PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper sprinted to right field Thursday afternoon wearing bright green cleats featuring the Phillie Phanatic, took off his cap, raised both hands high into the air, took an exaggerated bow and pumped his fist twice in the air.
Welcome to Philadelphia, Harper’s new home – likely for the duration of his career.
Harper, the richest free-agent in baseball history, made his Phillies debut in front of a sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park. Although he didn’t make much of an impact in the Phillies’ 10-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves, it marked a glorious beginning.
Harper received two standing ovations before the game, and another by simply running out a hard-hit grounder in his first at-bat.
And, yes, just in case you were wondering, he was booed twice, too.
He struck out with Jean Segura on third base with no one out in the third inning, and you could hear a smattering of boos by the raucous crowd.
He struck out again in the fifth inning off Julio Teheran, a pitcher who had given up 18 hits and eight homers in 40 at-bats to Harper in his career, and those boos came a little louder.
Still, considering the booing barely was audible, and this in front of the most hardened fans in the game, perhaps it was the ultimate respect.
Harper, who signed a $330 million contract was the centerpiece of the Phillies’ magnificent rebuilding project, with four of the top five players in the lineup new to the team.
“The middle of the lineup,’’ Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said, “is ferocious.’’
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Leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen, their new $50 million free agent outfielder, immediately showed off their potency by homering on the first swing of his Phillies career. He became the first Phillies player to homer in his debut at home since Heinie Mueller in 1930.
By the end of the game, the Phillies had exploded for 10 runs, despite Harper contributing nothing more than an intentional walk before Rhys Hoskins’ first career grand slam in the seventh inning.
No matter, you couldn’t tell the difference if Harper had hit three opening-day homers by his demeanor.
“He’s a guy well-equipped for this moment,’’ Kapler said. “The biggest stage. The brightest lights. He’s been that stage since he was 15 years old.’’
Really, Harper was born to do this, living in Las Vegas. His stardom shining brighter than the biggest marquees on the Las Vegas Strip.
“I enjoy those moments,’’ Harper told reporters Tuesday before the Phillies’ final spring workout. “I enjoy the craziness. That is what I do. I love that. I think it is that jump-out-of-a-plane kind of feeling.
“I am looking forward to being in those situations of high intensity, emotion.’’
It’s this suave and debonair personality, swashed with sheer unadulterated talent, that has already established Harper as the king of Philadelphia.
There are billboards of him all around town. There are the commercials and national endorsements. And he has the hottest selling jersey in all of baseball – ahead of Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles. Angels.
It’s unknown how much the Phillies’ attendance will increase this year, particularly with Harper signing so late, but their spring-training crowds nearly doubled after his arrival.
“It’s got to be pretty exciting for them,’’ says former Phillies All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, “because now they have the ability to watch one of the best players in baseball for the next 13 years.’’
This day, he managed to steal the show even upon his arrival to Citizens Bank Park. He walked in wearing large black glasses, his cap on backwards, and a black T-shirt featuring Philadelphia mascots, the Phillie Phanatic and Gritty, depicting Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction.
A Philly star was born.
“This,’’ he said, “is a new chapter.’’
It was only Day 1 of the rest of Harper’s baseball life, but already, he has proven the hype is real.
Now all he had to do is live up to it.
He has 2,105 regular-season games left in his Phillies’ contract to accomplish that.
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