Bryce, Madison, and the Faithful Few
Late on a sunny afternoon, an hour and a half before uber-prospect Bryce Harper will make his debut in front of the hometown Hagerstown Suns fans, little Madison McGillivray is skipping about outside the gate at Municipal Stadium. She is wearing a tiny Washington Nationals home jersey with a red 34 and Harper stitched on the back. Her dad, Randy, wears a larger version of Madison’s jersey, but their excitement is the same size. Randy and his wife Debbie are celebrating their 6th wedding anniversary. This is not the first time they will have seen Harper, as they drove about an hour and fifteen minutes from their home in Ashburn, Virginia, to attend the Suns’ “Meet the Fans Night” an event that clearly impressed Randy.
“Bryce Harper and several other players are a bunch of classy guys,” he states. “They were great with Madison.” It is the McGillivrays’ first visit to Municipal Stadium, but taking in the old-time feel–the park was built in 1930–and the excitement of the night, Randy states, “This is such a nice venue; I imagine we’ll continue to come here.”
The gates finally open, and Madison, Randy, and Debbie scamper inside.
Fans are milling about. Every Suns employee it seems is wearing a white T-shirt with Harperstown flanked by 34 emblazoned across the front. The Suns’ souvenir stand has between 400 and 500 Harper items in stock, from T-shirts to official home or away #34 Hagerstown jerseys that sell for $200 each. Harper also graces the cover of the program, swinging at an unseen baseball and wearing a black Suns batting practice jersey.
At 6:15, the Suns’ public address announcer trumpets the starting lineup for the visiting Lakewood Blue Claws and then for the Suns. A huge cheer arises when he announces “batting third, the Suns’ right-fielder, Bryce Harper.” On the field, seven photographers stick their nosey lenses into the dugout looking for a candid shot of Harper.
When the starting lineups are introduced, the crowd again goes crazy when #34 runs out to exchange high fives with his teammates, and to take his place along the first-base line.
Two hours later, the sun has long ago disappeared, as has half the crowd. The temperature is falling, and coats and blankets now cover many of those Harperstown T-shirts. When Harper grounds out, first baseman to the pitcher covering, in the bottom of the 6th, the park begins to empty in earnest.
By the bottom of the 7th, the announced crowd of 6,017 which, in reality, was no more than 4,000 folks is down to a mere 250 or so shivering souls. Only the true fans are here now; fans who would have come to see the Suns’ opener no matter who was on the roster. With two outs, a man on second, and Hagerstown trailing 8-4, Harper steps to the plate, already 0 for 3 and he quickly falls behind in the count, 1-2. Lakewood’s Tyler Knigge zips one near the inside corner, which the umpire rules a ball, much to Knigge’s disbelief, as he has already started toward the Lakewood dugout. Harper takes another close pitch and finally draws a walk before Dave Freitas grounds out to end the would-be rally.
The final score remains 8-4 Blue Claws.
After the game, Harper will explain to reporters that he is seeing the ball well, but just pulling off pitches ever so slightly. His manager, Brian Daubach says “He’s pressing a little bit. He’s human; it’s not unnatural.”
Those who expected Bryce Harper to go 4 for 4 or to blast a tape-measure home run went home early and disappointed.
Madison McGillivray, however, got to see the nice man who gave her an autograph actually out there on the field in uniform, so her evening was satisfactory in every way. Should Harper make the Hall of Fame, she can tell her children that she was there; the night her hero played for the first time before his hometown fans.
Those faithful few who braved the chilly wind got to see a man not give in to his own anxiousness, nor to the cold, nor to the pitcher who almost struck him out. And if in some bizarre twist Harper never even makes it to the big leagues, they’ll know that on that night in a cold little ballpark in Western Maryland, they got to see a ballplayer. For all the glowing labels that have been placed on Bryce Harper, none is more complimentary than that.
And so for Bryce Harper it was also a successful night, because he more than satisfied everyone in the stands who truly appreciates what the game is all about.