CHICAGO -- There was no one who didn’t know Bryce Harper, according to Chicago Cubs slugger Kris Bryant. The Washington Nationals star and Cubs rookie both grew up in Las Vegas, on opposite sides of town, with Bryant one year older. But Harper was well ahead of Bryant and all other prospects in the area, in terms of baseball accomplishments and name recognition, especially after Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16.
“It was cool to see that,” Bryant said Monday at Wrigley Field before the Nationals beat the Cubs 2-1. “When you have someone coming from your hometown and succeed like that, it’s kind of cool to see that. He was the first, then myself, and others are coming, like [Rangers prospect Joey] Gallo. But I’m sure it was tough to deal with when you’re so young.”
Bryant knows all too well about attention, having followed in Harper’s footsteps. Each won the Golden Spikes award as best amateur baseball player, and each was a top-five pick in the MLB draft. Now they’re leading their respective major league teams after competing with and playing against each other as kids. They’re facing off on the big league level for the first time this week at Wrigley Field.
“He was always bigger than the competition,” Bryant said. “He was always just better, and he was younger. It was crazy to see that, how advanced he was at such a young age. Even now, in the big leagues, he’s still very young.”
While mostly playing against each other while growing up, there were a few times Harper and Bryant played together. The best team they were both on was the Southern Nevada Bulldogs when Bryant was 14 and Harper 13.
“We won a lot of tournaments, and lot of them were because of him,” Bryant said.
Bryant couldn’t remember a lot of details, as there were “a lot of big moments” for both players, but Kris’ dad, Mike, recalled a few.
“There was the time Bryce hit a ball over 400 feet when he was just 13,” the elder Bryant remembered. “And when Kris pitched a one-hit complete game, and Bryce’s home run was the lone score to beat a real good California team. There were a lot.”
Bryant and Harper haven’t stayed in contact too much, as the latter chose an “unconventional” way of getting to the big leagues -- he left high school early, then enrolled in a junior college before getting drafted No. 1 at age 17.
After being taken second by the Cubs in 2013, Bryant won minor league player of the year last season but didn’t make the Opening Day roster this year, as the Cubs were able to gain an extra year of service time by keeping him in the minors for 11 days. Harper tweeted his support for Bryant during spring training with the hashtag #FreeBryant. On Monday, he said he understood the Cubs’ position.
“I’m not surprised about that because I understand how the business works in baseball,” Harper said. “If I was the Cubs, I would have done the same thing. I’d want him for another year too.”
Having said that, Harper knew what kind of talent the Cubs were getting.
“It was only a matter of time before he got up here,” Harper said of Bryant. “Great talent, a lot of power. When we were younger, we used to call him ‘silk’ because he was so smooth with everything he did. He played third, he played short, played outfield.”
This week will be a treat for fans. Bryant already homered in Game 1 of the series Monday, while Harper doubled and walked. Bryant said he learned from all the attention Harper received at such a young age. He saw it firsthand.
“I dealt with it, but he was getting media attention when he was 12,” Bryant said. “It’s got to be tough to handle, but I have an appreciation for how he’s handled it.
“Anytime you get that type of coverage, people expect a lot. He was an awesome player and did a great job with an unconventional path, but it worked out.”