PHILADELPHIA — In the fourth inning of his first regular season game as a Philadelphia Phillie, Bryce Harper came up to bat with Jean Segura, another offseason acquisition, on third base. Segura was 90 feet away from giving 44,469 fans something to cheer about. Then Harper struck out, the stadium groaned, and down on the concourse, along the third base line, someone said “Geeze, it’s just the same old Bryce.”
You can dress him up in red pinstripes, but the guy who slashed .249/.393/.496 in 2018 will have to do a little better to deliver on the frenzied expectations of a city practically planning a parade route already despite six straight sub-.500 seasons.
PECOTA has the Philadelphia Phillies just barely winning the NL East with 89 wins this season. The morning of opening day, a butcher at the Reading Terminal Market said they were the “best team in baseball.”
“Ninety-five wins, at least. At least,” he said. And then he added he won’t be able to make it to the World Series like he did in 2008, what with living down the shore these days. It’s just such a hassle, you know?
Andrew McCutchen led off the Phillies’ season with a home run in his first at-bat with the team. Rhys Hoskins hit his first-ever grand slam. Pat Neshek caught a comebacker to kick off a very cool double play in the ninth. In between, Aaron Nola struck out eight while giving up just one run on two hits despite five walks over six innings.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) March 28, 2019
And yet, for many people the takeaway will be that Bryce Harper got booed. Not roundly. And not with at least some fans insisting we give it one more at-bat. But still, when he struck out in the fourth inning after grounding out in the first, there were boos. His next at-bat, Harper got booed again when he struck out swinging to end the fifth.
“No one player has to carry this team,” manager Gabe Kapler said after the game. “Bryce doesn’t have to come out and hit two home runs every night.” He insisted that Harper’s at-bats looked fine and cautioned not to draw any conclusions from such a small sample size. The last point, at least, is certainly true. And besides, there were more reasons to be excited than not today.
“I feel joy in what my teammates do,” Harper said postgame. And then he talked about how being intentionally walked in the seventh set Hoskins up for his grand slam, pointing out that no one had ever been intentionally walked to get to him.
It’s a little ironic, actually, that his one saving grace was that his reputation preceded him.
In a wildly unscientific tally conducted on the crowds teeming around Citizens Bank Park, I counted 122 No. 3 Bryce Harper jerseys even before I got inside the stadium. Makes sense. His jersey is the top seller of the year so far and set 24-hour sales records for U.S. pro sports when the signing was announced just a few weeks ago (despite seemingly a whole season’s worth of signing and extension news).
Roy Halladay and Chase Utley were also well-represented — a testament to how uninspiring fans have found the team in the years between their departures and Harper’s arrival. John Kruk is a popular pick, as well, perhaps bolstered by his time in the television booth. And plenty of other throwbacks. A man with a cigar playing cornhole in the parking lot was dressed in a Charlie Manuel bathrobe that he said he’d been wearing to games since 2007.
It’s impossible to be everywhere, but during the time that I circled the stadium and zig-zagged across parking lots full of mid-week tailgaters, I didn’t see a single McCutchen jersey. None for J.T. Realmuto, either. There was one Segura jersey. They were a combined 3-for-11 with five runs scored.
If the Phillies are successful this season — if they live up to the lofty expectations and are as fun for the next six months as they were in the first three hours of glorious, sold-out, clear skies baseball — it’ll be a team effort. They’ve proven they can win without Harper when they need to. And yet, if they had lost today, if all the stupid money fails to buy them a satisfactory run at the playoffs, it will be Harper who shoulders the blame. That’s what you get for being the guy whose name everyone wants to wear on their back.
After the game, Hoskins, whose season and a half with the team makes him a comparative Philadelphia expert in a clubhouse that is dominated by the fruits of an active offseason, was asked if he noticed the boos that followed Harper’s later outs.
“I did a little bit, notice,” Hoskins told Yahoo Sports. "Wherever he goes, there are gonna be people that see him as the villain. It’s kind of what he’s had to deal with his whole career because of how much success he’s had and kind of the way that he plays, with his hair on fire. I think he embraces that. I think he knows the type of passion that Phillies fans have.”
And if he didn’t before, he does now.
More from Yahoo Sports: