Three days ago, Bryce Harper sat facing his locker, hood up, hat pulled low, headphones in, so engrossed in his own little corner of the Washington Nationals clubhouse that it took a tap on the shoulder to extricate him. This, in some ways, is who Harper had become over the last year and a half — a man around whom contract talk and critiques by way of pundits and constant analysis swirled so relentlessly that he pulled his hat lower and lower and his hood tighter and tighter to shut out all the noise.
He hardly smiled, at least on camera. Every word became businesslike, every answer cliched, particularly as his performance led to question after question about what might be going wrong — and never seemed to mention what went right. Three days ago, he pulled those ear buds out to answer a question about a groundball he didn’t run out, and his answer (“what, after I hit the ball 108 miles per hour?”) earned ire from most who read it. Being a superstar means answering for all of that, and he is not the first to have to deal with the discomfort. But Harper seemed to slide into that discomfort and never climb back out of it, never rediscovering the freewheeling, fast-talking kid that sometimes got himself into trouble early but always let you know how he was feeling.
Then came Monday night. Then came home run after home run. Then came Harper jumping up and down, stomping around home plate as if some switch had flipped that allowed him to be Bryce Harper again. The Home Run Derby doesn’t matter. That he won it says nothing about his swing, about what numbers he might put up in the second half, about how much money he will get in free agency, about any of that stuff everyone has talked about for months.
But that he enjoyed it — truly, legitimately, no-holds-barred enjoyed it — meant something to everyone who watched him. In four years, Harper has not looked as genuinely joyful as he did Monday night. In four years, Harper has not spoken with as much emotion as he did Monday night, when he teared up during the news conference afterward.
Harper choked up at a field dedication ceremony in Herndon, Va., earlier Monday, according to people who were there. He alluded to staying in Washington for the next 10 years, which no one close to him or Nationals ownership thinks anyone should read into. He was riffing, caught in a train of emotional thought that seemed to take him through the memories of his Nationals tenure.
A few hours after that ceremony, Harper finally stated publicly what has been obvious for some time now, something he said he wouldn’t talk about when the season began. He finally acknowledged he might play elsewhere next season. Perhaps in doing so he allowed himself to absorb the fact that he might only have a few months left here. Late Monday night, after he hollered “Washington Nationals, baby!” to a crowd that cheered his every move all evening, Harper talked about Nationals Park in a way he never has before.
“I think one of my favorite things is walking in and seeing the workers and, you know, really having that relationship with them. It’s a lot of fun,” Harper said. “I think it’s — I’ve been here since I was 17 years old. You know, it’s something that I’ve grown in front of these fans and I’ve grown in front of the media and these people, and everybody that, you know, has a say in it or has a job here.
“You know, that’s the security up front or the guy that works the parking lot, anything. I love talking and sitting down and seeing everybody every single day. Those are the relationships that you love. Those are the things that you see every single day and look at it and go, man, you know, that’s what it’s all about.”
That Harper won the competition against a relatively depleted field is not surprising. Harper’s power has never been the problem this season. Countless people have tried to explain exactly why Harper is underachieving, how to define the extent of the underachievement, and what exactly he has been missing. But as he stormed back with nine straight homers late in the final round, as he called to the crowd to cheer him and his teammates and skipped up the tunnel, he reminded everyone of what has been missing.
“He flipped a switch. His swing, you could tell he was getting tired,” Sean Doolittle said. “He went somewhere else. That was unbelievable.”
That “somewhere else,” that ability to take things to a different level, that is what made Bryce Harper in the first place. His numbers never told his story. Other than that remarkable 2015 season, they have been elite but not transcendent. The thing that makes Harper such a legend in his own time, the thing that elevated him to superstar status, the thing that made him seem destined for a bigger contract than anyone had ever gotten, is that ability to go “somewhere else.” Whatever the numbers explain or don’t, Harper has not gone there as much this season. The aura evaporated. His at-bats stopped being must-watch television.
Monday night, he captivated again. Monday night, he lifted an entire ballpark that made clear it was desperate for him to lift it. In a season so full of “meh” from him and his team, Harper conjured magic.
“I don’t think you can overstate [the amount of fun he had]. I don’t think you can overstate that feeling of … I don’t know if there was a monkey on his back. I don’t know if maybe he felt like this was something that he had to … this was definitely on his calendar,” Doolittle said. “That confidence you get from winning something like this in the way that he won it in front of the hometown fans … I mean, yeah, it’s a silly competition, but at the end of the day that could be something that really jump-starts a guy.”
That hometown crowd came up again and again in Harper’s news conference. He called it “incredible.” He said he wouldn’t advise others to participate in the Home Run Derby — unless it was in front of their home crowd, then, “100 percent, do it.” He began the day by not taking batting practice on the field, seemingly so serious about winning that he didn’t want to risk it, despite all the fans awaiting his arrival.
He ended the night leaning back and willing flyballs to fly over the fence with 43,000 or so people doing the same thing. Many fans have soured on Harper this season, at least based on their online comments and social media activity. But no one abandoned him Monday. Harper, who some think has had a foot out the Nationals Park door for a year or so now, was as engaged with the crowd that raised him as he has been in years.
“That’s the kid you see out there tonight, and I was fortunate to share that with you guys and show that to the fans,” Harper said afterward. “This wasn’t only for me and my family and everybody like that, but this is for, you know, the cook, the guy that works the front and the people that work upstairs. I mean, this is the whole city of D.C. I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here.”
Who knows what any of this will mean moving forward. But for one night, the city got a chance to remind its superstar that it hasn’t forgotten him and won’t just kick him out the door when things get tough. And on that same night, its superstar reminded why it believed in him in the first place, and why his potential departure has loomed so large over this team for so long. For one night at least, D.C. remembered why it fell in love with Bryce Harper. For one night at least, Bryce Harper found the magic that made it fall in love with him in the first place. And everyone involved needed the reminder.
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