 20-homer seasons for the Boston Red Sox from 1999-2002. “Bryce has a ton of talent. He runs above average. He has a plus arm.”
The long homer was the 11th for Harper, who’s been in a mini-slump. He still ranks among the SAL leaders in RBIs (35) and is batting a healthy .326.
“Bryce is an absolute phenom,” said Hagerstown outfielder Wade Moore, the former West Rowan and Catawba star. “He can impact a game in so many ways.”
Nationals fans understandably are antsy for Harper to climb the minor-league ladder and can’t believe he hasn’t already been promoted to Potomac, Va.
“Bryce is a quick learner and learning every day, but he’s making the defensive adjustment from catcher to outfield, and that’s a tough adjustment,” Daubach said. “He’s learning when to try to throw out a baserunner and when not to, and when to try for that extra base. What he needs most is game experience. He’s getting that.”
Baseball fans are primarily fixated on Harper’s prodigious power from the left side. Scouts have compared his picturesque swing to that of Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell, and he drilled a ball on May 12 in his home park against Delmarva that left people gasping in disbelief.
“It was amazing,” said Holland, who has seen all of Harper’s games. “It was a grand slam, part of a six-RBI game, and it carried over two sets of signage.”
Holland believes Harper’s bat is so lethal that his other skills may be under-rated.
“I think his defense is way under the radar,” Holland said. “He’s made diving catches, unbelievably strong throws. He’s had two outfield assists in the same game. Everybody talks about five-tool guys, but not many big-league teams actually have them. Bryce is as five-toolsy as it gets.”
Holland said Harper, who sported orange cleats, plays “like his hair is on fire,” an intensity that combines with his physical package to make him a unique prospect.
Daubach said games like Saturday’s sluggish 10-5 win against the Intimidators are important to Harper’s development as a pro.
“We played a doubleheader Friday, our wakeup call today was at 5 a.m., and then we had a long trip to get down here,” Daubach said. “Guys have to learn to still give 100 percent on days like this, even if they feel 85 percent. Bryce has great skills, but it’s the effort he brings that sets him apart.”
Harper’s appearances generally trigger a media and fan circus that has to be tiresome, but he was accommodating on Saturday, signing patiently for each of the 40 or so fans who waited for him at the Hagerstown bus.
“Bryce is a genuine guy,” Moore said. “For all his talent, he loves this game. He plays it the right way.”