It was a ceremony, and one not many people noticed Thursday afternoon because Nationals Park was still filling up. But Mayor Muriel Bowser stood before a microphone on the field and presented a key to the city to Bryce Harper. Shake hands. Smile for the photo. Job well done.
“What an honor to get the key to the city from the mayor,” Harper said afterward. “Words can’t express how grateful I am for that.”
It was Opening Day at the yard, and the gloomy forecast certainly affected the pregame mood as well as the game that followed. But here was Harper with the District’s brass, and you had to wonder whether that key might unlock the Lerners’ safe(s). He is 23, now with accomplishments that can begin to match his talent. He won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, so there’s certainly no reason to be discussing contract status for a player who will be here long enough to have a chance to win three more MVPs.
But as the Nationals’ season truly gets underway, it is worth considering what Harper is saying about this team and this town and then considering what it might take to make this relationship more permanent. To be clear: There aren’t negotiations going on at the moment, and there are no indications that there will be soon. But it’s April, and nothing but possibilities lie ahead. Dream for a minute.
“What up, everybody?” This was Harper, speaking into his phone, which was filming him as he drove. From the moment he arrived in town, a kid from Las Vegas, and tried to ingratiate himself — and figure things out — by jumping into a softball game on the National Mall, Harper has gone out of his way to tie himself to this city. He doesn’t live here in the offseason; only Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman do, among current Nats. But no current Nat expresses affinity for the town as strongly or as frequently as Harper.
So this message, a selfie video he tweeted out, came last Friday, the Nationals’ first day back from spring training, as he drove away from Acqua al 2, the Italian place at Eastern Market he frequents.
“Never disappoints,” he said. “Just so excited to be back home and back where I belong, and that’s in D.C.”
Harper, in group interviews, can provide pat answers to obvious questions, just as he did Thursday afternoon before the home opener against Miami. He spoke in a bit of a monotone as the cameras glared and the microphones gathered. It is part of his job to go through these motions before an event like the home opener, and he did so Thursday in three minutes.
But the selfie video? That’s Harper, somewhat staged but still raw. He can’t help himself. People can call him out for posturing or playing up to the crowd, and maybe he does that. But sending out a video about home, the place he belongs — that’s his choice. And he knows what it means.
“Just super-excited and ready for the season,” he went on, in the same message. “Can’t wait to see the fans. Can’t wait to see all you guys.”
Harper has 604,000 followers on Twitter, another 635,000 on Instagram, where he also posted the video. This was not an accident. Thursday, in a 6-4 loss to the Marlins, Harper hit his second homer of the season, walked twice — and pulled on a t-shirt for his postgame interviews that read: “DC or nothing.” He said he posted the video because he could feel the excitement of Opening Day approaching. But, it was pointed out, you always mention the city.
“It’s close to my heart,” Harper said. “This place is the first place that I’ve played. I love it here. I love playing here. It’s just a lot of fun to give back to that. It’s a blast. I absolutely love it.”
In considering Harper’s relationship with the city – “I love this organization, these fans, and the team we have. What a family!” he Tweeted after the season-opening win in Atlanta – it is worth wondering: are these not-so subtle hints? Wherever Harper goes, he hears thoughts about where he’ll end up when he becomes a free agent. The Yankees, the team for which he rooted growing up, are the popular landing spot, and the jokes about fitting him for pinstripes even as he wears the Curly W are tired, even now.
So what if Harper is saying, in fact: “Hey, Mr. Lerner. Back up the truck. Get out the checkbook. You’re going to have to pay. But man, I want to stay.”
In considering such a fabricated scenario, we must consider, too, that Scott Boras is Harper’s agent, and Boras famously takes his clients (Max Scherzer among them) to free agency so 30 teams can bid on them rather than one. There are exceptions — Carlos Gonzalez with the Rockies, Jered Weaver with the Angels — but they are rare.
We also must consider the market and where it is going and the fact that baseball is a $9.5 billion business. Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract — the largest in the history of American team sports — will be scoffed at as Harper blows by. Harper said as much during the offseason, when he urged 106.7 The Fan, “Don’t sell me short,” when they broke out the possibility of a $400 million deal. Now $500 million seems completely fathomable.
But contract offers made before free agency involve compromise on the part of the player: “Provide me with security, and I’ll provide you with a bit of a discount.” There are also considerations on the part of the club, namely: Can you pay one player around $40 million annually and still build an effective roster around him?
Those are the machinations, though. Let’s instead listen to Bryce Harper — back home, back where he belongs, and that’s in D.C. — and wonder whether the Lerners are listening, too, at least enough to wander over one day and say, “You have the key to the city. What else would it take?”