Bill Koch, email@example.com
July 12, 2013
(Photo: The Enquirer/Gary Landers )
Josh Harrison and his older brother, Vince, are separated by seven years, but they've always been close despite the disparity in their ages. In fact, Josh says, if you saw them together with their 31-year-old brother, Shaun, "you wouldn't know we were that far apart."
So when Vince talked to Josh earlier this season and realized that he was frustrated over his lack of playing time, Josh was more than willing to listen. What he heard was as much premonition as it was advice.
"I told him to just stay patient," Vince said. "Right now, you're getting pinch hits. Just make that your game. I told him I honestly believed that he would be laughing about not playing in a month or so. I've got a good feeling that it's going to be good."
Vince's prediction came true, but it failed to include the unlikely scenario that has unfolded for his little brother. Not only did Josh start to get regular playing time because of injuries to his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates, he was named last Sunday to the National League All-Star team for the first time.
What makes his selection more remarkable is that Harrison – who celebrated his 27thbirthday last Tuesday - is a player without a set positon. Heading into Saturday's game, he had started 56 games – 26 in right field, 12 at second base, nine at third base and nine in left field. He was hitting .292 with five home runs, 27 runs batted in and nine stolen bases.
Harrison, who played at Princeton High School and the University of Cincinnati, is making a triumphant return to his hometown this weekend with the Pirates, who are facing the Reds in a three-game series at Great American Ball Park.
"It's a bit overwhelming," he said. "It's definitely a blessing, but the phone hasn't stopped ringing, which isn't always a bad thing. It lets me know I've got a lot of support back here."
Harrison was barely recruited out of high school despite hitting .459 as a senior and leading the Vikings to the Division I state final four. He was prepared to attend a junior college, but then-UC coach Brian Cleary offered him a partial scholarship. He signed with the Bearcats the day he graduated from high school.
Just as he has done this season with the Pirates, Harrison made the most of the opportunity. When he left UC in 2008, he ranked among the Bearcats' Top 10 in career average (.358), doubles (53), RBI (153), stolen bases (63) and on-base percentage (.439).
"He just got more and more confident the more he played," Cleary said. "He played out of position as a freshman for us, but as it turns out there's no such thing as out of position for him. He played a lot of outfield. He played short. He played second."
Cleary describes Harrison – a nephew of former major leaguer John Shelby – as a player with an instinctive, low-maintenance swing.
"A lot of players use batting practice as a home run derby," Cleary said. "You have to talk to them about using a swing that will translate into the game. He would take batting practice and it would be hard ground balls and hard line drives. There wasn't much that could go wrong with his swing. He had that largely before he got to UC. His older brother Vince was a helpful influence on him."
Vince Harrison, 34, was one of the best all-around athletes ever to come out of Cincinnati. Two weeks ago, he was inducted into the LaRosa's High School Sports Hall of Fame after starring in three sports at Princeton in the late 1990s. He was selected out of high school by the Florida Marlins in the 20th round of the 1998 draft, but chose instead to go to college at Kentucky, where he played football and baseball.
He was drafted again after his junior year in 2001, this time in the 13th round by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but injuries derailed his professional career. Now a minor league hitting instructor in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, Vince first honed his coaching skills while working with Josh and his Princeton teammates in 2005 during Josh's senior year.
"I was in Triple-A with the Rangers and coming off wrist surgery," Vince said. "When I found out I needed a second surgery, they gave me the option to come back home. It just coincided that it was Josh's senior year. I knew I wasn't going to be able to play so I put all my energy into coaching. That was my baseball fix and kept me mentally sane. It was cool to coach him his senior year and go through the recruiting process with him."
Nine years later, he's still coaching Josh, albeit from a distance. He watches him on TV when he can and the two talk almost every day. When Josh begins to struggle at the plate, Vince often helps talk him through it.
"I have no doubt in my mind that if he doesn't get hurt he was going to make the big leagues," Josh said. "He was one step away. I still work with him in the offseason."
The best advice Vince ever gave Josh, he said, was to not worry about hitting home runs. Unlike Vince, who was bigger and stronger and was expected to hit for power, Josh is only 5-foot-8, 200 pounds.
"I said, 'That's an advantage for you,' " Vince said. " 'You've just got to get hits.' "
Harrison's size provided another advantage: It made him hungrier. Even as a youngster, Harrison played with a passion and intensity that reminded his father, Vince Sr., of Pete Rose. He carried that approach through college and still has it today in the major leagues.
"He always played hard," Vince Sr. said. "He always played tough. He felt like he had to play like that."
Getting to this point has not come easily for Harrison, but he understands how things work and he was willing to take the hard road if that's what he had to do. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the sixth round in 2008, was traded to the Pirates in 2009 and made his major league debut on May 31, 2011.
"You look around sports and the hype is always that this guy has got a 6-4, athletic build," Harrison said. "But at the end of the day you've got to be able to play the game. I never let that hold me back. Having two older brothers that used to beat up on me probably gave me that confidence and strengthened my ability to know how to handle myself."
Vince Sr. and his wife, Bonita, were in Pittsburgh last Sunday and were among the first to hear about Josh's selection to the All-Star team, but had to keep it to themselves until after the selection show later that night on ESPN. They started to get congratulatory calls from family and friends on their drive back to Cincinnati on Sunday night after the show had aired.
They're scheduled to fly Sunday morning to Minneapolis – the site of this year's All-Star game – along with Josh's wife, Brittney, and other family members. Josh and Brittney have a 5-month-old daughter, Mia.
Vince Sr. said he's usually not emotional, but can't promise that he won't have tears in his eyes Tuesday night when he sees his son mingling as an equal with the best players in baseball at Target Field.
"He's a big guy," Josh said. "He tries not to be emotional, but he can be. I know he's going to be proud looking back to where I've come from. I can see him, saying, 'Man, this is awesome.' "