LANCASTER — Bryce Harper was not the only member of his family to go through baseball’s free-agent process during the offseason. Bryan Harper, a left-handed pitcher and the older brother of the Phillies’ right fielder, lived through the experience, too. Beyond that, their stories are about as comparable as apples and asparagus.
“It was cool -- we were going through the same situation, but it was obviously a little bit different for him,” Bryan Harper said as he sat in the sun-splashed home bullpen of the Lancaster Barnstormers at quaint Clipper Magazine Stadium on Tuesday afternoon.
The older Harper burst into laughter, perhaps because he knew what he was about to say.
“I think we all knew Bryce was going to find a job, and he wasn’t going to be spending any time in Lancaster,” Bryan said. “Maybe he’d go to Sugar Land or Long Island, but I doubt it.”
More laughter followed after Bryan Harper mentioned manager Pete Incaviglia’s Sugar Land Skeeters and manager Wally Backman’s Long Island Ducks, two of Lancaster’s rivals in the independent Atlantic League.
Bryce Harper, of course, landed in Philadelphia with the Phillies, after signing a 13-year, $330 million deal that was the most-lucrative contract in baseball history for at least a few days. Bryce, who is two years and 291 days younger than 29-year-old Bryan, broke the news of his signing to his brother in the family home in Las Vegas.
“He had like three meetings within a week with the Phillies, and after the last one, the next morning he walked into my room, and I had just got back from working out,” Bryan said.
If you were expecting a lottery-winning celebration, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
“What are you doing?” Bryce asked Bryan.
“Nothing, I just got done working out.”
Bryce: “All right, cool. I’m going to the Phillies.”
Bryan: “All right, dude. You happy with it?”
Bryan: “All right, cool. I’m happy for you.”
The brothers hugged.
“He was just super nonchalant about it,” Bryan said.
Three weeks later, Bryan Harper signed with the Barnstormers for $2,000 a month, after spending eight seasons as a minor-leaguer in the same Washington Nationals’ organization that had employed Bryce for nine seasons.
Do not feel sorry for Bryan Harper. He certainly does not feel sorry for himself. Sure, his quest to fulfill his big-league dream has had its share of difficult moments, including this season’s departure from affiliated professional baseball.
Phillies owner John Middleton sent his private jet to bring Bryce Harper to spring training in Clearwater, Fla. Bryan Harper opted to drive from Las Vegas to Lancaster after signing with the Barnstormers.
“Obviously you want to be in affiliated ball,” Bryan said. “Nobody wants to truly come here. This isn’t the first choice. I drove here because I really wanted to cleanse my feelings. So, I hit the open road with the music blaring, and when I got here and I started meeting the guys and talking to them, it has made me love this game even more. It’s truly awesome. I’m in a clubhouse with Kyle Davies, who has spent eight years in the big leagues. My pitching coach [Jonathan Albaladejo] has a World Series ring. You have to love this game to be here doing what we’re doing.”
Bryan Harper was drafted three times, but never higher than the 27th round. The Nationals selected him in the 31st round after his senior year at Las Vegas High School, but he opted to go to Cal State Northridge. After a magical season playing with Bryce at the College of Southern Nevada in 2010, Bryan was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round, 819 picks after the Nats made 17-year-old Bryce the No. 1 overall selection. After Bryan played one year at the University of South Carolina, the Nats drafted him again in 2011, this time in the 30th round. He finally signed.
“I don’t have any regrets about how I handled that,” Bryan said. “I grew up my first year at Northridge. I turned into a man. I had to go to California on my own. I didn’t know anybody. I had to pay my rent, pay bills, and I learned a lot. It didn’t work out on the field, so I went back to CSN [College of Southern Nevada] and had that family aspect.”
Both Bryce and Bryan describe that year together at CSN as a special time in their baseball lives. The team was dominant, and the two were batterymates. Bryce, of course, was the headline act, hitting 31 home runs on his way to winning the Golden Spike Award as the best player in all of college baseball. Bryan, a 6-foot-6 lefty, exhibited his own dominance by going 11-1 with a 2.62 ERA while striking out 96 batters in 65⅓ innings.
“We had that brother intuition,” Bryan said. “There was no learning curve with us. You usually have to learn your catcher when you go to a new team, and they have to learn your tendencies. None of that with us. It was just him saying, ‘Let’s do your thing.’ He’s still one of the best I’ve ever thrown to.”
Bryan said he thinks Bryce misses being a catcher.
“Oh, yeah, he loved it,” he said. “You look at the guys he hangs out with. He is always hanging out with the relievers. He loves talking to pitchers, because he still has that catcher’s mentality.”
After that magical season together near their hometown, Bryce started his professional career, and Bryan spent one season at South Carolina. He was part of a Gamecocks team that won the national championship for a second straight season.
“There aren’t a whole lot of guys who can say they won a national championship,” Bryan Harper said. “I’ve got a national championship ring and an SEC championship ring.”
Bryan Harper’s turbulent professional baseball journey started that summer with a couple of appearances for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League team. The following few years, he admits, were among the toughest of his career.
