As recently as Thursday morning, Philadelphia Phillies fans were tweeting about how loudly they would boo Bryce Harper if and when he returned to the city as a Dodger or a Giant. But the fact that they changed their tune after he agreed to a 13-year, $330 million contract with the team isn’t proof that the fan base is fickle — just the opposite. And of the two things that people will talk about — the length of the deal, the intensity and volatility of the preceding sweepstakes — the former will vastly overshadow the latter. If Harper proves to have the kind of career this contract supposes that he will, someday he’ll go into the Hall of Fame with a Phillies cap on.
I haven’t lived in Philadelphia since I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania almost seven years ago, but you wouldn’t know it from the way I drop references to the Reading Terminal Market or complain about how tearing down the analog arrivals board in 30th Street Station is an affront to aesthetics. I grew up just outside the city in South Jersey (20 min, tops, on the PATCO, I’ll tell you as soon as you start to question whether that “really counts”) and still check the real estate listings regularly to satiate (or maybe fuel?) the unspecific plans I have to someday move back. None of this makes me qualified to speak on behalf of how the city of Philadelphia feels about the Bryce Harper signing — in part because cities don’t feel anything at all — but it makes me qualified to break the news to my Philly family and draw some kind of conclusion from their reactions.
They used to hate him — and why wouldn’t they? Harper spent seven seasons on a division rival, a stretch during which the Phillies never finished above .500. When Cole Hamels admitted he plunked Harper on purpose in 2012 as a rookie, we were on the beamer’s side — fandom makes us stupid like that.
“I thought he was overrated before,” said my dad, who has lived in Phillies’ territory his entire life — since before Ruben Amaro Sr. was the starting shortstop. “But today, I decided that he wasn’t.” Fandom makes us stupid like that, too.
Much has been, and will be, made of how Philly is a tough city, a blue-collar town that doesn’t suffer glory boys who may have gotten a big head (or is that just all the hair?) from appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated at just 16 years old. But I’ve always thought that Philly was far more sympathetic and understanding toward their own than plenty of other places. Harper will almost certainly deteriorate over the next 13 years (if you can already rent a car, you will too, time comes for all of us) but I think the city will forgive the final years of Harper’s record-setting contract, the same way they did Ryan Howard’s $125 million extension, if he’s able to deliver a championship before then. Which is not to say Howard wasn’t booed during those bad years or that talk radio hosts didn’t mock him mercilessly for making an average salary of $25 million (Harper’s AAV will be $25.4 million), but the smart fans knew he was hurt, he had signed the deal before shifts were widespread, and that the Phillies were paying Howard for his past performance.
That’s how the system — which allows teams to underpay young players early in their prime — works. Players cash in on what’s important to them during the few chances they get. The Phillies and Harper agreed to a 13-year deal with a no-trade clause and no opt-outs because that’s what it took to land the biggest free agent of the offseason; and that’s exactly why the city will embrace him. Because what Harper clearly telegraphed, through reportedly turning down short-term deals that pay him more per year and the opportunity to return to the free agency market while still in his potential prime, is that he’s interested in stability and the opportunity to build a life and a career in a single city. And what Philly wants — what all fan bases want, of course, but this is about Philly and the fans who have a chip on their collective shoulder — is loyalty.
“We have this inferiority complex that says even if we offered him more money, he was going to L.A.,” my dad said when I talked to him about it. “And it wasn’t that long ago that we sent a team of people to meet with LeBron [James] and he didn’t even seriously consider Philly. So when we started hearing rumors that the Dodgers and the Giants and maybe even the Padres were in the running, it felt like, oh OK, Harper’s a West Coast guy and he’s going to go to a West Coast team.
“When he picked us, it wasn’t just that we paid him more money; it felt like ‘we’re OK.’ We want to be a destination, and now we are.”
Bryce Harper will be remembered as a Phillie. And maybe all the nice things I’m saying now will prove to not be true — he won’t bring the city a championship, the fans won’t bestow a sainthood on him that will cover even an injury-prone player’s late 30s, however pained they may prove to me. But the point is the deal is long enough that the narrative of Bryce Harper’s career won’t be what happened in this offseason of free agency, or even what happened in Washington, but what happens in Philadelphia over the next 13 years.
Until this moment, Harper has been the Phillies’ adversary — both as a division rival and also in an effort to milk the market for all its worth. We’ll never know how much truth there was to the rumors that he didn’t even want to come to Philly but they likely existed in part to drive up his price. Regardless, he’s here now. And on a deal that’s more team-friendly than it may seem at first, and now their interests are aligned. So how do Philly fans feel? They want Bryce Harper to be good almost as much as Bryce Harper wants Bryce Harper to be good. And together, they intend to build not just a World Series-caliber team, but a dynasty.
I recognize the fallacy in writing about the specific fandom of any one city. I’m from only one place and can’t tell you the ways in which other cities feel pride but I’m sure it’s got a fervor of its own. The part where you love a guy who brings your city a ring regardless of where he may have come from is universal, that’s what fuels this whole crazy industry. And yet: I want to think that Bryce Harper choosing a fan base that found out about the deal even before the team’s manager because they were just clued in over the fan base that’s best-known for leaving games early is a sign of how much he cares about glory and the game and being the kind of guy who never has to buy his own non-alcoholic beer in this town ever again.
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