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Desert Companion

Homers

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Homers
Illustration by Paul Ryding

As two of baseball’s brightest stars, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, lead a pack of Vegas-bred major-leaguers, a consideration of Sin City as a baseball town 

 

Open that window and take a big whiff. Spring sure smells good around these parts, doesn’t it? No more so than at the dozens of Little League baseball fields that dot our desert valley. There you’ll find that distinctive aroma of freshly cut grass. Of well-oiled leather. Of hot dogs and burgers on the grill.

Of youth, and its dreams. Big-league dreams.

On these fields, over the next few months, wide-eyed 10-year-old kids will catch (and drop) fly balls, field (and bobble) groundballs and swing for (and usually miss) the fences.

Many will do all this while hoping that their futures will mirror that of two of Major League Baseball’s brightest young stars. Two young stars whose cleats left footprints in some of the same dirt where those wide-eyed 10-year-olds now play.

***

The refrain has remained the same for decades: Insiders want to show the world that the Las Vegas Valley is much more than its Sin City image; outsiders can’t, or don’t care to, believe it.

Oh, sure, the insiders have made progress. Had you told me when I arrived in 1994 that The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health would be within spitting distance of each other in the city’s core, I’d have driven you straight to the nearest detox center.

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Still, for every Smith Center-like boost to our cultural image, there are a thousand Monday morning Instagram posts of ATM receipts tagged #AnotherVegasHangover. It’s not exactly the kind of civic identity parents want their impressionable — and social-media savvy — offspring to absorb.

Which brings me back to baseball, and specifically, to those two bright young stars: 23-year-old Bryce Harper and 24-year-old Kris Bryant.

Late last May, in the midst of torrid starts to their respective seasons, Harper, then a fourth-year major-league outfielder, and Bryant, a rookie third baseman, sat down in a Wrigley Field dugout for an eight-minute interview with ESPN. Harper’s Washington Nationals were in Chicago to play Bryant’s Cubs, and with the live cameras rolling, the Las Vegas natives chatted about their days growing up and playing youth ball here.

As Harper and Bryant joyfully reminisced about their ordinary Vegas upbringing, one couldn’t help but envision the reaction from ESPN’s viewers across the country: Those dudes are from Las Vegas? Like, that Las Vegas?

Not long after the interview, Harper and Bryant took the field and did their hometown proud, as each hit home runs in the Cubs’ 3-2 victory. In fact, in a three-game series in which there were a total of just 10 runs scored, the Vegas kids — Harper went to Las Vegas High school and then College of Southern Nevada; Bryant graduated from Bonanza High — hit a combined four home runs.

Then on June 2, four days after the Nationals-Cubs series concluded, a rookie named Joey Gallo made his debut for the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, going 3-for-4 with a home run, three runs scored and four runs batted in.

The next day, Gallo homered again. That same night, across the Lone Star State, Chris Carter belted two home runs for the Houston Astros.

Gallo was born in Henderson and went to Bishop Gorman High. Carter graduated from Sierra Vista High in Las Vegas.

Throw in a long ball that Carter hit on May 30, and the quartet of Southern Nevada major leaguers combined to crush nine homers from May 25-June 3.

Gallo was shipped back to Triple A before the end of June (he returned in September and played a total of 36 games with the Rangers), while Carter finished 2015 with 24 home runs (giving him 109 in his six-year big-league career). But Harper and Bryant went on to have historic seasons.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Bryant finished with 26 home runs, 99 RBIs and 13 stolen bases, despite missing the Cubs’ first 11 games. (The organization, looking to delay Bryant’s free-agent clock, intentionally kept him in the minors until mid-April.) Meanwhile, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Harper finished in MLB’s top five in almost every meaningful offensive category, batting .330 (third) with 42 home runs (tied for third) and 118 runs scored (second), while matching Bryant with 99 RBIs.

In addition to both players making the National League’s All-Star team — Harper doing so for a third time — Bryant was named the NL Rookie of the Year, while Harper ended up as the league’s MVP.

Even more impressive: Each won by unanimous vote.

Turns out Las Vegas can indeed produce something other than hangovers.

