What a year it’s been for Pittsburgh sports. For the first time since 1992, the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers were all in the playoffs during the same calendar year. The three teams could make cases for having the best overall player in their respective sports, and the future looks bright for all of them.
At the college ranks, Pitt had another underwhelming season and underwent another coaching change, but James Conner and Tyler Boyd continued to become household names. Penn State had its bowl ban lifted, and it went on to defeat Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, led by first-year head coach James Franklin.
So many great moments in 2014, but that brings up the question; who should be named the 2014 Pittsburgh Athlete of the Year? After much talk and discussion, we decided that one person stood out above the rest.
So congratulations to Josh Harrison, the 2014 Pittsburgh Sporting News Athlete of the Year.
“That means a lot. You think of Pittsburgh, and you think about how much of a sports town that it is. They follow so many sports, and to be considered that, it’s an honor,” Harrison said. “I’m appreciative of it. There are so many other athletes that are deserving, as well.”
Harrison had a breakout season for the Pirates, as he had a slash line of .315/.347/.490 with 13 home runs, 18 stolen bases and 52 RBI.
The numbers came out of nowhere for Harrison, as he put together his finest season of his career, by far. For Harrison, though, it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to show what he could do.
“This past year was memorable for me because it was my first season with a substantial amount of playing time. If you look at my previous years, I think I had as many at bats this year as the previous years combined,” Harrison said. “It’s repetition. In any job, you won’t get better if you do your job two days a week. You need to do it consistently.
“And that’s not a shot at Clint Hurdle at all. I love the man. Everyone has a different process of playing time. My first few years was a learning experience for me. I was never a guy who didn’t play, so it was a big adjustment for me.”
Harrison’s memorable season didn’t just impress those locally, but he made his mark on the league as a whole. For his performance, he earned a trip to represent the National League in the 2014 All-Star Game.
“It was exciting. We all knew that Cutch was going. I found out when Tony Watson found out, who was very deserving, too,” Harrison said. “To be considered an All Star is truly a blessing. It lets you know that you did something that people took notice to. I had a game that day, so I couldn’t get too excited, but I did tell my mom and wife before anyone else.”
But even after Harrison was named an All Star, not everyone believed. This site — and myself, in particular — wasn’t rooting for Harrison to fail by any means, but we expected a regression to the mean.
It didn’t happen, though, and while it may be a surprise to others, it wasn’t to Harrison.
“What people say doesn’t mean anything negatively. I appreciate the support. Don’t get me wrong. But nothing anyone says motivates me,” Harrison said. “I motivate myself, and I know what I’m capable of. I don’t prove people wrong, I prove myself right. It didn’t impact how I approached each day.”
With his success, Harrison quickly became a fan favorite at PNC Park. In year’s past, fans enjoyed his grit and hustle that he showed when he got in games. But last year, they rooted for him as their starting third baseman.
“What people say doesn’t impact me, but there’s something about being on the field, and there’s something about the boost from the crowd. It’s definitely there,” Harrison said. “You feed off of the energy. It’s great to be out there and feel that. You look forward to going to work every day with those fans.”
In the offseason, when Harrison went home to Cincinnati, he said that his family and friends were nothing but supportive and excited about his career year. However, like Josh, they weren’t in the least bit surprised.
“They’re all happy for me. It’s been something that everyone said has been a long time coming. They were all just waiting for me to get my chance. They saw me play that way my whole life. To be honest, they are probably more excited than I was,” Harrison said with a laugh.
Arguably Harrison’s biggest supporters are his brothers, and it was his oldest brother that continued to offer his encouraging words throughout the year.
“I talk to my brothers every day during throughout the season. My older brother could tell I was frustrated, and that I wanted to play early on. He told me to just wait until the end of the season. ‘Just watch. You’ll sit back and laugh.’ He knows what I’m capable of. At the end of the year, he just said ‘I told you! I told you!’”
Looking forward to 2015, Harrison doesn’t feel like he needs to prove that he wasn’t a one-year wonder, but he knows that he will need to adjust to the pitchers, just as they’ll adjust to them.
“I don’t put any pressure on myself. I know what I can do. I don’t worry about that,” Harrison said. “At the end of the day, I’m the one going out there doing it. I’ve played the game my whole life, and I know what I can do. It’s no surprise what I did last year. I just have to make the proper adjustments this year.”
When he enters Spring Training this year, it will be the first of his career that he’s a starter. With his play last year, and with the struggles of Pedro Alvarez throwing the ball, Harrison is slotted to start at third for the Pirates this year, while Alvarez will be across the diamond at first base.
With a secure starting position, does it make his preparation for Spring Training a little bit different?
“My preparation will be different because I didn’t know where I would be. I know I can focus on playing third base and doing that to the best of my abilities now,” Harrison said. “It allows me to really focus on one thing. The preparation as far as workouts at the same, but honing in on the position is going to be different.”
Joining Harrison this year in Bradenton will be relatively the same team as last year, with a few minor changes. The Pirates lost Edinson Volquez, Justin Wilson, Ike Davis, Clint Barmes, Gaby Sanchez and Russell Martin, but brought back A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, as well as Sean Rodriguez and Francisco Cervelli.
Perhaps the biggest surprise move of the offseason so far for the Pirates was winning the big to have the right to negotiate with shortstop Jung-ho Kang.
“I’m very excited with what we have done. We have A.J. back, which is a great thing for us. He did a lot during his time here, and he felt this was partly his home. It’s good for him to come back,” Harrison said. “As for the guys who left, I mean we know the game of baseball. We’d love to have the same team, but we know that’s how baseball is. There will be people that come and go. We have to focus on what’s ahead of us.”
And what’s ahead for the Pirates is a tough road to the playoffs, as the N.L Central has reloaded, thanks the youth and free agent signings by the Chicago Cubs. But as they’ve shown before, they can fight through adversity, and they have even bigger aspirations than just making the playoffs for the third straight year.
“The goal is the World Series. That’s without a doubt. That’s every team’s goal. You have to set yourself up to get to the World Series, though, which comes by winning the division,” Harrison said. “There were scenarios that happened throughout the season where we could have won the division, but we ended up right on the outside of that.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of teams that would have loved the shot to play in a one-game playoff game. But we have to put our team in the best position to win, and that’s by winning the division.”
As he reflected back on 2014 for the final time, he said that so much happened, he couldn’t really name the top moment. But if he had to narrow it down, it would be making the All-Star team and the playoffs for the second year in a row.
“I’d be a fool if I said that’s the only All-Star Game that I wanted to go to. Same goes for the postseason, as well,” Harrison said. “Words can’t really describe that feeling. The game didn’t go the way we wanted, but no one can take it from us that we played in October. I’ll remember that forever.”
And Pittsburgh will remember Josh Harrison’s 2014 season forever, too.