And so, on the final day of February, we can all circle the second day of April, when Bryce Harper will walk back through those doors again. While you’re at it, circle April 3. And June 17, 18, 19 and 20. And . . . ah, to heck with it. Circle nine or 10 dates on the calendar from now through — goodness gracious — 2031.
That’s how long Bryce Harper is set to be a Philadelphia Phillie. That’s the team that gave him the largest contract in the history of North American sports: 13 years, $330 million, a scant $5 million more than the Miami Marlins once granted slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
Forgive me if I don’t like this, don’t like it one bit. Harper was drafted as a Washington National, developed as a Washington National, rookie of the year as a Washington National, National League MVP as a Washington National, face of the sport as a Washington National. He was supposed to be a Washington National.
Now, he’s not. Plus, there’s this: The Phillies? He could have signed with, say, 27 other teams — not the just-up-the-road Orioles, of course — and this might have felt like normal baseball business. Painful, for sure. But normal business all the same.
This? This would feel traitorous if it wasn’t wholly understandable on Harper’s part. It’s hard to predict what the visceral reaction will be when Harper first steps to the plate at Nationals Park in the road grays of the Phillies on April 2. Cheer him for what he did here, the central character in the Nats’ turn from 100-loss laughingstocks to perennial playoff contenders? Or boo because they never won a playoff series and he left to play his home games all of 130 miles away?
Pick your reaction. Either way, summers that are built on a sport’s subtle rhythms — no high too high, no low too low, no one game more important than the next — will have built-in jolts. It doesn’t take much to figure out that Max Scherzer could pitch on regular rest when the Phillies play their first game here this season, when Harper first digs into the box at his former home park. Baseball isn’t built around appointment regular season games. Bryce vs. Max at Nationals Park? Make an appointment. Right now.
The Phillies had been Harper’s most ardent public pursuers since his interminable free agency began in November, so Thursday’s news of an agreement should scarcely have been jarring. So why did it jar?
It’s got to be the Philadelphia factor, right? The Los Angeles Dodgers would have felt justifiable, a nice fit. Why, Harper grew up in Las Vegas, a short flight away. Los Angeles can spend — and has spent — more money than any team in the game. Plus, they’re the Dodgers, iconic if they’re anything. How could the Nats compete?
On so many levels, that not only made sense, but it made sense in a way that Harper wouldn’t have returned to Washington as a villain. The Dodgers play only one series a year in the District. So do the San Francisco Giants, another pursuer. Series against those two thousands-of-miles-away clubs might have felt like times to reflect on and appreciate Harper for what he did here. Thanks for the memories, Bryce. Best of luck. You can imagine even meaning it.
These Phillies games, they already feel intense. The opponent is so close, and the National League East race will be impacted. Plus, there will be just so many Harper-vs.-Nats games year after year after year — 19 every summer, alternating years when there are more games in the District and more in Philly. If Bryce loves the lights, which he does, he will get them with a heat he couldn’t have imagined last September, when he was playing what turned out to be his last few home games in Washington. Then, pulling on another uniform and calling another ballpark home seemed foreign.
“If I walk into Nats Park as a visiting player?” Harper said to me one afternoon, sitting at the only locker he had ever known as a big leaguer. “That’s weird. And who wants to see that?”
Well, we’re all going to see it, whether we want to or not. Nine or 10 times a year.
Maybe it had to end this way. The one thing we thought we knew throughout Harper’s free agency was that the Nationals offered him a 10-year, $300 million deal to remain in Washington. That seemed like it would be tantalizing, given how much Harper had professed his love for the District. Yes, he wanted free agency. But didn’t he want stability, too?
What we learned Thursday, though, was that $300 million isn’t always $300 million. According to two people with knowledge of the process, the Nationals’ offer included a massive amount of deferred money. Now, deferrals are simply the way the Lerner family, which owns the club, does business. Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, had negotiated huge contracts with the Nats for pitchers Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg that included deferred money.
This, according to the people with knowledge of the deal, was extreme. The difference this time was the amount of the deferrals and the time it would take Harper to get paid the entirety of the money. One person said both were so extreme that Major League Baseball wondered about the offer’s legitimacy. Another said around $100 million were deferred and that Harper would have received payments for more than 40 years. Such a backloaded structure diminishes the actual value of a deal for the player.
The Phillies will pay Harper for the 13 years he will play for them. That’s it. And expect that he will be there for those 13 years because the contract includes no opt-outs — a relatively new tool in baseball contracts that gives the player another chance to be a free agent, midstream. Plus, it has a full no-trade clause.
So Harper is a Phillie. Say it again, until it feels natural. It might take a while.
There’s something about losing a homegrown star that can make a city feel a little minor league. Don’t the Milwaukees and Minneapolises of the world raise their players to eventually be Yankees and Red Sox?
That’s just not the case here. In all this, don’t cry for the Nats, because they have the resources to contend and a front office that has shown it will, regardless of turnover. When Harper turned them down and headed to peddle his wares around the sport, they assembled their team. It’s a good one, and they expect to contend for the postseason.
But it’s a team that, 19 times a year, is going to have to deal with the kid it raised into a man. Bryce Harper is a Philadelphia Phillie. Maybe that was telegraphed for months. Maybe the Nats will be fine without him. But man, “Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper” is a strange thing to type. It will feel strange April 2 and during all those Nats-Phillies games for a while. Circle the dates. Let it settle in. There’s baseball as an event coming to Washington, over and over and over again.