When the Red Sox prospects walk toward the playing fields at the team’s minor complex in Ft. Myers they are greeted by a big sign that points out that Fenway Park is 1,249 miles away and City of Palms Park is 2.6 miles away.
The message is obvious: Show that you have what it takes at the minor league diamonds and your dream of playing in the major leagues will eventually come true.
Unfortunately, the minor league complex is also where that dream often ends.
28-year-old Brett Harper is one of several players who are hoping for good news as camp winds down as he battles for a spot on Pawtucket’s opening day roster. The left-handed hitting first baseman had a pair of doubles and a walk in the PawSox 15-4 loss to Rochester on Thursday.
“I find out tomorrow if I make the team or not,” Harper told me. “We’re all competing for jobs out here right now and getting your swings in and leaving it all on the field right now is the way to go. I haven’t been told anything yet – I don’t think they’ve made their final rosters. But you can’t worry about things that you can’t control.”
Harper signed with Boston as a minor league free agent in February after spending the last two seasons in the Pacific Coast League. Last year, he hit .292 with 25 doubles, 19 HR and a .508 slugging percentage. In 2008, he hit .315 with 32 doubles, 20 HR and a .577 slugging percentage. Brett hit a career high 36 HR in 2005 in the Mets’ minor league system.
“The year before that was actually my breakthrough year (.306 in 2004 with 30 doubles and 17 HR),” Harper said. “I really started to come into my own with my swing and learned how to hit with power. The next year I hit a lot of home runs and really started to figure out my swing.”
Brett’s career minor league batting average of .296 is almost identical to his father’s career major league average. Brian Harper batted .295 in 16 big league seasons with the Twins, Pirates, A’s, Angels, Cardinals, Tigers and Brewers.
Brett’s father was the starting catcher for Minnesota when the Twins won the World Series in 1991 and is remembered for holding on to the ball on a key play at the plate.
“He got run over by Lonnie Smith in Game 4 of the 1991 World Series and it was a pretty nasty collision,” Brett said. The picture was in Sports Illustrated – he has it displayed in his office.”
While Brett has vivid recollections of being on the field and in the clubhouse after the Twins won the World Series that year, he is still looking to make his own major league memories. I asked him if Thursday will be a sleepless night as he waits to find out if he has a job with Pawtucket to begin the season.
“Not really,” Harper said. “It’s not in my hands – if it were I’d make the team for sure. In fact, I’d be in the big leagues. But it’s not in my hands and there’s really nothing more I can do. I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter at home and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll be just fine without baseball.
“If you’re lucky you might play until you’re 35 or 36. I’ve played 9 years of professional baseball, so I consider myself pretty lucky to have played this long. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity and I’ve had a pretty good career. I can look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I gave it my best every day and I had fun doing it.”
It’s not mentioned on the sign, but Pawtucket is 1,212 miles away.