How Bryce Harper landed on the Philadelphia Phillies

Hole up together for long enough, cover the same ground often enough, watch the private jets and the sales pitches come and go, feel your brain go a little bleary, and maybe you just run out of things to talk about.

So it was just a few nights ago in Las Vegas when over dinner, Bryce Harper started passing his phone around. On it, there were pictures of him as a boy holding bats and looking hitter-ish and standing with his family. Not before baseball, because there was never a before baseball, but before he was the Bryce Harper, and long before the Philadelphia Phillies would favor him with the largest contract in American professional sports.

Scott Boras, his agent, was at the table, as were Mike Fiore and Bill Gluvna, key members of the Boras team. Kayla Harper, Bryce’s wife, was there. Nearing the end of a four-month odyssey, they chuckled at the images of young Bryce — smiling and happy, mean-mugging, lost in thought and, for a period, actually kind of chunky.

“The forearms!” Boras nearly shouted. “Those are man forearms! On a 7-year-old!”

Bryce got to telling stories about his dad coming home from work and the two of them dragging rebar around the property, then going off to Little League games, where Bryce would hit five or six tracers and pitch an inning or two, then come the weekend, fly to, maybe, California for a tournament there. How it never really stopped, the baseball, how he never wanted it to stop. But Boras couldn’t get over the forearms.

“You’re like Bochy with a helmet on!”

Days later, on Thursday morning, Harper had made his choice. It’d be the Phillies. The baseball would not stop for at least another 13 years, which, according to Boras, was the final and most critical element in a four-month free-agent tussle that was part-fight and part-negotiation, part-frenzy and part-endurance. And while the average annual value of the contract — just north of $25 million — represents a minor raise over what he made in his final season as a Washington National, what became important to Harper, Boras said, was longevity. Was stability. Way more baseball. So much of it that, to a 26-year-old, 13 years would seem forever away.

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper in action during the first game of a baseball doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Bryce Harper is headed to the Philadelphia Phillies after agreeing to a 13-year deal. (AP)

This sort of outcome will be autopsied to the final nickel, of course, because it’s what we do, because we become obsessed with finding the flaw in a thing that, maybe, just is. So someone draws a happy smile over it, someone else pounds a keyboard in outrage, and the fact is Bryce Harper has a place to play and enough money to cover the dinner check. Did the market twist? Sure. Was there ever going to be $400 million out there? Dunno, but apparently not. Is the same system, the one Boras these days calls, “the beast,” that buries the middle class in unbecoming read-outs, also tugging at the best players among them? Maybe. Four-month free-agency slogs, even when the first number turns out to be a 3, probably don’t reflect a wholly healthy free market or, for that matter, sport.

That it wound back to Philadelphia, where the Phillies had for a half-year been the favorites, required the final hours before Harper would commit. According to Boras, Harper stipulated that there be no opt-outs in the contract, which floored Boras.

“But I invented those!” he’d said with a laugh.

He required no-trade protection. What Harper desired was an end-to-end experience on a team determined to win in a ballpark that would suit his game, all on a contract that would say to the next free agent, the coming generation of potential Phillies, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. The baseball won’t stop.”

There were offers of as much as $43 million per season, but not for long enough. There were other 10-year offers, Boras said. None fit, at least not in the moment, and while rumors spread that Harper wasn’t keen on Philly or he’d have signed already, Boras insisted that what Harper waited on was not less Philly, but more. Boras wouldn’t say it, but he surely believed the market was not as kind as he thought it might be, and the analytics that drive any signings but particularly those on the high end, would not necessarily favor Harper over, say, Manny Machado. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were not crawling over one another for a piece of Harper. The Los Angeles Dodgers jumped in late with an idea that would dust the Phillies’ average annual value but would not come close, maybe barely within a decade, in term.

So pitchers and catchers arrived. Then the position players. The games started. Teams Boras hadn’t yet heard from or who’d been quiet for months suddenly expressed their interest in Harper, so it was time to get acquainted again. And in a restaurant in Vegas, Bryce Harper, team-less, was getting goofed on for having puffy forearms 20 years ago.

“He knew what he wanted,” Boras said. “And I’ll tell you one thing, it was interesting. He was always about a contract this long. He wants to build a team. He wants to commit to that city. He wants an ideal setting for him to get done what he wanted to get done.

“What he said was, ‘I want every player to know I’m recruiting them to my team. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to win because players will know I’m there.’ ”

Philadelphians will celebrate, as much for the ballplayer who’ll make their team better as for what him picking them means. After too many dark Octobers, they are baseball-relevant again. Harper will make a fine first impression. Citizens Bank Park should be his kind of place. It’s a good thing, for now. The questions over how one rates $330 million for 13 years ahead of $300 million for 10 (as the Washington Nationals reportedly offered, about a third of that deferred) will fade, because what’s it matter in the end?

Here’s the thing about 13 years: It’s like forever. Apparently, that’s what Bryce Harper really wanted. It’s certainly what he got.

Something like forever.