Bryce Harper had already been startled out of a deep sleep by the time he heard the engine roar from the driveway, as his father fired up his work truck for another grueling day in the desert heat.
Harper’s father, Ron, left home each morning at 3 o’clock and drove the long-bed truck under the cover of night from his middle-class Las Vegas neighborhood to the construction site of one of the casinos rising in town.
A union ironworker, Ron Harper tied rebar that provided the foundation for the extravagant resorts that define Las Vegas. The Mirage. Treasure Island. Bellagio. If it is on the Las Vegas Strip, there’s a good chance Ron Harper, and the truck that boomed each morning, helped build it.
The earlier his day began, the sooner it was done. So with a work ethic as immense as his hulking shoulders, Ron Harper started his day when his family was still sleeping. It allowed him the luxury of opening his shift when it was only 95 degrees out, and ending it when the heat reached its peak.
“He worked his ever-living tail off,” Bryce Harper said. “When I tell you, I’m telling you.”
Harper’s bedroom in the front of his childhood home provided a clear view each morning of his father’s truck turning on. But the engine’s rumble was not what woke him. Instead, a few minutes earlier, the rattle of ice cubes shifting through his father’s lunch pail stirred Harper from his sleep.
Stuffed inside were a turkey sandwich — layered with lettuce, tomato, and cheese — a bag of chips, and a drink that Harper’s mother, Sheri, gathered the night before. The lunch pail was filled with the fuel Ron Harper needed for another day of lugging 60-pound iron rods. He would rise to the rank of superintendent, but Ron Harper never stopped tying rebar as he did when he was a foreman.
It is that work ethic that his son emulated to mold himself into one of baseball’s brightest stars. Bryce Harper plays the game with a workman’s mentality because he knows his parents are watching from Las Vegas. His mother was a paralegal. She “worked her tail off” too, he said.
Bryce Harper, on the baseball field, is like his father flipping the ignition in his truck while the street was still dark.
But now, as the 26-year-old reflects on becoming a father, he remembers how the lunch pail that woke him so often returned full from his father’s worksite. He used to lift the lid and hope his mother’s signature sandwich was still packed inside. More often than not, it was.
Harper and his wife, Kayla, are expecting a son in August. Harper will end the first year of his 13-year contract with the Phillies as a father. And now he realizes why his father’s lunch pail returned home untouched.
Ron Harper often chose to work through his lunch break and rally his crew to keep pushing in the heat so they could return home an hour sooner to their families. Leaving work early allowed Ron Harper to pick up Bryce, his brother, Bryan, and sister, Brittany, from school even if that meant arriving with scuffed boots, filthy jeans, and hands covered in soot.
He then drove Bryce and his brother to the field to throw batting practice and then watched them play a game at night. It would not be long before his truck was firing up again.
Bryce Harper might resemble his father on the work site when he ditches his batting helmet and slides head-first into second base with a uniform covered in dirt. But as a father, Harper aims to emulate how his father returned home from work with a lunch pail full of sacrifices.
“He never let his job take over his relationship with us as a family or us as kids,” Harper said. “He made that his mission. ‘If my kids need me at any given time, I’m there.’ He let that be known. He found time for everything.
"It was like everyone else was in 24-hour days and he had a 36-hour day. He always found time. That’s just how he was.”
Bryce Harper knew his father’s back was bothering him as he climbed into his truck each morning. But there was always a smile on his face, and loud music on the radio. Ron Harper worked hard, but he had fun. He motivated his children — “tough love,” Bryce said — but allowed them to choose their own direction.
“Every single time that he was tough on me, he would come back to me and say, ‘Hey, kid, I just want to make sure that you know I love you. I push you for certain reasons. I push you to be a great man and a great person and a great husband.’ It was all beyond baseball. It was always beyond baseball.
“Of course, this was the ultimate goal. But if this didn’t work out, he wanted to make sure that he molded a young man into a man and not just a baseball player.”
If the baseball dream never materialized, Bryce Harper could imagine himself now on a construction site — maybe building the NFL stadium that’s rising near the Vegas Strip — and tying rebar next to his father.
“It’s something that could have happened,” Harper said. “He never pushed us to go this way or that way. We knew our way out was to play baseball and hopefully get a scholarship because my parents couldn’t afford that.”
The scholarships for Bryce and Bryan Harper came. So did the professional careers. Ron Harper retired. He’s no longer tying rebar. Now, his labor is spent on his lawn, mowing the grass and changing the sprinklers. His back can rest.
Ron Harper, 54, was in San Diego last week to see the Phillies play. He hung around the batting cage as Bryce and his teammates prepared for another day. The baseball dream, the one Bryce had when his father was firing up the work truck, has long been realized. And now Ron Harper was spending a day at his son’s work site.
“My dad always said, ‘If you’re going to do something, then we want you to do it with your full heart, and if you’re not going to do it with your full heart, then don’t do it. If you don’t want to be out there and you don’t want to grind and don’t want to work, then don’t do it. Do something that you really want to put your whole effort towards. If you’re going to do that, we’re going to support you and we’ll find a way to do stuff and make things happen for you.’ ”
“I was very appreciative of that because without my parents, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They sacrificed everything for me and my siblings.”
Bryce Harper’s son will be 12 years old when the Phillies make the final payment of Harper’s $330 million contract. His son will not be awoken by ice cubes or truck engines. He won’t peek into his father’s lunch pail and hope to find a turkey sandwich.
Harper might strive to play with a blue-collar mentality, but he has more money than his father could have dreamed of when he was grunting in the Las Vegas heat. As he laid the foundation of another casino, Ron Harper was laying the foundation for his son’s life.
First, he helped him become a baseball star. Then, he showed him how to be a husband. And soon, he’ll teach him how to be a father.
Bryce Harper knows his son will undoubtedly have a different childhood. But he will do his best — like his father with a full lunch pail — to provide the same upbringing.
“It’s very cool to become a dad now and know what he sacrificed for me and to be able to put it into myself and hopefully teach my son the right way,” he said. “That’s what I want to do.
"If I can just take little things that he did for me and pass that along to my kid, I think my kid will hopefully grow up with the same mentality that I did. Giving a crap about what you do. It’s the little things: You give a crap, you give back, and you understand that giving back is one of the greatest opportunities in life.”
Father-son Phillies combos
Ruben Amaro Sr. and Ruben Amaro Jr. Ruben Sr. was a shortstop for the Phillies from 1960 to 1965 and first base coach from 1980 to 1981. Ruben Jr. was an outfielder for the Phillies in 1992-93 and 1996-98 and served as assistant general manager from 1999 to 2008 and GM from 2009 to 2015.
Tito Francona and Terry Francona. Tito played 27 games for the Phillies as an outfielder-first baseman in 1967. Terry managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000.
Mark Leiter Sr. and Mark Leiter Jr. Mark Sr. pitched for the Phillies in 1997-98, making 100 appearances. Mark Jr., also a pitcher, was drafted by the Phillies and appeared in 39 games in 2017-18.