CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Bryce Harper soft open began with a headband and a bowl of oatmeal at a community table, as would any new era worth its intoxication.
It concluded with the second of two walks in two plate appearances, boos for the pitcher who missed the zone eight times, a ceremonial departure from first base in the third inning and finally an escort from the field.
In between, introduced to the locals and snowbirds as their full-maned and for-now designated hitter, Harper strode to the plate to the theme from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which references West Philadelphia, this being the story of how his life got flip-turned upside down. When Rhys Hoskins followed in the first inning with a home run, Harper waited at the plate and held out his helmet, which Hoskins clanked with his fist. See, these are the things you work out in March.
If Philly is your thing, your vibe, your attitude, then this was the place to nurse your PBRs on a Saturday afternoon, except nobody was mad and throwing stuff. Yet.
The man in the green shirt at the front gate predicted, “It’s going to be a beautiful day!” with the vigor of the Devil’s Pocket jamoke who clips, “One whiz with!”
Inside, along a chain-link fence, the father of a young boy thanked “Mr. Middleton” for his autograph and was told, “It’s John. Mr. Middleton’s my father.” John’s shirt and belt were decorated with Phillies logos.
In the third-base dugout, Brian Dawkins, Weapon X from the Eagles, tested the mettle of an XXL T-shirt when he turned and said, “This is a time that I believe the city of Philadelphia should be extremely proud of. … There’s a lot to be excited about.”
Then the folks stuffed Spectrum Field and honored Middleton’s money and what these Phillies could be, from the embers of the teardown to the bombed-out September of 2018 to the grand expectations of 2019. The centerpiece, of course, is Harper and the conversation over what $330 million will buy you these days and whether the pitching will hold up and what sort of fight they’ll have on their hands in the NL East. Most of that will have to wait a few weeks at least, and in the meantime Harper had a chance to see if the pants were tailored right, if the shirt had room in the shoulders, if the cap didn’t seem to sit a bit too high.
“Feels great,” Harper said. “I walked in and everybody said the pinstripes are slimming. I’ll take that.
“When you put ‘Phillies’ across your chest it really means something to these people.”
It’s what a casual introduction looks and sounds like, the formal event coming in Philadelphia on March 28 at Citizens Bank Park against the Atlanta Braves, the drama coming four days later in Washington D.C. For now Harper would say the past week was, “A lot better than the week before that,” when he was sorting through offers long and short, rich and slightly less rich, from near and far, and spring training had started without him.
He chose Philadelphia for the next 13 years. Saturday, with his cheeks streaked in black and his bat cocked to his ear and Philadelphians standing and cheering nothing more than his presence, his preference for them and their city and their team, counted in many ways as day one of those 13 years.
“It was just fun to be out there with the guys, be in front of the fan base, get some dirt on my cleats and be in the batter’s box again and compete,” he said. “Puts everything behind me and I’m just able to go out there and be Bryce and play the game that I love.”
Then, on the very first pitch he got from Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Matt Shoemaker, he swung as hard as he could. And missed. The crowd, which had gone respectfully (and weirdly) silent during Shoemaker’s delivery, gasped.
“Uh, you know in BP today I said if I could get a ball outer third up in the zone with the wind blowing, I’m just gonna try to do what I can with it,” Harper said with a slight grin. “I got the pitch and kinda got excited a little bit. Drew the walk and saw some pitches and I felt good. Didn’t get out too far or back too far or anything like that – sorry, swing talk – just really happy with where I was today.”
The manager, Gabe Kapler, crossed his arms and said, “Certainly didn’t look like his timing or his rhythm was off. Looked like Bryce Harper in a Nationals uniform from last year.”
Before the flip-turned upside down. Before it was to all start again. Before Philly learns what it’s really going to be.
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