WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper’s return to the only baseball home he’d known began and ended in the same fashion. He entered Nationals Park quietly, around 2 p.m., making a mostly solitary journey to the unfamiliar visitor’s clubhouse, where a security guard known locally as Cowboy dapped him up as he entered.
Ten hours later, still clad in his Philadelphia Phillies uniform, he exited the clubhouse for a postgame press conference, Cowboy wishing him a good game, and another security guard imploring him, “Say hi to your Mom and Dad for me.”
“I will,” Harper promised.
It was the time in between those exchanges that informed the next 13 years of Harper’s baseball life here.
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The stadium staff, the front office members who ordered up a pregame video tribute, even some former Washington Nationals teammates – they may forever remain his allies. Yet the majority of Nationals fans who adored him for seven seasons made it clear he is no longer welcome on South Capitol Street.
They booed him mercilessly, starting with that video tribute, continuing through all five of his at-bats and even the putouts he recorded in right field. Clearly, this typically docile fan base wanted a villain.
Trouble is, Harper gave them far more than they bargained for.
In one of the most stirring performances of his career, Harper rebounded from a pair of early strikeouts against the great Max Scherzer to torment the Nationals with a volley of hits that aroused the Philadelphia Phillies fans on hand – and eventually cleared the ballpark.
Sixth-inning RBI single.
And in the eighth inning, a towering two-run home run off Jeremy Hellickson, driving the ball some 458 feet into the frigid night and into a throng of adoring Phillies fans who made the trek down I-95 for the occasion.
As Harper exited the batter’s box, having homered for a third consecutive game, he twirled his bat with the flair of a majorette toward the Nationals dugout.
The flip – “It’s the emotion of the game; that’s it,” insisted Harper – released the final bit of tension for the superstar and his teammates who were bent on backing him after seeing how he was received.
“It was pretty powerful,” says Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, “for him to do what he did tonight. In the dugout, (the booing) made us all want to step up and support Bryce.”
Ultimately, it was Harper, the 26-year-old five-time All-Star who signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies, who had to stand on his own. And if anything, this night marked the end of his transition from National to Phillie.
If the boos weren’t obvious enough, it was the gaggle of marked-up No. 34 jerseys with his name removed, or the seven bros in the right field stands with T-R-A-I-T-O-R spelled out on their shirts.
Though some 500 Phillies fans made the trip down I-95 and populated many of the right field seats, there were few safe spaces for Harper in a place where he boosted the value of the franchise significantly off the field while helping it to four playoff appearances in seven seasons on it.
So, he turned inward, remembering the love he felt over his first three days in front of the home crowd at Citizens Bank Park.
“Heard the boos,” he said. “Kind of just remembered that I have 45,000 people in the city of Philadelphia, and more, that were screaming at their TVs, cheering, and I respect them so much. I understand the game and fan-player interactions.
“Knowing they’re back home cheering at me and having a huge section in right field fired me up, knowing this place was filled with Phillies fans. As well as Nats fans.”
The latter were harder to find as the long night wound on. The game was delayed 41 minutes by rain, and a Phillies lineup that’s truly eight deep wore down Scherzer and dispatched him after five innings.
Soon, the T-R-A-I-T-O-R guys were gone, and “M-V-P” chants were heard throughout the park. Were they for Harper, or Rhys Hoskins, who follows him in the lineup?
Does it matter? The Phillies are 4-0. The Nationals are 1-3, and fans seeking a pound of Harper’s flesh instead must contend with the loss of shortstop Trea Turner, who broke his right index finger attempting to bunt in the first inning.
It was a few minutes after 11 and the stands were virtually empty as Phillies reliever Vince Velasquez mopped up the 8-2 victory, but the chants of “We got Harper!” were undeniable from the Philly supporters who remained.
Harper called it “an emotional day,” but his new support system was palpable. Veteran starter Jake Arrieta lent him the wisdom that came when he made his own return trip, to Chicago last year, where he’d won a World Series.
John Middleton, the owner who criss-crossed the country courting Harper and wife Kayla in Las Vegas before finally getting him to sign on the dotted line, quietly congratulated him in a jubilant Phillies clubhouse afterward.
Harper was a 19-year-old when he hatched his career in this stadium. On this night, he learned one more life lesson: If you can’t go home again, carve out a new one.
“I just tried to remember – the city of Philadelphia is sitting back at home, cheering and screaming at the TV and happy as heck,” he said, pausing to clutch the pinstripes on his jersey, “that I’m a Philadelphia Phillie. And the people behind me were saying the same thing.
“Knowing I got these guys back at home, loving me, is all that matters.”