It’s anyone’s guess what sort of reception Bryce Harper will receive April 2 as he walks to the plate at Nationals Park for the first time in a Phillies uniform, but when Philadelphia’s $330 million man jogs out to right field in the bottom of the first inning, he probably will be serenaded with a standing ovation from a large contingent of his new and adoring — for now, anyway — fan base.
A couple of months before Harper signed his 13-year contract with the Phillies, Joe DiBiaggio took a calculated risk. DiBiaggio, the founder of Phans of Philly, a company that organizes travel packages to away games for Philadelphia fans, placed a deposit on 500 lower-level tickets in right field for Harper’s potential return to Washington.
A few weeks earlier, during the first two days of baseball’s winter meetings in Las Vegas, DiBiaggio arranged for a mobile billboard to drive up and down the Strip. One side read “Philly Wants Bryce Harper.” The other side read “Philly Wants Manny Machado.”
When the Phillies and Harper agreed to a deal Feb. 28, DiBiaggio called the Nationals’ ticket office and paid for his tickets in full. As a thank you, he also purchased an additional 30 tickets in the same section for an August game and asked that they be donated to the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
“We’re almost sold out,” DiBiaggio said of his upcoming D.C. trip in a phone interview Monday. “We have 10 buses already filled, and some people are meeting us down there. I haven’t really seen a trip move this fast since last year’s Eagles schedule came out."
In partnership with Sports Radio 94WIP, DiBiaggio organized seven trips to see the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles’ games last season, including the regular season finale at FedEx Field, where Philadelphia fans accounted for more than half the crowd. That type of scene was common at Nationals Park when the Phillies visited the District a decade ago, before the balance of power in the National League East rivalry shifted down Interstate 95.
In fact, the first trip DiBiaggio planned was to Opening Day at Nationals Park in 2010 for Roy Halladay’s Philadelphia debut. The Phillies won, 11-1, in front of thousands of their own fans, thanks in part to former Nationals team president Stan Kasten practically rolling out the red carpet for them.
In 2012, the Nationals launched their “Take Back the Park” campaign, which included limiting single-game ticket sales for the Nationals-Phillies series in early May to people with a credit card tied to an address in Maryland, D.C. or Virginia. DiBiaggio led a group of 200 fans to the final game of that series, a 9-3 Phillies win on “Sunday Night Baseball.” It would be the last trip to Nationals Park that DiBiaggio organized before this year, as the Phillies struggled through six consecutive losing seasons.
After improving to 80-82 last year, the Phillies had a busy offseason. In addition to Harper, they acquired shortstop Jean Segura, catcher J.T. Realmuto and outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Manager Gabe Kapler’s team is projected to be in the thick of the division race, and DiBiaggio said the excitement in Philadelphia since Harper signed is palpable.
“I haven’t seen the interest on sports talk radio and everything this high since probably the 2011 season,” he said. “Everyone got a little bit scared the other day when [Harper] got hit in the foot [by a pitch]. We kind of dodged a bullet there.”
Nationals fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2019, too, and Harper joining the Phillies should provide a jolt to a one-sided rivalry. Washington and Philadelphia haven’t both finished above .500 in the same season since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005.
As of Wednesday morning, there were still tickets to Harper’s return available on the Nationals’ team site starting at $23. For a non-Opening Day, early-April game, Nationals Park figures to be more filled than usual for the occasion. DiBiaggio, who is leading a trip to Chicago for the Flyers-Blackhawks game this week, suspects the Phillies fans in attendance won’t be the only ones applauding Harper when he is introduced as a member of the opposition for the first time.
“I would think he would get cheered, just because he’s been there for so long and it seems like he said and did all the right things in the press conference with the Phillies,” DiBiaggio said. “It seemed like he did a lot with charities and in the community. I think he would get cheered, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few scattered boos in there as well.”
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