Bryce Harper down on the farm: Phillies star’s rehab assignment a boon for Triple-A IronPigs

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Mike Luciano predicted this, so he had ordered hundreds of HARPER nameplates and 3s to screen onto IronPigs T-shirts. This was going to be a big deal. Typically, the best-selling items here have a specific feature.

“Anything with bacon,” said Luciano, Triple-A Lehigh Valley’s director of merchandise. “We’re known for our bacon. Put a bacon strip on a hat, people love it.”

Then, the day before Harper came to Lehigh Valley to begin an anticipated minor-league rehab assignment, Luciano heard something. Harper was not going to wear No. 3. A lefty reliever named Jonathan Hennigan was using it, and Harper, who is nearing a return to the Phillies after breaking his left thumb on June 25, did not want to disrupt anything.

So, Luciano placed a rush request for hundreds of 4s. He arrived at Coca-Cola Park at 7 am ET on Tuesday — 12 hours before Harper stepped onto the field. “Luckily,” Luciano said, “the 4s came in.” There is a shirt press in the team store. It takes 40 seconds to make a custom T-shirt jersey that sells for $28. Luciano went to work.

“So far, I’ve done about 150,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re just going to keep going throughout the day. Probably into tomorrow. Right now we have blue ones. We’ll probably get red ones in.”

Freshly made No. 4 Bryce Harper IronPigs jerseys are displayed for purchase. (Matt Gelb / The Athletic)

This is the week every minor-league affiliate dreams about. There are occasional draws — a top prospect, a quirky promotion, fireworks — but nothing like this. Harper is one of the most recognizable athletes in the sport. It was his first minor-league game since 2014. The IronPigs sold 7,000 tickets in a 24-hour span after Harper’s assignment was officially announced. They sold out Tuesday — 10,100 people plus 195 dogs on IronMutts night — and Harper delivered two home runs to entertain them. What does it mean to an affiliate to have Bryce Harper for a few days?

“From a business perspective,” IronPigs general manager Kurt Landes said, “it’s like a gift from heaven.”

Ninety minutes before Harper appeared, two dozen fans crowded the railing that overlooked the tunnel to the IronPigs clubhouse. They waited and waited and, at 6:55 pm, Harper ran onto the field just as he was announced as the designated hitter, batting second.

“It was good being back,” Harper said. “Of course, I don’t want to be here all the time. The fans were great. The ballpark was awesome. The atmosphere was great.

The plan is for Harper to play five straight days for the IronPigs and return to the Phillies on Monday in Arizona. But rehab plans are made to be changed. Before Tuesday’s game, Lehigh Valley manager Anthony Contreras said it was Harper’s call on how many at-bats he would take that night. Harper opted for a fifth plate appearance and crushed an opposite-field homer in the eighth inning.

“I have to understand that I need to see pitches,” Harper said. “Going out there at the big-league level, it’s tough to just get at-bats and nobody really cares. Everybody cares up there. So if I see pitches down here and it’s not that great — maybe I play two days and take a day off or three days and take a day off. That’s great down here. Up there, I can’t play two days and take a day off. So it’s being able to be down here and controlling each situation we’re in. If I need to come out of the game after my third at-bat, I can do that.”

The Phillies have deferred to Harper during the entire recovery process. It would be done at his pace — with input from the athletic training staff whenever he requested it. (He cannot be activated until Thursday, at the earliest.) Unless asked, everyone is staying at a distance.

Harper had his dad throw batting practice to him last week at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies sent an assistant athletic trainer along with a security guard who traveled with the team to accompany Harper at Coca-Cola Park. Harper, per his usual routine, did not hit on the field with his minor-league teammates.

Someone asked Contreras, the 38-year-old Triple-A manager, who would tell Harper he was wearing an IronMutts jersey with a dog on his hat for the promotion.

“It wasn’t me,” Contreras said. “I’m sure he walked into the locker room and he’s going to see that jersey hanging up in his locker. You’ll get the full experience of what minor-league baseball is all about.”