“I still feel like my first couple of years in pro ball were by far the worst, because I was putting so much pressure on myself to perform and prove that I was more than just Bryce’s brother,” Bryan Harper said. “But, I got through that, and then it was up, up, up, with a little step back.”
The “little step back” came during the summer of 2016. At 26 and in his sixth professional season, Bryan Harper had climbed to the brink of the big leagues. He had posted a 1.50 ERA in 20 games at double-A Harrisburg and had a 2.95 ERA in 20 games at triple-A Syracuse.
And then he threw a pitch in his second inning of work against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees that changed everything.
“August 6,” Harper said, remembering the most infamous date of his career. “I had the hitter 1-2, threw a pitch, and thought, ‘That didn’t feel right.’ I threw another pitch, struck the guy out, and got out of the inning, but the next day was pretty bad on the pain.”
Bryan Harper’s next baseball stop would be an operating table for Tommy John surgery.
“He was knocking on the door,” Bryce Harper said. “That definitely was a bummer. I think I was more depressed about that than him not being able to get a job this year. You know, we really didn’t have a lefty out of the pen, and I think he was going to be the next man up. He was throwing the crap out of the ball that season.”
Bryan Harper did not pitch in a game until spring training last season with the Nationals, and when minor-league assignments were handed out, he was back at double-A Harrisburg. He struggled to throw strikes at times and had a 4.01 ERA and 23 walks through his first 30 games.
“I was healthy,” Harper said. “My arm felt good. There were no setbacks or extra soreness, but I had some mechanical things, and if you don’t have your mechanics locked in, you’re not going to be able to throw strikes and get people out. It was a very up-and-down year for me. I’d say I probably hit rock bottom the beginning of July. After that, I had a great second half of July and into August.”
It was not enough to make the Nationals keep him around, but it was enough to make Bryan Harper continue his pursuit of his big-league dream. Even though the offers were not coming from big-league-affiliated ball clubs, he never considered calling it a career.
“I was hoping for a little bit more attention, but it didn’t end up working out,” Bryan Harper said. “I’m just happy to be here and still playing the game. I told my brother, ‘I still have so much left in the tank,’ and I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, you’re done, give it up and go get a 9-to-5 job.’ ”
Through his first nine outings with the Barnstormers, Bryan Harper has not allowed an earned run and has allowed just five hits and struck out nine in 10 innings.
Lancaster has been a remarkable landing spot for Bryan Harper. It is only 40 miles from Harrisburg, where he played parts of four seasons as part of the Nationals’ farm system. More significantly, it is only 45 miles from Mechanicsburg, Pa., and the home of Greg Rothman. In addition to being a Republican member of the state House of Representatives, Rothman and his family are also longtime hosts of Harrisburg minor-league players. And now they are also hosting a member of the Lancaster Barnstormers.
“I have stayed with them off and on since 2014,” Harper said. “I’m basically their son now. Greg is awesome. They opened their home up to me in 2014, and we’ve always stayed in contact, and whenever I went back to Harrisburg, they’d say, ‘You know you’re coming to live here with us.’ I’d say, ‘Yep, I’ll be there.’ They have always had a spot for me and Spencer Kieboom.”
If that last name sounds familiar, it might be because Carter Kieboom is considered Washington’s best minor-league prospect, and he recently had a brief stint with the Nats. Spencer Kieboom, another older brother with a little brother who is the bigger star, spent 52 games with the Nats last season, but he is back in Harrisburg and again living with the Rothman family.
Spencer Kieboom and Bryan Harper have been friends since 2012, when they first played together in rookie ball in Auburn, N.Y. They had been college rivals, with Kieboom playing at Clemson.
“It’s awesome being with one of my best friends who is still playing the game and living in a great home with some really, really great people,” Bryan Harper said.
Bryan Harper also had a tiny fan club in Harrisburg that has pledged allegiance to him in Lancaster, too.
“There’s this elderly couple — Myron and Mae — and they are just the absolute best,” Bryan said. “They are in their late 80s, and they were at every game in Harrisburg, and they found out I was here, and they’ve come to some games. They were here opening night and then again this past weekend. They are my people. There are five or six other people, too, who have come to see me, and whenever they’re here, they sit behind the dugout, and they always say my name. I give them a little wave. Those familiar faces make things a little easier, no matter where you go.”
Bryan Harper does not have a $330 million contract. He lives at home with his mom, Sheri, and his dad, Ron, in the offseason, and with a host family during the season.
“I have my own little wing of the house, and my parents are awesome,” Bryan Harper said. “I have a personal chef in my mom, and my dad does the laundry. It works out. It all works out. They are great. They are fully supportive of me. As long as I’m committed to still chasing my dream, they will always be there to support me.”
And, rest assured that Bryan Harper is still fully committed to chasing his dream.
“Obviously, you have to be realistic, but I don’t see any reason I can’t help a big-league ball club win ballgames,” Bryan Harper said. “I still have so much left in the tank, and I just want to compete and do my thing out there. Until there is a day where somebody literally won’t give me a uniform, I’m going to keep having that dream.”