He looked like any teenager trying to fit in at a wedding or dinner party or, if his life were any bit normal, a high school prom: a black tuxedo vest buttoned over his black button-down shirt, his rolled-up sleeves revealing wristbands, his dull red tie not quite matching the colors he was about to slip on — if not forever, then for at least the next eight years.
Because that is exactly what Bryce Harper was, back in August 2010, in the twilight of another losing season, when the Washington Nationals introduced him as their latest No. 1 pick. A clean-shaven kid. A 17-year-old promise. A prodigy who would lift a lowly franchise, or fall somewhere short of the expectations being shoveled onto his back.
“I think I should be perfect in every aspect of the game,” Harper said then. And then he lived up to that standard, if not perfection then something close to it, becoming an all-star at 19, the rookie of the year months later, an MVP at 22 and, as the Nationals grew around him, a 26-year-old star who could soon become the highest-paid free agent in baseball history.
Now, more than six years since his major league debut, and more than two months since what could have been his final game in a Nationals uniform, Harper may stray from the only city in which he has ever played as a professional. The Harper sweepstakes are expected to heat up next week in Las Vegas at baseball’s winter meetings, and his Nationals legacy will take shape should the offseason takes him elsewhere.
Harper did not bring a championship to Washington in his first seven seasons in the league, with four playoff runs falling well short, but he has been the cornerstone of an annual contender. His numbers dipped at the start of last season, leading to questions about his true market value, but he still produced enough to command, and pass up, a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals at the end of September. He is not always considered the face of the franchise, with many giving that title to Ryan Zimmerman, but Harper has given fans a swagger and swing to identify with ever since he first appeared inside Nationals Park.
And maybe his most important effort is turning the Nationals into a team that will still compete even if he moves on. The Nationals are not waiting for Harper’s decision to shape their own future: Their busy offseason continued with a splash addition of left-handed starter Patrick Corbin on Tuesday, a six-year deal that gives them one of the league’s best rotations. They have a plan, however the winter goes from here, that can be traced back to that August day, to before Bryce Harper became just Bryce, to when a teenager vowed to make the Nationals better and went on to keep his word.
“When the Nationals moved here in 2005, they needed two things: a legitimate product to prove D.C. was a baseball town and a player to build a team with,” said Fred Frommer, a Washington baseball historian. “Then Bryce came along and they got both at the same time.”
A promise fulfilled
It was never about wins and losses for Marlene Koenig.
She just loved baseball, from the New York Mets of the late 1980s to the Baltimore Orioles of the 1990s and, if the rumors were true, the Nationals would be next. When she heard Major League Baseball was finally announcing the Montreal Expos' move to Washington in 2004, she asked her boss for a long lunch so she could hear the news in person. When the Nationals started selling season tickets in a trailer outside RFK Stadium, she stood in line to add her name to the list. When they played their first game, introduced “Screech” the mascot and moved into their new ballpark — when the Nationals did anything, really — she was in the stands, heart already taken, camera in hand.
Koenig didn’t care that the Nationals lost 89 or more games in every season from 2006 to 2010. Hope was mixed into the pain.
“The good thing about finishing at the bottom is that you get to pick from the top,” Koenig said. “And sometimes that means you get Bryce Harper.”
The magazine arrived in newsstands and mailboxes in June 2009, with Harper on the cover of Sports Illustrated, somewhere in some desert, squinting into the sky as if he, too, were trying to find the limits of his potential. The headline read: “Baseball’s Chosen One: Bryce Harper Is The Most Exciting Prodigy Since LeBron.” The story, written by Tom Verducci, included Harper hitting a 570-foot home run and throwing 96 mph. He was floating in the space between man and myth. He was just 16 years old.
The Nationals finished 59-103 that September, a second straight 100-loss season that again earned them the No. 1 pick in the draft. They used it to get Harper, a year after selecting starter Stephen Strasburg first overall, and a new energy was injected into the franchise.
Harper was used to moving fast, getting his GED after his sophomore year at Las Vegas High School, enrolling at the College of Southern Nevada to face better competition and ultimately fast-tracking himself to draft eligibility so he could reach the major leagues as soon as possible. That happened in April 2012, and by then, the Nationals were already making decisions with the future superstar in mind. Their payroll jumped from $68 million to $92 million from 2010 to 2011, and it was into six figures by the time Harper debuted. In 2011, Washington signed outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal designed to give Harper a mentor and push the team into postseason contention.
The Nationals made the playoffs in 2012, their first appearance since returning to Washington, and attendance rose above 2 million for the first time in three seasons. It has not fallen below that mark since. Next came the signing of Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, a bigger investment in international scouting and a clear commitment to gunning for the World Series title each fall. And Harper was at the center of it all.
"Being able to see it grow from ’12, all the way till now, you look at the Nationals franchise and the organization, you see a powerhouse team that’s going to compete every single year,” Harper said in late September. “You look around this clubhouse: You have all-stars, you have Cy Youngs, you’ve got rookie of the years possibly. We’ve got a lot of guys that can play the game.”
But there was always that possible expiration date: at the end of the 2018 season, when Harper would become a free agent and test the connection between the franchise and its homegrown star. That made Sept. 26 an odd day at Nationals Park. The team couldn’t honor Harper without knowing his future, but fans treated it as their final opportunity to cheer him as their own. Harper arrived early and put on his white home uniform hours before first pitch. He wanted to savor every second of this, in case it was the last time. He received a standing ovation each time he jogged to right field and each time he walked to the plate.
Then clouds gathered above the stadium and spat rain onto the field. Then the storm thickened and, as Harper stood in the on-deck circle, a weather delay began. The game was called after seven innings, and reality came even quicker than expected: Harper’s final home at-bat as a National could be a called strikeout in the fifth inning of a meaningless game against the Miami Marlins, at the end of a season without playoff baseball and the end of an era without a championship.
The rain fell deep into the night. Koenig made the long walk to her car and wept.
“He was so close to getting a few more swings, and I just couldn’t help but cry,” Koenig said. “I will still love the Nationals if Bryce leaves. I just don’t know who I’ll take pictures of.”
What comes next
The Nationals’ annual WinterFest is an annual palate cleanser as much as a fan event, a chance to wash away the latest season and look ahead to what’s next.
Fans, players and coaches gathered at Nationals Park for the event this past weekend, packing into conference rooms and the clubhouse and wherever there was something to do. There was a photo booth with Juan Soto, the 20-year-old outfielder who just finished one of the best teenage seasons in baseball history. There was trivia against Scherzer, and kids huddled together to debate whether a ball weighs exactly one pound. There were autographs to get from third baseman Anthony Rendon, and all-star closer Sean Doolittle, and 21-year-old center fielder Victor Robles, and the other players who will keep the Nationals going in 2019.
Harper was not there. But the Nationals’ future, whether it includes him or not, was accounted for. The Nationals had traded for veteran catcher Yan Gomes the night before WinterFest began and signed catcher Kurt Suzuki 11 days before that. They made those moves after adding Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to the bullpen early in the offseason. Then came the signing of Corbin this week, as the Nationals outbid the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies to put a third front-line starter next to Scherzer and Strasburg.
“I’m comfortable with the alternative,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said in early November of what a Harper-less squad would look like. “But I am uncomfortable with the statement that we are a better team without him.”
The field, shut down for the winter, was only dotted by green tarps and patches of browned grass. That made it easy to picture any summer night from the past seven years, the stadium filling with people, many of them wearing the No. 34 on their backs, all of them hanging on what could happen when Harper plants his right foot in the dirt and swings.
And yet it was also easy to imagine that never happening again, that the Nationals would be okay, that there could be a fine life without Bryce Harper because Bryce Harper helped make sure of that long ago.