Written by Joyce Sohyun Lee, Northwestern University student
Bryce Harper steps onto the pitcher’s mound, facing a kid half his height. If the batter is nervous, he doesn’t show it, and when Harper pitches the ball (gently), the kid's bat connects with the baseball. He scrambles to first, while his teammate rounds the bend towards second, third base. The baseball is being thrown from player to player, as he reaches home base with a dramatic slide, his left elbow skidding on the ground, his feet scratching up a small storm of dust and pebbles on its way home. Harper’s face lights up with delight and a coach yells, “It’s a laser show!”
Parents eagerly push the lenses of their cameras right up against the metal fence and zoom in on their child playing baseball with Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old Washington Nationals right fielder.
Over 220 children aged 6 to 14 attended the inaugural Bryce Harper Baseball ProCamp sponsored by Under Armour at Fairfax High School on Thursday morning. Campers were split up according to age and skill level, and each group was accompanied by local varsity baseball coaches and, at one point during the day, worked with Harper.
The camp boasted free admissions thanks to sponsorship from various organizations such as Under Armor and donations from Harper. ProCamp runs sports camps for professional athletes all over the nation. Under Armour, a fitness/sports apparel and equipment retailer, also provided campers with Bryce Harper ProCamp t-shirts.
“[They are in] small groups getting very individualized attention,” said Linanne O’Brien while watching her 13-year-old daughter practice in the field. “It seems to be run very well.”
The first part of camp focused on honing the camper’s skills through drills and tips from the coaches. In the second half of camp, the campers played the game with gusto and cheers from coaches and parents. It was clear the campers took the game seriously as a tiny camper walked up to his mom and with a heavy sigh, said “It’s not my best day.”
Coaches took the time to help their students through any kinks. After one camper missed the ball the first two times, his coach had him pause and take a practice swing. With encouragement, the camper slugged the baseball into a wide arc on his third swing.
All the while, Harper walked around the camp in turns, pausing to work with each group, alternately coaching kids on their swings or pitching the ball to the batter.
“I love doing things like this. I think it’s huge for the kids to see that [major leaguers] are just normal people playing the game, and we love to play,” Harper said. “I want them to know that.”
“I just tell them to have fun, and when they’re hitting, be as sexy as you can,” Harper said.
Many parents at the camp approved of Harper, not for his status as a major league baseball player, but for the time he spent with the kids at the camp on his day off with just five hours of sleep. “He’s actually out there, instructing the kids,” said Zerhusen. “I mean we laughed, especially [since] he had a game yesterday in San Diego and at 8 o’ clock, it was just finishing. We said he’s going to show up for 15 minutes and that’ll be it, but look at him, it’s phenomenal.”
A large part of Harper’s appeal lies in his age. In a group interview, a reporter commented that Harper was “basically still a kid.” In response, Harper said, “Yeah, because I’m like 12 years old anyway,” to much laughter. Though Harper towers over the campers, it was only a few years ago when he was their age, and like them, dreamt of playing in the major leagues.
“What’s great about this is he’s 19 years old and these kids can all relate to that,” O’Brien said. “It’s somebody who hasn’t been away from this group all that long and I think it’s really packing a punch for these kids.”
Harper made a donation of $2,500 to the Greater Washington Urban League, a nonprofit organization serving people of color in housing, employment, said Ursula Higgins, a representative from the Greater Washington Urban League. Higgins said the donation paid for 22 kids to attend the camp.
“[This camp] just builds them up to have team work, to be able to learn the actual rules of the sport of baseball,” Higgins said. “[The kids] are doing fantastic, everybody has a smile on their face, working with the concepts and the mindset [of baseball].”
And though Harper’s presence brought an air of giddiness to the camp, in the end, it was still a baseball camp, and kids left with uniforms decorated by proud smears of dirt and dust clutching their equipment bags as tightly as their Bryce Harper autographs.