Bryce Harper has found a willing audience for his theatrics in Phillies fans

WASHINGTON — To say it was a playoff atmosphere in Washington D.C. on Tuesday night wouldn’t be quite right, although there was definitely something in the air. The national media was there — spilling over into the auxiliary press boxes at Nationals Park — and the bitter chill that rendered your breath visible certainly felt more like October than April. And then there were the MVP chants, which had to be arch-humor with a heavy dose of irony when you consider it was only the fourth game of the season … except it’s hard to sound like you’re kidding when you’re really not.

That energy was there, the sense of stakes and history and saying to one another, “We’ll always remember having been here when.” But it felt less like a celebration and more like a standoff. It’s fitting, in a way, that both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals wear red because it only added to the overall chaos. With the fanbases mingled, it was hard to tell who was shouting what and why.

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Bryce Harper made his heavily heralded return for the first time after rejecting multiple offers from the Nationals (both offers included large portions of deferred money) and ultimately signing for 13 years, $330 million with their fully revamped NL East rivals just a few hours north on I-95. And now we know how that goes: He was booed — from the first frame of his former team’s pregame video tribute honoring seven years of success together through the bottom of the ninth when one of the few remaining Nats fans leaned over the railing in right field and taunted, “You got split ends, Harp! Split ends!” and even the Phillies fans had to chuckle. But, maybe more interestingly, he was cheered, too.

Bryce Harper made his return to Washington on Tuesday night. (Getty Images)
Bryce Harper made his return to Washington on Tuesday night. (Getty Images)

In less than a week of pre- and postgame sound bites and social media posts and on-field pantomimes, Harper has taken pains to persuade the infamously hard-won fanbase that it was a clean break with D.C. and he only loves Philly now. And boy do they love him back.

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Eight buses departed the parking lot next to Lincoln Financial Field at exactly noon on the first day that the Phillies would play the Nationals this season. Inside were boxes of soft pretzels, cases of donated beer, and 450 Phillies fans who had cashed in their personal days and called up their craziest friends to spend a cold Tuesday ensuring that Harper would be met with an ovation as well as animosity when he got to D.C. In the front window of each bus was a sign that read, “WE GOT HIM.”

The caravan, which was put together by the Phans of Philly group that has been organizing similar trips for almost a decade, would be met in D.C. by dozens of others who purchased a package that included entry to a prearranged tailgate and a ticket to sit in the right field section, just behind where Harper plays. The company’s founder, Joe DiBaggio, had taken a calculated risk and put down a deposit on 500 seats in that section early in the offseason when the Harper Sweepstakes were still in full swing. It paid off; the trip was sold out.

During the nearly three-hour drive, fans competed in Phillies trivia for hats donated by the team and marveled that no newcomer had been this beloved this quickly in the city since Terrell Owens.

They talked about how he was doing all the right things — and that they noticed. The pregnancy announcement under the Ben Franklin bridge was perfect and opting to defer to Roy Halladay’s 34 in favor of a simple No. 3 was not just classy, it was an omen.

“Hopefully, he’s the second coming of the next Bambino!” said Kyle, the bus leader who has been on 30-some Phans of Philly trips.

Oh, the game?

The Phillies marched essentially unchallenged to an 8-2 victory and baseball’s best 4-0 start behind not just Harper — who fell a triple shy of the cycle — but also Zach Eflin, who tied a career-high with nine strikeouts in five scoreless innings; Jean Segura, who had three RBIs on three hits; Maikel Franco, who earned three intentional walks after crushing a home run off Max Scherzer and still singled in the ninth.

The reported attendance was 35,920 and we can assume that the vast majority of those ticket sales were to local Nats fans. But the demographics of the stadium shifted over the course of a half-hour rain delay and a three-and-a-half-hour game that took place under an icy drizzle. And by the time Vince Velasquez punched the last strikeout of the night in his 2019 debut, the remaining crowd (the people’s whose buses back to Philly wouldn’t depart until 30 minutes following the final out) broke out into an ad hoc rendition of Harry Kalas’ “High Hopes” — just like they play after every win at Citizens Bank Park.

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It can be tempting to say that Phillies fans have come a long way since they (lightly) booed an 0-for-3 Harper on opening day, how they’ve changed their tune since he logged six hits — including three home runs — and three walks in 11 plate appearances since then. But the truth is those people are likely not the same ones who took their unabashed adoration for the team’s new star on the road this week. Fanbases as a cohesive monolith with overarching personalities is a convenient narrative that of course falls apart under any scrutiny.

That said, narratives have a way of developing a life of their own and sweeping us all — media included, if not especially so — up with them. Bryce Harper can’t help but write a story about whether or not a hot-shot young star who tested free agency at a time when better players are choosing stability over sweepstakes is worth it. Worth the money, sure, but also worth the attention of the national media, worth the eclipsing glory on a team that (small sample size be damned) is undefeated on the virtue of their lineup’s incredible depth, worth six hours on a bus, worth flipping a bat and defending the practice for.

Bryce Harper got the last laugh against his former team. (Getty Images)
Bryce Harper got the last laugh against his former team. (Getty Images)

And in this first week, in last night’s game, his playing has felt scripted. The early failures in the form of a hitless game or two strikeouts highlighted the pressure, heighted the drama, and proved once and for all that the D.C. crowd doesn’t consider him one of their own anymore. Followed, of course, not by a steady ramping up but by extra-base hits and demonstrative moon shots that landed him in two of the three top spots for home run distance on the young season.

In their first homestand, Harper opened each Phillies game with a dramatic bow to the fans in right field. It doesn’t really make sense to do so on the road and at the start of Tuesday’s game, he stayed focused on the field. But the half inning after his RBI single, Harper brought back the bow and the fist pump, acknowledging the Philly contingent.

He said after the game that he was trying to figure out in the early innings whether it was Nats fans or Phillies fans in those seats. And that it became clear once he gave them something to cheer about.

“I was just making sure those were all Philly fans in that section,” Harper said. “And then whatever happened, I doubled or whatever, then I kind of understood that they were out there, and I thought, ‘OK, now I can do it.’”

Harper’s taken some heat in his career for being an overly showy player. But he seems to have found a willing audience in Phillies fans, who are happy about not just the outcome but the hype that helped him get there, helped him to know he can do it. I mean, it’s all performance, anyway, so why not act like it?

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