***

To be clear, this isn’t the first time ballplayers from Las Vegas have hit it big in the major leagues. Some three decades ago, a slight, professorial-looking pitcher by the name of Greg Maddux graduated Valley High School and went on to become one of the greatest right-handed hurlers in history. In a Hall of Fame career that spanned 23 years, Maddux recorded 355 victories (eighth on the all-time list) and 3,371 strikeouts (10th all time).

Given the potential of Bryant and, in particular, Harper, it’s not a stretch to wonder if Las Vegas might wind up producing one of the greatest pitchers and one of the greatest hitters to ever play Major League Baseball.

Of course, Southern Nevada’s baseball roots run much deeper than these once-in-a-generation talents. Since the advent of MLB’s first-year player draft in 1965, 371 players from the area — be they high school graduates or products of UNLV or College of Southern Nevada —
have been selected, according to Baseball-Reference.com. (And this number doesn’t include dozens of local players, such as Bryant, who were drafted after attending colleges outside the valley.)

Speaking to our population boom that started in the 1990s, 86 of those 371 players have been drafted just since 2008. That includes Harper, the first player taken overall in 2010, when he was 17 years old.

And while we continue to await the arrival of our first major professional sports franchise — be it an NHL club lured by multimillionaire Bill Foley or an NFL team lured by a pipe dream of a stadium that billionaire Sheldon Adelson clearly has no intention of paying for — it’s interesting to note that only one pro sport has proven to work here: On April 7, the Las Vegas 51s (who began as the Stars) kick off their 33rd season of Triple-A baseball at Cashman Field.

Since the first pitch was thrown at Cashman back in 1982, we’ve seen nearly a dozen pro sports organizations come and go, including multiple soccer teams (indoor and outdoor), multiple hockey teams and multiple football teams (who can forget the Canadian Football League’s Las Vegas Posse? Or the XFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws?).

Yet head to Cashman on a hot a summer Saturday night, and you’ll still find thousands of fans, young and old, enjoying a hot dog and a beverage as they watch what just might be the next Bryce Harper or Kris Bryant working his way up to the big leagues.

True, baseball may no longer be America’s pastime, but it clearly remains Southern Nevada’s.

***

This month, Harper and Bryant will begin the monumental task of trying to upstage their remarkable 2015 campaigns. They’ll do so under a national media spotlight that will shine brighter and hotter than the mid-July Vegas sun.

To be sure, they don’t just belong to us anymore. Baseball fans everywhere have fallen in love with our hometown sluggers — Bryant’s No. 17 Cubs jersey was the top-seller in all of MLB last year, while Harper’s No. 34 Nationals jersey ranked sixth.

The best part about these Las Vegans? They seem to be genuinely good guys, the kind of increasingly rare pro athletes who play the right way on the field and behave themselves off of it. The kind you want your kids to root for and follow on Twitter.

This explains why Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman honored Harper and Bryant with keys to the city in December. On the surface, the mayor’s gesture looked like your typical media grab and photo op. Really, it was a little more than that.

Here were two budding superstar ballplayers — both barely old enough to legally partake in the shenanigans for which their city is most identified — being fêted by their community and sincerely appreciating the moment.

Following the ceremony, Harper, a devoted UNLV basketball fan, posted a photo with Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian on his Instagram and gushed, “I met the amazing woman behind the legend! She is seriously the sweetest.” Bryant tweeted his thanks, along with the message “Proud to be born & raised in this city!”

It’s enough to give you hope that, even as their success continues and the money piles up, both young men will always remember where they came from.

Oh, and speaking of the money piling up: Six weeks after being honored by Goodman, Harper landed at spring training and was bombarded with questions from the media about the jackpot he’s destined to hit. Assuming he stays healthy, Harper, who will earn $5 million this season, will likely sign the richest contract in the history of professional team sports when he becomes a free agent after the 2019 season.

When asked if that contract’s value might surpass the $400 million mark, Harper replied: “You can’t put a limit on players. You can’t put a limit on what they do. … Everybody says the sky’s the limit. But we’ve been on the moon.”

Cut to those local ball fields and those wide-eyed 10-year-old kids running around the freshly cut grass, playing catch with their well-oiled gloves, dreaming their big-league dreams …

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

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