Normally there are months and months — occasionally years, if the player changes leagues — between a free agent signing with a new team and that player’s return to his old ballpark. Given that Bryce Harper did not sign with the Phillies until March and given that the Phillies and Nats play in the same division, those months of build-up to and anticipation of a reunion were significantly curtailed: Harper and the Phillies will be in Nats Park tonight, with a first pitch of 7:05PM Eastern Time.
You’ve heard of Bryce Harper, right? The number one overall pick in the 2010 draft who made his debut with the Nationals in 2012? The guy who won the Rookie of the Year Award that season and the MVP Award of 2015 and who, despite all of his detractors and despite all of the people who have cast him as some sort of disappointment, stands as, arguably, the best player in the Nats’ brief history? I suppose Ryan Zimmerman has him beat thanks to having played in D.C. for seven more seasons, but it’s hard to argue that Harper isn’t the best Nat on a dollar-per-dollar basis.
Dollars. That’s the reason he’s not a Nat anymore, right? Despite free agency not being what it once was for some, it was very, very good for Bryce Harper given that (a) he’s a big star; and (b) he hit free agency at a far younger age than most guys do. Yes, it took his market a good while to develop, but when a team is willing to give you $330 million and a thirteen-year deal, you take it. The Nationals were unwilling to come close to that, of course. They offered Harper an extremely back-loaded deal with deferred money until Harper would be in his 60s on a take-it-or-leave it basis and Harper left it. As I’m guessing most of us would. And, as I’m guessing, most Nationals fans would if they were in Harper’s shoes.
Yet, as we noted last week, there is still a contingent of Nationals fans who feel betrayed by Harper for some reason. And columnists for that matter. Which has everyone wondering what kind of reception Harper will receive when his name is announced and he enters the batter’s box in the first inning of tonight’s game.
I suspect it’ll be mixed, with the vast majority of people offering either the silent indifference due any opposing player and a polite but muted applause often given to returning greats. In volume, however, they will be trumped by the small minority of fans who feel betrayed and decide that they need to passionately boo Harper because HOW DARE HE?! Added to their voices will be the ones who just think it’ll be funny to boo Harper because, “Hey, why not? He’s rich and he can take it.” Being honest, these are my favorite people because baseball games are supposed to be fun and there’s nothing wrong with a little booing a big famous guy, as long as you’re not seriously aggrieved about things. I’d probably be in the “performatively-but-not-passionately-boo” camp if I’m being honest.
Harper will be asked about all of this 50 times before the game and 50 times after and, my guess anyway, is that he doesn’t really care about the boos or the cheers, even if he knows he’ll have to talk about them. He’s probably far more worried about having to face Max Scherzer tonight. And he should be. Max Scherzer is really good and he doesn’t have any compunction about throwing one inside to a guy who thinks he owns the plate. If I was in the press gaggle in the Nats clubhouse tonight I’d probably ask him about how plans to approach Scherzer than a bunch of half-drunk yahoos from Northern Virginia who think that Harper owed it to them to take a worse offer to stay in town.
Anyway, as division rivals, the Phillies and Nats are going to face each over 200 times in the course of Harper’s contract, so eventually this will become no big deal. But for tonight it’s kind of a big deal. I’m genuinely curious to see — and hear — how it goes.
UPDATE: For what it’s worth, Harper is saying some nice things about D.C. in advance of his return:
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If you would have told me 5 years ago I would be walking into Nationals Park as an opposing player, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. Five years later, I’m doing just that. I remember the first day I walked into Nats Park. My first base hit. My first home run. And, of course, my first standing ovation. Nationals fans delivered that first ovation. The things that I will miss most are the relationships I gained on a personal level with so many of the Nationals staff and workers around the ballpark. Every day I walked in, I got a smile or shared a laugh with you. I especially want to thank The Lerner Family and Mike Rizzo for the unwavering support they showed me during my tenure in DC. The city of DC was home. Filomena’s, The Silver Diner, The Italian store, and countless other places helped make it feel like home. You, Nationals fans, made me one of your own for the entire time I was a part of the Nationals organization. I’m so blessed to have been able to play for a fan base that cared so much about our team each and every night. You will always hold a special place in my heart no matter what. I look forward to continuing Harpers Heroes with LLS in the DMV as well as making sure the legacy fields bearing my name are the best youth fields in town! When I run on the field tonight I am sure to hear some boos, but I will always remember the cheers and the screams that are still with me right now, as I start my new chapter. So for that, DC, THANK YOU.