PAWTUCKET — Tommy Harper always seems to enjoy his visits to McCoy Stadium. Granted, his capacity as Red Sox minor-league consultant explains why he comes around, yet watch this proud 72-year-old during batting practice and it’s apparent that he still has an appetite for the game.
Most of the time, Harper will rest his arms on the green padding and attentively watch as the PawSox batters rotate in and out of the cage. Sometimes he’ll walk over to the on-deck area and make small talk with the ballplayers waiting their turn. Call such a scene the bridging of baseball’s generation gap between a person whose last big-league game was 37 years ago conversing with a group of 20-somethings who would benefit from typing “Harper” into the player-search feature on baseball-reference.com.
“When I go down there and talk to young players, I only see what they’re doing. I don’t go by the stats or what other people are saying,” Harper pointed out in an interview from this past weekend, one that took place inside the press box of his pseudo Columbus Ave. office.
During the stretch of August when Pawtucket played 15 of 19 games at home, Harper frequented McCoy more so than usual. It didn’t take long for clues to surface regarding his modus operandi. Once batting practice was complete, Harper would enter the clubhouse and seek out Jackie Bradley Jr.
If the point Harper wished to convey contained few words, the rap session would take place near Bradley’s locker. When the briefings included a deeper message, Harper would motion for Bradley to come out to the dugout. There, they could speak without having to worry about interruptions.
Harper admits that it was by design that he allowed for ample time to go by before seeking out Bradley, an outfielder who has experienced a whirlwind of a season. From garnering all sorts of hype during spring training to making Boston’s Opening Day roster to maintaining a sense of rhythm amidst a myriad of call-ups, send-downs and multiple trips to Pawtucket’s disabled list, the 23-year-old has been tested quite often.
Knowing this, Harper wanted Bradley to have a chance to catch his breath. Had Harper decided to walk into Bradley’s life shortly after the latter was sent to Pawtucket following his 0-for-20 big-league slump in April, the former would have encountered a youngster who thanks to his polite nature would have been amenable to Harper’s therapeutic intervention.
Given that Bradley’s priority at that particular moment was to take measures to refine his approach in the batter’s box, the promising player would have found himself drowning in a sea of information in relation to processing and compartmentalizing Harper’s words of wisdom. The last thing Bradley needed was to suffer from memory overload, hence why Harper stayed away for as long as he did.
Bradley has been sole property of the PawSox since July 18 and figures to remain in manager Gary DiSarcina’s care until the conclusion of the Governors’ Cup playoffs. As the regular season in the minors began drawing to a close and the idea of Bradley returning to the Red Sox in September started to gather traction, Harper deemed it was finally appropriate approach Bradley.
“I’ve watched Jackie from a distance. I just felt that with all the attention coming out of spring training, you have give a player time to adjust,” said Harper. “So much attention and so many things are going through his mind. It’s better to back off and let him get acclimated to Triple A before going up to him and asking how he thinks his season has gone.
“Sometimes adversity is good for young people in terms of, ‘You know what? I got to the big leagues, but there’s still some things I need to learn,’” Harper added. “You make mistakes in the big leagues and the manager will take you out of the game, not to mention they’re way more costly then when you’re developing in Triple A or Double A.”
Bradley is well aware that Harper held off as long as he possibly could before breaking the ice.
“I think he just wanted to wait until all the hoopla calmed down a little bit,” Bradley expressed about his 1-on-1 dealings with Harper. “It was just a precautionary thing. He wanted to make sure I was settled and ready to have more instruction.”
As a coach with a specific concentration in baserunning, Harper can instantly tell if a young player is responsive to the guiding hand a person in his position is able to provide. If a player starts to ask questions or offer his interpretation on why he believes a certain play went a certain way, then Harper knows that he’s getting through.
“I like players who have a conversation and give feedback as to what they were thinking. As a coach, you have no idea what the player is thinking. Plus, if players didn’t make mistakes, then there would be no need for coaches,” said Harper, who registered 20 or more stolen bases in 11 of his 15 big-league seasons. “I can feel it when a player is not receptive. I can sense it. Personally, it doesn’t bother me because it’s his career. I’m only here to try and help him out. My bubble gum card is complete.”
Once the point/counterpoint portion of the dialogue has concluded, it’s Harper’s turn to set the record straight.
“You then explain that this is what we want. Things change as the game progresses. The same hitter is not always behind you in the order. For example, you get on with no outs. You’re still there with two outs. Your strategy changes because the hitter is now David Ortiz. It’s not (Shane) Victorino, who hits home runs but not that many,” he said. “It’s just like playing the outfield. You’re going to be positioned differently based on certain hitters. You’re not going to stand in the same spot the whole time.
“You have to have a baseball sense. You can read Ted Williams’ book on hitting, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to learn how to hit. You have to have some kind of ability and talent,” Harper continued. “What I try to give players is a little push. You try and eliminate the mistakes before they happen. It’s like taking medicine. You’re trying to get better.”
To that end, Harper has had nothing but pleasant dealings with Bradley.
“He goes about his business and gets his work in. Very receptive to coaching. I wasn’t really surprised by his personality,” were some of Bradley’s non-baseball traits that resonated almost instantaneously with Harper. “He’s a college kid. It helps to polish your game because you have a lot more experience. The college kids are far more advanced and mature than the high school kids.”
What are Harper’s early returns on Bradley following his first-ever extensive look at a player who starred at the University of South Carolina? On some levels, Bradley reminds Harper of where Jacoby Ellsbury stood development-wise as he neared fulltime duty in the majors.
“There’s a lot of little things to work on to get him ready for next year. That goes with any player. For example, (Xander) Bogaerts has a shorter swing, so he’s less apt to make mistakes. Jackie has a long swing, so he’s got to harness that. It doesn’t mean he’s right or wrong. It’s that you’ve got to learn to generate bat speed, but not be long,” Harper pointed out. “Did Jacoby have that same problem? Yes he did.”
While Bradley isn’t exactly Ellsbury on the base paths – he’s successfully stolen bases at a 50 percent rate for Pawtucket (7-for-14) – Harper believes that Bradley possesses the necessary instincts that could make him more of a threat.
“You can steal 20 bases if you watch the counts. They’re going to throw a lot of balls in the dirt on certain counts to certain hitters. That’s when you’ve got to study your own hitters,” Harper expressed. “You can steal bases by running on the right count.”
One thing is certain: Harper will be tracking Bradley’s career trajectory following a season that’s featured plenty of important career firsts.
“It’s just hard to say who is a surefire big-league player, but what I know is that Jackie has the ability to play,” said Harper. “Whether or not he’s going to be up there in 10 years, I don’t know. That will be up to him.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03