Kovacevic: No measuring Harrison’s heart
If you don’t like Josh Harrison, you don’t like the little guy.
Or, for that matter, the really, really little guy.
It was summer 1990 in suburban Cincinnati, and the Pirates’ currently superlative super-utility man was but a tiny toddler with an oversized blue ballcap and the heart to match. His interests basically amounted to eating, sleeping and pleading with his parents to play ball. Dawn to dusk, he either played ball out in the yard or talked about playing it with the big boys.
“All Josh wanted was to play ball,” his mom, Bonita, recalled this week. She’s been at PNC Park for the homestand that ends Sunday. “He wouldn’t let it go.”
Not even when mom and dad explained that he was two years younger than the required age of 5 to play T-ball back then.
Bonita did give it a try, first by approaching the parents doing the coaching about making an exception for him. No chance.
“He was just so small, you know? They were worried he’d get hurt.”
That’s when Bonita went back door: She rounded up her own team, named herself coach and put her boy on the roster. With no regrets.
“Oh, he hit everything. He had such a natural swing that he fit in right away,” she said. “And in the field, he pretty much just chased the ball wherever it went. He played every position.”
‘You get knocked down’
If you don’t like Josh Harrison, you don’t like good things happening to good people.
His hometown of Glendale, Ohio, is as quiet and quaint as it comes. The population is 2,155, most shopping requires a drive out of town, and it’s highlighted by a National Historic Landmark marker for being one of the country’s first planned villages.
The neighborhood wasn’t rough, but the household could be. Such is life for the youngest of three brothers. Vince Jr. was eight years Josh’s elder and a three-sport stud. Shaun was five years Josh’s elder.
And as Bonita remembers with a hearty laugh: “Oh, they were rough on him, those boys. And that’s a pretty big age gap. But he held his own.”
Which meant Harrison always faced outsized challenges. And exceeded them.
He was a three-year letterman, two-year captain and all-city performer at Princeton High School. He was Big East co-player of the year in 2008 at the University of Cincinnati for batting .378. At every step, he hit the ball, he played all over the field and had everyone fall in love.
“Josh did everything for us, and he did it all with a smile,” Brian Cleary, Harrison’s coach at Cincinnati, was saying by phone. “He was usually the shortstop, but we had him in right field, and one weekend, he bailed us out by playing catcher. He was just a natural at everything.”
And the size issue?
“It’s funny. I see Josh’s dad around town here every once in a while, and he’ll still say, ‘Thanks for playing my son,’ Cleary said. “And I’m, like, ‘Vince, he was my best player, man!’ ”
Cleary laughed and added: “Some of us might have had questions about his size and what that could mean down the road, but Josh didn’t. And I think that says a lot about his personality.”
Professional ball kills most scripts right here, and Harrison’s began to detour, as well.
The Cubs made him a sixth-round draft pick in 2008, but the next summer, he was a mere throw-in on the trade in which Neal Huntington sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow for Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio. Team officials at the time glowed about the two pitchers — both of whom bombed — and described Harrison as “one of those guys you root for.”
No sentiment is taken worse by a prospect.
“A guy you root for?” Jeff Locke said. “Ugh. The worst.”
Scouts don’t look at what you can do but at what they think you will do. Harrison was, then as now, a cleats-to-cap 5 feet, 8 inches. He didn’t have the big-league body type. Or the tools. Per Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook at the time, he was “too small to hit for power, too slow to play a small man’s game, too limited in range to play shortstop, too impatient to draw walks.”
Harrison read that, too.
“You know, I’ve heard that body-type stuff forever, and I accepted it a long time ago,” Harrison was saying this week at PNC Park. “But my size wasn’t going to change my love of baseball or the ability I had to play the game or my determination to play it the right way. Nothing was going to change who I was.”
That, he elaborated, was from his upbringing: “I came from a good house. I was raised right.” His family is resoundingly religious, including now his new family of wife Brittney and baby daughter Mia Jade.
They also are relentlessly upbeat. That was best evident on the night in 2011 when Harrison played his first game in Cincinnati with the Pirates. The Harrison clan blanketed the third base side of Great American Ball Park and blew away the Reds’ faithful in decibels.
“Oh, man, I thought they were going to come out on the field,” Harrison said with a broad grin.
It’s all served him well. When the Pirates were shuttling Harrison back and forth to Indianapolis, it was Vince Harrison who offered the best advice.
“Dad told me I was the kind of player who always had to play, to keep swinging,” Josh said. “He was right, and it helped so much. I’ve needed to hear that positivity at times from my mom and dad. You get knocked down in this game. You do.”
But Bonita maintains most of that strength is internal: “One thing about Josh: If you don’t really know him, you’d never know he’s had a bad day. That smile is always there. But it hasn’t been easy. It never is for the little guy.”
‘I just played more’
If you don’t like Josh Harrison, you don’t like baseball.
“This young man loves to play the game,” Clint Hurdle offered one night this week. “He’s a joy to manage, a joy to watch.”
Who in Pittsburgh could argue that this summer?
It might have been a bit of a surprise that the Pirates cemented a roster spot for him this past spring, given that he was 4 for 29 as a pinch-hitter in 2013. That’s not a great bench trait. And it didn’t help when he opened this season 0 for 11 in spot duty.
But harkening again to his dad’s advice, once Harrison got into the swing of things, he took off: He’s batting .299 with five home runs and 25 RBIs, nearly a third of his hits have gone for extra bases, he’s driving the ball to all fields, he has nine steals and he’s making all the plays at all the positions.
Hurdle’s favorite stat: “He’s thrown out a runner at home from left and right fields. It’s not the same. He works hard on both. He’s always learning, adapting.”
Not so with the hitting, though, and that might be the most striking facet of his emergence this season: It’s come without any major adjustment on his part.
“Not at all, actually.” he said. “People look at what we do and how we prepare, and a lot goes into it. But really, it’s just muscle memory. That’s the biggest thing. We know what the right motions are, how they’re supposed to feel. And the only thing that can get you out of that, obviously, is to not do it.”
So the key change was?
“Nothing. I didn’t change a thing. I just played more.”
From there, then, the most striking facet of his emergence has been that opposing pitchers still haven’t found his hole, his fatal flaw.
Ask him how opponents are attacking him, and he’ll shrug: “Every team, every at-bat, it’s different. The other night, Arizona came at me with all fastballs. No idea what that was about.”
That’s the highest praise any hitter can draw.
“Josh is a talented guy. All this isn’t an accident,” Jeff Branson, the Pirates’ hitting coach, said. “He stays committed to his plan, to his approach, and gets the pitch he wants to hit.”
Not exactly inside-baseball stuff, huh?
“It’s just Josh being Josh,” Branson said. “Wherever you put him, on the field or in the batter’s box, he’s going to do a hell of a job.”
The obvious next step for Harrison is to find an everyday place on the diamond. Huntington and Hurdle are adamant they’ll find him at-bats simply by moving him around as a regular fill-in, if you will. Harrison is equally adamant he’s OK with that.
Until he’s pressed a bit.
“Well, every guy, I think, would like to have a position to play and go out there and take it,” Harrison said, as if speaking through pliers.
OK, so which one?
“Um … well … I would have said infield last year, but I’ve liked the outfield this year and … I really don’t know. I just want to be out there, I guess.”
Probably what that 3-year-old tot was thinking, too.