Brian O’Grady remembers the event well. The Northeast Philadelphia native was at the Cooperstown Dreams Park representing the Somerton Spartans in the finals of the 11-year-old home run derby. His opponent was an enormous blond-haired kid from Las Vegas who would one day very soon become famous.
“He was gigantic,” O’Grady recalled Tuesday morning from his hotel room in Cincinnati.
The Vegas kid, of course, was Bryce Harper.
“It was before he had become a household name,” O’Grady said. “I was normal size and it was me and him in the finals. I think I hit two home runs, and he hit something like 11. It is something me and my family always laugh about.”
Eight years later, Harper was in the big leagues with the Washington Nationals at the age of 19. O’Grady finished out his sophomore season at Rutgers following his outstanding high school career at Archbishop Wood in Warminster.
O’Grady’s journey to the big leagues took quite a bit longer than Harper’s, and it was definitely not guaranteed. But the call he always dreamed of finally came Monday afternoon as he sat in his Warminster home eating a cheesesteak.
“Man, it was crazy,” O’Grady said. “I had flown home from Louisville Sunday night because we were off Monday, and we were playing Tuesday at Lehigh Valley. I hadn’t been home since January, and I figured I’d just drive up to Lehigh Valley for Tuesday’s game.”
The only problem with O’Grady’s going home Sunday was that, instead of making a 100-mile drive from Louisville to Cincinnati, he had to figure out a way to get to Cincinnati from Philadelphia in time for the Reds’ 7:10 p.m. game against the Los Angeles Angels.
“I had taken two bites from that cheesesteak, and my phone rang,” O’Grady said. “It was a Georgia number, and I knew my [Louisville] manager [Jody Davis] was from Georgia. He said, ‘You’re going to Cincy. You’re active tonight.’
Then he started to say some really nice things to me, and I said, ‘Thanks, but I have to figure out a way to get to Cincinnati.’ Everybody in my family was excited and going nuts, but I didn’t really have any time to for it. I got in the car with my dad and drove to the airport.”
O’Grady arrived in the middle of the Reds’ 7-4 win, and he did not get into the game.
“They gave me a hard time for being late to my first game,” O’Grady said. “I was in the on-deck circle to hit in the eighth when the last out of the inning was made.”
O’Grady’s big-league call-up came in his sixth season of professional baseball. As recently as 2017, he hit a combined .185 at high-A Daytona and double-A Pensacola, but last year in spring training he got some hitting advice from a Reds Hall of Fame shortstop.
“I made big changes last year,” O’Grady said. “I was in the cage with Barry Larkin, and we figured something out. He got me diving in toward the plate in order to be ready for a fastball away. For whatever reason, it just clicked right away. I’ve been doing something similar ever since then. Between that advice from Barry and the instruction I have received from Leon Durham, my hitting coach at Louisville, it has allowed my ability to come out. I definitely did not do this on my own.”
O’Grady, who has mostly played center field and first base this season, hit a combined .280 with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs last season at Pensacola and Louisville. But he has really unlocked his power prowess this season. His 27 doubles are tied for sixth in the International League, and his 27 home runs are tied for third.
“I’ve always been a big, strong guy,” O’Grady said. “But I honestly didn’t know enough about hitting. It took me longer than I hoped to figure it out. But once I got it, the power came out, and I went for more.”