Before the Washington Nationals met Bryce Harper in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform for the first time Tuesday night at Nationals Park, veteran Ryan Zimmerman provided his calm, wise, Virginia gentleman perspective on the night.
“Nobody did anything wrong. There are no bad guys in this. It is okay. Everyone can be happy,” said Zimmerman, who, two years before he reached free agency, signed a $100 million extension to make sure he spent his whole career with the Nationals and near Virginia Beach, where he grew up. “These days, it’s hard not to make something out of everything. But you don’t have to.
“Bryce is not the first MVP to switch teams,” Zimmerman continued, referencing how Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nats, with $100 million deferred far into the future, to take a 13-year, $330 million contract from the Phillies. “This happens. He came. He played. He exercised his right. Sounds like any business anywhere. I hope they cheer him — once anyway.”
So much for calm and wisdom. Hell, so much for “once.”
This was the night that the gigantic “BOOOO!!!” for a home-hero-turned-visiting-villain was introduced to Washington baseball. And it produced a genuinely bizarre night of theatrics from early mockery for Harper when Max Scherzer struck him out twice to the head-shaking scene of the Nats’ crowd booing Harper even when he hit one of the longest home runs that he has ever unleashed in this park, far into the upper deck under a huge picture of his face.
Only chronology does justice to this night, when anything involving Harper incited the crowd — and before the night was done — inflamed Bryce himself to three hits, three RBI and an epic insult of a bat flip whirled directly toward the Nats’ dugout as he started his eighth-inning home run trot in the Phillies’ 8-2 win.
Before the game, several Nats agreed with Zimmerman — that Harper deserved a cheer, or at least a welcome, for his seven years of good work in D.C. After that, maybe you can treat him as an invading Phillie. Good luck with that.
“BOOOO!!!” exclaimed a big Nats crowd after Harper’s picture appeared on the video board when the Phillies’ starting lineup was announced, almost totally drowning out any cheers.
So much for balanced perspective and the delicate parsing of the relative merits of humongous contract offers.
“BOOOO!!!” thundered the crowd when that video board showed Harper highlights in a tribute, though his Home Run Derby moment brought some cheers.
Does anyone want to hear my subtle dissertation on the formula for computing the net present value of a series of salaries?
“BOOOO!!!” reiterated the crowd when Harper was shown sitting in the Philadelphia dugout — forced, perhaps against his will, to wear a Phillies uniform.
Harper did provoke ovations, with the entire lower bowl standing. But they were ovations for Scherzer after he struck Harper out swinging in his first two at-bats, once on a change-up and once on a cutter.
“The crowd was really into it. More than I thought it would be. It was really a loud, rowdy crowd tonight — against him,” said Scherzer, who added that he respected how Harper “stood there and held his ground” in battling to get a contract that was (briefly) a record.
For those who say that Washington baseball fans are a bit mild, seldom boo foes and, except in the playoffs, don’t rise to the volume and passion of baseball-rabid crowds in cities such as Boston or St. Louis, we now need to add an asterisk.
* Except when Bryce Harper comes to town.
In the first row of the right field stands 10 yards directly behind Harper, fans in white T-shirts spelled out “T-R-A-I-T-O-R” on their chests. Many fans from Philadelphia took buses to sit in those same stands and cheer Harper — perhaps even “take over the park” as they did years ago. Times may have changed. The “T-R-A-I-T-O-R-S” were all large gentlemen and seemed to redefine the section’s tone by themselves. Near them was a fan with a “Pardon Papelbon” sign.
Some say that Harper, and all the other fine Nats who have averaged 91 wins a season for the past seven years, have turned Washington into an enthusiastic, but not rabid, baseball town. Is it possible that what Harper could not quite do by coming to D.C., he may in time ignite by leaving — and rousing the populace?
The volume of hostility toward Harper caught almost every Nationals player by surprise. Their take has generally been that both the Nats and Harper were simply following their own self-interests — but honorably — in a touchy, tense situation.
If I’d been Harper, I’d have done exactly what he did — test the market, assume I’d end up with glorious multiple offers to be a Dodger, Cub or Yankee, and then end up shocked when I discovered my only sane choice was to become a Phillie.
If I’d been the Nats, desperate to solve a half-dozen serious roster problems, I’d have done what they did: make Harper a decent offer, give him a negotiating floor with other teams, but assume he wouldn’t take the deal. Then grab free agents fast.
But the Nats had a retroactive shock, too, almost as big as Bryce finding himself in Philadelphia. Harper’s average annual salary is now $25.4 million, not the $35 million to $40 million many expected. In the Nats’ starting rotation, Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin make $30 million, $25 million and $23.3 million per year, and third baseman Anthony Rendon, in his walk year, will probably at some point get a contract offer from the Nats in that range.
In real time, with shifting circumstances, there was never a moment when a Nats-Harper deal seemed reasonable, and therefore likely, to both parties at the same time. But life loves irony. For the next 13 years, Harper may say, “I’m a Phillie?” And the Lerner family may say, “Only $25.4 million a year?”
Although the Nats’ crowd may not be in the mood to hear it, Harper has as fair and full of a view of this situation as anyone. Asked if he and the Nats had ended on good terms, Harper said: “Yes. . . . We met with the Lerners two days before Christmas. I thought the meeting went great. And then, it just, it didn’t happen. So, I thought on both sides, it was kind of mutual. . . .
“I have no hard feelings against the Nationals or the Lerners. They’ve always treated me with the utmost respect. And it’s been fun to play for an organization that really cares about their players.”
So, a bit harder to boo?
Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” That goes for the kind of chronicles that are written in smaller typefaces, too, like baseball history.
By the 2031 season, or long before, we’ll know whether the Phillies or the Nats were the winners of the Harper signing. What we saw Tuesday night was just the first dust-up. But it had the intense tang of an unsettled argument. By the sixth inning, many Nats fans had left and the remaining Philadelphians started a brief “MVP!” chant, followed by “We’ve got Harper!”
Someday, with the benefit of 13 years of hindsight, one side or the other will probably crow, “WE were brilliant; YOU were the idiots.” Most likely, neither position will really be true. But if this first installment was any clue, it’s going to raise the baseball temperature at Nationals Park on a regular basis for a very long time.
“That was unique — a fun atmosphere. Hopefully we can play more like that,” Zimmerman said afterward. “I would have cheered Bryce. He did a lot here. But I understand that he’s a polarizing figure. I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s the way it’s been since he was 12. It’s been like that his whole life.”
As Zimmerman walked away, he looked back bemused. “How about just one cheer?” he said. “When Jayson Werth went back to Philadelphia, they cheered J-Dub first. . . . (Pause.) . . . Then they threw batteries at him.”
Tuesday’s box score: Phillies 8, Nationals 2