Harper is one day shy of two months since he broke his left thumb. He looked like Bryce Harper on Tuesday night against the Gwinnett Stripers. He homered in the first inning. He drew a walk in the third inning and was thrown out trying to steal third base while wearing a mitten on his left hand. He grounded out into the shift against Darren O’Day, a veteran righty reliever who is also on a rehab assignment. He walked again in the seventh inning. He hit one 370 feet to left field in the eighth inning.

“Tonight was great, right?” Harper said. “But, at the same time, I need the at-bats. I need to be able to see pitches. See different guys. Different angles. Understanding how my body’s going to react. What my thumb’s going to be like.”

When Harper drove a 2-2 breaking ball from Braves left-handed prospect Jared Shuster in the first inning, it smacked an advertisement for a small company based in Schnecksville that sells copiers and then traveled into the hands of Chris Beaver. He was wearing a Phillies jersey with Harper’s name on the back. Chris’ wife, Dawn, purchased the tickets a few days earlier to celebrate his 52nd birthday. They live in Wind Gap, a town 23 miles north of Coca-Cola Park. They come to a few Lehigh Valley games every season. It’s tough to make the drive to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Plus, this is cheaper.

“We didn’t know he would be here,” Beaver said, “until we stopped in the store the other day.”

They were strolling along the concrete path beyond the outfield wall because Dawn wanted to see some of the rescue dogs here for adoption. Some friends suggested they stand in right field for Harper’s first at-bat. All of a sudden, strangers were approaching Beaver and asking to take pictures of the ball Harper smashed. He happily pulled it from his bag for anyone who asked.

Chris Beaver caught Bryce Harper’s first home run Tuesday. (Matt Gelb / The Athletic)

“It’s the energy and the excitement,” Landes, the general manager, said of minor-league baseball and this week in particular. “The community is behind this. It’s kind of what you work for. I mean, I enjoy it every day. The grind, it’s fun. We do promotions and unique, bold, crazy things on a daily basis. But when you throw in something like this on top of it, it just gets your adrenaline going.

“Every day is about making new memories. But when you add a player of the caliber of Bryce Harper, it just takes it up a notch.”

There was more to it than that. Lehigh Valley is one of the blessed affiliates; the IronPigs rank near the top of the minors in attendance every year. They have a dedicated fan base. They probably would have drawn 6,000 people on a Tuesday night in August without Harper.

But Lehigh Valley, like many minor-league organizations, faces a dilemma in the wake of Major League Baseball’s takeover of the minors. When IronPigs officials signed the new license agreement to remain in affiliated baseball, they agreed to certain stipulations. There are guidelines for team facilities; they must be upgraded within a specific time period.

For the IronPigs, that means building larger clubhouses, training rooms, weight rooms, offices for coaches, team kitchens and a female locker room. Landes said it will cost $10 million. The team is hoping to secure $5.9 million through public funding at the city, county and state levels.

The rest is on the team.

There was no minor-league baseball in 2020 because of the pandemic — a huge financial hit to these affiliates. The IronPigs faced attendance restrictions and some hesitant fans in 2021. They were one of a few organizations in professional baseball to not lay off employees or impose pay cuts, Landes said. But the millions needed to satisfy MLB’s code will bring challenges. So, Harper’s appearance mattered. It matters to the people who bought tickets to see it and to the people who work here.

“This franchise is going to be here for a very, very long time because we’re investing and we’re making the upgrades,” Landes said. “But whatever windfall we have that does come from this, it’s a win. Now does it make your entire year, five days? It helps. Does it make up for 2020 and 2021? No, but it helps.”

When Harper stepped to the plate in the first inning, people were still waiting to enter outside the park. The lines for the concession stands were long. Most people turned around to catch a glimpse of Harper. Some were already wearing No. 4 shirts. Harper’s game-used jersey was auctioned for $2,600 to benefit IronPigs Charities. Everyone was watching. Harper completed his work and it was entertaining.

“I’m just happy to be back out on the field,” Harper said, “and be around baseball again.”

For one night at Coca-Cola Park, everyone felt that.

“I look forward,” Landes said, “to thank Mr. Harper.”

(Top photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.