The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bryce Harper lives for the spotlight. Now he’s owning October.

Bryce Harper's eighth inning home run propelled the Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series. (Tracie Van Auken/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

PHILADELPHIA — On the first hit of Bryce Harper’s major league career, a ball he absolutely scorched to the base of the center field wall at Dodger Stadium, his helmet flew off his head as he headed for second, freeing his flowing 19-year-old locks. Dang if it didn’t seem like he did it on purpose, grabbing the Hollywood spotlight and turning it directly and intentionally on himself.

On a soggy Sunday afternoon, when he made what was inarguably the most important and impactful swing of his career, he calmly turned to his Philadelphia Phillies teammates, who were spilling out of the dugout to fawn over him. His response to the home run that won the National League pennant: a gesture to those phellow Phillies, then a slow jog around the bases, soaking it in, as if it’s exactly what he expected to do.

“He’s proved to me over and over and over again that there’s no moment that’s too big for him,” Phillies Manager Rob Thomson said. “He’s come through so many times. You just kind of expect it when he goes to the plate.”

Because his eighth-inning home run turned a deficit into a lead in the Phillies’ 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres at sloppy and euphoric Citizens Bank Park, Harper will play in his first World Series. He propelled them to a dominant performance in the National League Championship Series, in which he collected eight hits in five games. He is a complete hitter who is in the process of owning October. Watching his prowess is mesmerizing.

Bryce Harper’s blast lifts the rollicking Phillies to the World Series

“He’s 30!” said his father, Ron, on the field afterward. “Isn’t that amazing?”

He’s no kid, not anymore. But in a strange way — after the rookie of the year award in 2012, after two MVP seasons, after a 13-year, $330 million contract — Harper is less a sensation now than he was back then, in his first days as a Washington National.

He once went a week consuming only juice — seven different raw juices — so when he posed without clothes for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, his muscles would be more pronounced. He finished that process, it’s worth noting, by drinking salt water on the day of the photo shoot, then eating raw, white potatoes because he knew their glucose and glycine would go straight to his muscles.

“It makes you pop,” Harper told me back in 2015. “It makes you stand out.”

The standing out now is about baseball, and baseball only. He is settled, twice a father, 30 years old for all of a week. The days of “That’s a clown question, bro” seem ancient because they are. Remember when he arrived at spring training in 2015 — oh, Viera, how we miss thee — and was asked about the Nationals’ offseason signing of Max Scherzer?

“I just started laughing,” Harper said back then. “I was like, ‘Where’s my ring?’”

He has learned. Those Nationals finished seven games out of the NL East lead, out of the playoffs, and with closer Jonathan Papelbon’s hands wrapped around Harper’s throat because he believed Harper hadn’t run out a pop fly on the second-to-last weekend of the season. It was the kind of attention Harper drew too often in those days — the unwanted kind.

The playoff heartbreak in Washington continued for Harper against the Dodgers in 2016 and the Chicago Cubs in 2017. All those losses must color how Harper processed what happened Sunday, right? Even a little?

“Not much,” Harper said Sunday evening. “I don’t like looking back. I like to look forward.”

Fine. We’ll do the looking back, then.

When the Nationals won it all as soon as Harper walked out the door, there was the notion that they did so because he left. It was always absurd, because a baseball team with Bryce Harper on it is so much better than a baseball team without him. But it was built on the idea that he was self-centered at best and selfish at worst.

Tell that to these Phillies and the 45,485 fans who sat through rain that toggled between constant and driving. Harper made them feel dry, warm and cozy. Tell that to the people who know him best. Phillies rookie shortstop Bryson Stott, who grew up idolizing Harper in Las Vegas and has known him most of his life, would be an example.

“When we’re at home and just hanging out with [Harper’s wife,] Kayla, and his kid and stuff, he’s being a dad,” Stott said. “But then he’ll just drop, ‘I can’t wait to play tomorrow.’ ”

There’s the kid in him, the part that remembers he plays baseball because it’s fun. There is expectation that comes with a $330 million deal, and at times Harper has been cast as overrated because of it. Phillies owner John Middleton, though, first felt out Harper in early 2019 in a Las Vegas hotel suite, where he and his front office made their initial pitch. Middleton went back later for a meal with Bryce and Kayla, further forging a relationship. So when the two embraced on the field afterward Sunday, there was something extra in that hug.

In Philadelphia, the boos are gone and the ‘vibes are flowing’

“You bet it was,” Middleton said. “Three hundred and thirty million dollars later and mutual promises of being committed to winning and doing whatever it took to win.”

Four seasons later, Middleton knows more about his prized purchase than he did then.

“All the things we thought he was have turned out to be true,” Middleton said. “There’s been no disappointments. Sometimes you go through that process, you think you understand somebody, and what you really get is a little bit different. There’s nothing different with Bryce. He is just committed to winning. He will do whatever it takes.”

The at-bat that decided it: so vintage. But first, Harper made sure to direct credit — and attention — away from himself and toward J.T. Realmuto’s leadoff single.

“The opportunity to be in that situation,” Harper said, “I’m not there if J.T. doesn’t get that hit.”

The Padres reliever/victim-in-waiting was right-hander Robert Suarez — and, notably, not closer Josh Hader. Suarez got ahead 1-2, but Harper wasn’t far off his heat. He fouled off a 99-mph four-seam fastball, then a 98-mph sinker. Lesser hitters would have been back on the bench. Harper hung in there.

After laying off a change-up in the dirt, Harper got a 99-mph sinker on the outside part of the plate. He went with it to left-center. It sailed over the wall. Bedlam.

“He lives for this,” Stott said.

“Pure chaos, right?” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “I don’t think anybody was surprised. This guy has a knack.”

He is also completely in control. When he received the trophy as the NLCS MVP, he was nearly expressionless. The most emotion he showed in a postgame interview was faux fury at former teammate Jayson Werth, who threw the ceremonial first pitch to Harper — a harder-than-expected heater.

“Classic J-Dub,” Harper said.

Now, we have classic Harper. Classic October Harper. His past matters because it helps form who he is. But his present is changing how he is viewed as a player — which is simply one of the best in all of baseball.

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