What I’m Hearing: Bob Nightengale was on hand for Bryce Harper’s debut as a Philadelphia Philly and relays what he heard and saw from the six-time All-Star.
PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper, with his Philadelphia Phillies’ bag packed, sat quietly in front of his locker Sunday afternoon, insisting there are no nerves, not even apprehension or a tinge of anxiety, but simple unadulterated curiosity.
He has lived the past seven summers in Washington, D.C., played 474 regular season games in the city, knows the players, executives, cooks, security guards, parking lot employees and even some of the vendors, but for the first time, he is about to venture into the great unknown.
He will board a train Monday evening with the rest of his new teammates, take the 1-hour, 45-minute trip to D.C., and for the first time in his professional baseball career, will be walking the opposite direction when he enters National Park, and changing into a different uniform.
The fans who adored him the past seven seasons will either celebrate and recognize his glorious contributions, or vociferously boo him, livid that he left the Nationals and went to the enemy.
The fans’ reception, particularly that first at-bat as a visitor Tuesday night, will be utterly fascinating.
“We’ll see what happens,’’ Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, “but I really think it’s going to be mixed. I think I’ll be cheered, I really do. But I think I’ll get booed, too. It’s part of sports, right?
“I feel like the guys who are usually traded away and come back are welcomed a little more than the guys that leave as a free agent. So I don’t know how that part will go. I really have no idea what to expect, but I am looking forward to it.’’
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His new teammates are curious too. Do the Nationals pay homage to Harper before his first at-bat with a video board tribute? Do the fans taunt him and bring home-made posters with $$ signs?
Alex Rodriguez found himself in a similar situation nearly 20 years ago, leaving the Seattle Mariners to join the division rival Texas Rangers on a 10-year, $252 million deal after the 2000 season.
“I know for me, emotionally, it was very difficult to go back,’’ Rodriguez said. “You’re essentially playing against your family members and a fan base that adored you for so many years.”
If it was in reverse, everyone in the world would know the fans’ reaction in Philadelphia. Just ask outfielder Jayson Werth, who left the Phillies for the Nationals, and the boos he heard every time he came to town. J.D. Drew was never forgiven for snubbing the Phillies.
There are 10 buses filled with Phillies’ fans traveling to Washington, 500 of them with tickets in the lower level of right field, literally having Harper’s back.
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“I love human psychology,’’ Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “I love to see how people respond to moments like that, the players, the fans and the city.’’
And Kapler’s amateur psychologist guess?
“A very strong standing ovation,’’ he said. “My reaction is that fans understand the player’s contributions, and I don’t think his contributions to D.C., and to the Nationals can be discounted.
“They are really important for the city and to the history of that franchise.’’
The Nationals, who had never reached the playoffs since moving back to Washington in 2005, won four NL East titles during Harper’s stay. He was their biggest star, a six-time All-Star and 2015 National League MVP winner, who delighted the fans by winning last summer’s Home Run Derby at Nationals Park.
He’s been a Phillies employee for a month, but this city has already fallen deeply in love with its new acquisition. He slugged two home runs that traveled an estimated 863 feet as part of the Phillies’ eight homer, 23-run onslaught in their first three victories over the Atlanta Braves. It’s the Phillies’ first season-opening sweep of a divisional opponent since 2001, while drawing their most fans for the first three games (130,476) since 2012. And they are the lone undefeated team in baseball.
Harper has lit this fanbase’s passion and energy, with Citizens Bank Park suddenly becoming the place to be in this city, while Harper even raves about the city’s fine dining, saying he is 7-for-7 in restaurant choices.
“Bryce has kind of owned the entry to Philadelphia,’’ Kapler said. “He’s connected with the city. Connected with the fans.”
It’s really no different, Harper says, then what he tried to do in D.C. He has nothing but great memories from his days as a National.. Hopefully, he says, the feeling is mutual.
It’s almost fitting the first pitcher he’ll face Tuesday night is old pal Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young winner, who just happens to be the nastiest pitcher on the planet.
“I guess it will be weird to see Bryce since we’ve only seen him in a Nats uniform,’’ Scherzer said. “But this is baseball and we’re so used to guys changing teams all the time.’’
Harper says he won’t dare smile when he steps into the box, knowing Scherzer’s seriousness, but will doff his cap out of respect. He may even bow to the fans in right field, just as he has done in the first three games of this season in Philadelphia, a tradition he plans to continue the entire season.
“I’ll always remember and cherish all of the screaming and yelling,’’ said Harper.
“It’ll definitely be different, but it’s part of the game. It’s something I have to get used to.’’
It may take time for the Nats’ fans to get used to Harper being the enemy, too. This won’t be a lovefest like when Chase Utley returned to Philadelphia last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hit a homer, and got a standing ovation. This won’t be Andrew McCutchen returning to Pittsburgh last season with the San Francisco Giants, and getting a huge tribute and ovations every time he stepped to the plate. And it certainly won’t be anything like Albert Pujols’ first visit to St. Louis this summer since signing with the Los Angeles Angels in December, 2011.
The Phillies and Nats face one another 19 times a year in the NL East, and unless the scheduling format changes one day, Harper will be playing them 247 more times.
“I went through that in Texas. The first time is the hardest. It’s emotional,” said Rodriguez, who spent three seasons with the Rangers before being traded to the Yankees.
Harper’s teammates don’t even know what to expect. Phillies veteran starter Jake Arrieta expects a mixed reaction. Phillies reliever Pat Neshek think he’ll gets cheered his first at-bat, and then booed the rest of the evening. First baseman Rhys Hoskins only knows it will be emotional for Harper.
“It’s tough, because you’re talking about a superstar who left your team,’’ Arrieta says, “and it’s bittersweet for a lot of fans because he stayed in the division. But I really believe he should be cheered no only based on what type of player he was there, but what he meant to that organization and that city.
“They should definitely be respectful to what he did for that organization and pay at least a solid tribute to him and his family.’’
Said Neshek: “I really think they’ll give him a standing ovation. He did a lot for that franchise, turned it around, I don’t think he’ll hear any boos. He never caused any commotion, didn’t talk bad about the organization when he left, so I think the fans over there respect that.
“But by the end of the end of the summer, nobody will even care anymore. And next year, he’ll be just another player.’’
The Nationals certainly didn’t envision Harper joining the enemy for the next 13 years. They tried to keep him at the outset of free agency, offering him a 10-year, $300 million contract the final home game of the year. Harper flatly rejected it. And the Nationals moved on. They spoke with Harper just before Christmas, saying that offer was no longer on the table, and never engaged again.
There will be those who understand why he departed, and others who will believe he’s greedy, but if the Nationals wind up winning the division, the sting will quickly disappear.
Harper is just ready for the frenzy to end, when he can just talk baseball again, be himself, and not have a horde of reporters crowding his locker before and after each game.
“I’m really looking forward to the craziness dying down,’’ he said. “The first three days here, it’s been media craziness. The two days in Washington will be media craziness.
“After that, it should calm down.
“I can only hope.’’
Harper rolled his eyes, and grinned.
Nah, maybe not.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale