Former UC standout Josh Harrison made his hometown debut on Tuesday night with the Pittsburgh Pirates and felt the love of a city he's made proud.
CINCINNATI - During the slow drip of a Tuesday night game long since decided, a rare roar unexpectedly pierced the chilly air at Great American Ballpark.
The burst originated behind the Pittsburgh Pirates dugout. Josh Harrison knew it was coming.
The former University of Cincinnati and Princeton High School product predicted it weeks before the game when the ticket requests and text messages inundated his phone. Remarkably, despite being called up May 30 of last year, Harrison never played a game in his hometown. A schedule quirk created 15 games against the Reds at PNC Park, but never a trip miles from where he became a pro prospect at Marge Schott Stadium.
"It is going to be wild," Harrison said prior to the game. "It is too many people to even keep count of. In the hundreds, maybe three."
Indeed, the hundreds stuck around as Harrison came off the bench to pinch-hit in the eighth inning. The moment No. 5 slipped into view at the on-deck circle, the hometown hero finally received his raucous welcome.
Harrison would make a loud out to deep centerfield. Drew Stubbs would reel it in, but that wouldn't matter to his friends and family, most donning shirts with his name on it. Of those there to honor him, the cheers only grew louder.
Of course, by now, more than a year into his MLB career, Harrison's no stranger to the support from folks in this city.
"Even when (the Reds) come to Pittsburgh, I feel it," he said. "It's crazy."
The support is rooted in respect for a player that rose through the ranks with a lunch pale in his hand and hustle in his legs. The 2008 Co-Big East Player of the Year at UC only took three years to move from sixth-round draft pick to MLB debut.
Naming the position he didn't play since arriving in Pittsburgh last season slips off the tongue easier than the ones he did. He's manned the outfield, second base, shortstop and third. He's pinch-hit, pinch-run and double-switched. In the process, Harrison batted .260 with 19 doubles, 5 triples and 2 home runs.
On a Pirates team two games out of first place despite one of the most anemic offense in baseball, he provided a spark at the plate. He played so well in his utility role, Harrison rose to a regular starter over the last three weeks. He started 13 consecutive games from May 16-June 1 which included a 10-game hit streak.
Harrison developed a routine to expect the unexpected during a year of wondering what he'd see when viewing the lineup card everyday, Now, as his role expands, he's learning how to be a ballplayer all over again.
"It's definitely an adjustment," he said. "You playing everyday, you have a routine, you stick with it. It doesn't change. When you are not an everyday player, your routine changes from when you are playing to when you are not playing. It's something you got to learn to deal with and I'm still learning."
Finding a consistent routine doesn't come easy when still being occasionally spelled, as he was Monday, and not knowing which of the many gloves he'll be wearing that night. Moving around the field like a pinball may not be the glamorous life of a superstar, but it's one a guy who proudly carries the proverbial lunch pale embraces.
it's going to get me in the lineup, who wouldn't like it?" he said.
"I'd much rather be bouncing around and playing, then not playing."
It delivered his most memorable moment as a pro. He stepped to the plate in the 12th inning of a tie game against Houston and roped a walk-off base hit for a 3-2 win. Though, this wasn't just any hit. It came on Mother's Day. And his mother and grandmother were both in attendance.
"After the game, I saw them on the field," Harrison said. "They came right down by the dugout. They were there, they got interviewed and everything."
Harrison can't hide the smile on his face talking about that day. He couldn't before Tuesday's game, either. As members of Princeton's 2005 State Final Four team lined on the field he pointed and later shared hugs with his former teammates.
There will be no complaining from Harrison these days. He claims it feels like only yesterday he was celebrating breaking the school record for wins his junior year in Clifton. Standing only a few long home runs from where he played college ball, he'd clearly come a long way. And the lasting impression he left on a high school, college and city could be heard from every corner of the 43,000-seat stadium.
"It's good to be back home," he said. "There's no place like home."