Man, myth, legend: Bryce Harper may have been the 'chosen one,' but his Phillies triumph was far from preordained

A century-and-a-half into professional baseball, we have not yet accepted the game’s total disregard for expectations and narratives. At once leisurely and scientific, the sport lends itself to hypothesizing, mythologizing. The spring and summer center on trials — upwards of 150 for a team; 500, 600 or even 700 for a batter — that can be observed, studied, weaved into a convincing theory of what would happen next. And the fall brings the results, almost inevitably unraveling whatever expectations and understanding we thought we had built up.

The theory of Bryce Harper was direct and lofty: He was the “Chosen One.” That Sports Illustrated cover was his introduction to the baseball universe at age 16, and has informed his identity ever since. It was last true, in a literal sense, when the Washington Nationals selected him No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft. But it’s so ingrained in his story that it resonates no matter what note his career strikes.

It can be triumphant, like when he debuted with a flourish at age 19. Or when he won his two MVP awards. Athletically gifted but hardly a physical outlier, that sense of destiny can feel present simply in his swing — a spring-loaded burst of energy that evokes a bolt of lightning, a carefully crafted biomechanical chain reaction that somehow exudes ambition.

It can also be discordant, used as a cudgel to punish him when he is human. If the theory of Bryce Harper failed, the logic seemed to go, it was because he strayed from the predetermined path. Not because we dropped a piece of speculative folklore onto a roulette wheel.

Baseball bends to no one, it feels no gravitational pull. It certainly does not read Sports Illustrated. But Harper proved the theory this weekend, appearing at the climactic juncture and bashing the Philadelphia Phillies into a World Series against the Houston Astros where he may yet add to his legend.

In an October that has repeatedly provided the thrills of the unforeseen, Harper is providing something rarer: Promise fulfilled.

Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper is enjoying a fantastic postseason, and it's a big reason why the Phillies are headed to the World Series. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper is enjoying a fantastic postseason, and it's a big reason why the Phillies are headed to the World Series. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

MLB's biggest spotlight found one of its biggest stars

We often lament the ways the sport’s unseeing, unfeeling, totally mechanized distribution of opportunity can sap the brightness of MLB’s biggest stars. So we should celebrate the universe that put Harper in position to make his myth a reality.

The Phillies, and the Nationals before them, have shown how easily a talent like Harper can be obscured, even at his peak. The Los Angeles Angels, inept sherpas to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, seem to find new innovations in this dour field every season. Even all-time greats who found full-fledged support and spearheaded great teams frequently miss the window where their baseball excellence might leave a glorious October imprint — “something to remember” as Harper reportedly told hitting coach Kevin Long shortly before belting the go-ahead homer against the San Diego Padres in Sunday night’s NLCS Game 5.

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Barry Bonds didn’t play in the World Series until he was 38 years old. Ken Griffey Jr.’s first postseason bright spot turned out to be the only good playoff memory in a Hall of Fame career. Ted Williams perfected the art of hitting in the midst of an epic World Series dry spell for the Boston Red Sox.

Harper’s rise to Main Character in this postseason required a much larger story to play out just so.

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For starters, these Phillies existed in 2022, which meant MLB’s postseason expanded to six teams per league instead of five. Just to claim that final wild-card spot, they had to weather a rotten start, fire Joe Girardi, install Rob Thomson as manager, then navigate without Harper after a Blake Snell pitch broke his thumb.

They had to solve intractable quandaries at shortstop (by letting Bryson Stott work at it until it clicked) and center field (by swinging a surprising trade with the Angels for Brandon Marsh, who was hitting .226 at the time). They had to hold on tight as the bullpen reconfigured itself around Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado.

Only then did they scrape out the opportunity to face the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by the 101-win Atlanta Braves, followed by a star-studded Padres team.

Only then did J.T. Realmuto win the chance to single off setup man Robert Suarez to open the eighth inning of a potential pennant-clinching game. Only then did they get Bryce Harper to the plate, as the go-ahead run.

Bryce Harper staked his claim to history in Philadelphia

A lot of baseball’s most memorable history reworked the past in the heat of the moment, crafted it to form a straight line. Babe Ruth’s called shot is the most famous fulfilled promise in the history of this sport or any other. Yet we’re not totally positive whether he was gesturing toward the center field fence or responding to hecklers in the opposing dugout.

Harper’s story is a more definitive one, a more intentional one. His rise from talented Las Vegas high schooler to No. 1 pick to Rookie of the Year to MVP to $330 million free agent to MVP again to right now still isn’t a neat and tidy narrative. But it’s remarkable how tightly he has hewed to the line.

Even Harper’s choices when he joined the Phillies amplified the elation at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday. He didn’t want an opt out. He didn’t want a second crack at free agency. He didn’t want an astronomical single-year salary to join the Dodgers’ constellation of stars. He signed on for 13 years in Philadelphia and went to work wrapping himself in that city and that team, went to work laying the foundation for a game like Sunday’s, surely aware that it was not guaranteed.

When it arrived, though, he was ready — playing like a two-time MVP ready to win more, hitting like a rare postseason hero with a World Series still to come. This was something more impressive than calling your shot. Harper had it called for him. And found a way to deliver.