CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper wore his new jersey, with the red pinstripes and the No. 3 on the back. He wore his new cap, emblazoned with that swirly “P” rather than the old curly “W.” He sat in the sun at Spectrum Field — his new spring training home, continuing a day of new, new, new, new — and soaked in the first day of the rest of his life.
Yet in so many ways, it felt like he had one foot in Philadelphia and one foot in the District, straddling his past and his future.
“We want to bring a title back to D.C.,” Harper said in the final moments of his 40-minute news conference. “I want to be on Broad Street.”
Easy, Philadelphia. Just a slip. Broad Street, Bryce knows, is not in Washington. This whole Phillies thing, it might take some time to settle in as normal, even for the guy wearing the jersey and receiving the cash.
Saturday was the next necessary step — and there will be more, many more — in an evolving relationship not just between a marquee athlete and his new city but between that athlete and his old one as well. To the first point, Harper played just about everything perfectly — before that absent-minded D.C. reference.
Settle down, Philly fans. Don’t sit on hold for an hour on WIP to call in about that transgression. Listen to the entirety of Harper, and you would have to be ready to welcome him. He said the reason he had opted not to choose his old uniform number, 34, was in deference to the late Hall of Famer, Roy Halladay: “He’s what represents that number in Philly.” He acknowledged championships won in the past by the Eagles, Flyers and 76ers. He tipped his cap to Philadelphia’s blue-collar spirit and core, reminding people who had forgotten that his father twisted rebar in the blazing Las Vegas sun to support his family.
And when asked about doing something historic — aside from reeling in the largest contract in American sports history at $330 million over 13 years — he responded thusly: “I think you’re always remembered for winning, and what better place to do it than in Philly?”
So lap it up, Philadelphia. At the introductory news conference that much of Washington wanted to tune out, Harper expertly hit the notes that a city rabid about its sports would want to hear.
Still, that slip-up about Washington? It’s telling. Not because he’s not committed to what’s ahead but because what’s behind is so ingrained. When Harper slips into robot-interview mode, he leans on the phrases he has uttered time and again since he came to the majors — with the Washington Nationals — at 19. Those phrases include all the permutations of “bring a title back to D.C.” known to man.
This process is over. Harper won’t be a National, not ever again. If I’m reading Washington’s fan base correctly over the days since Harper’s record deal with the Phillies became official, most of you are some version of okay with that.
But that little misstep, when he clearly wants to bring a title back to Philly, shows what a struggle this was for Harper. That makes his departure tougher to deal with for those Nats fans who wanted him in Washington for life. You know why? Because he wanted to be in Washington for life, too.
This doesn’t mean he’s not happy about the future, because he got his no-trade clause and the team is ready to win — now and 10 years from now. But let’s walk through his reality since the Nats drafted him first overall in 2010 and brought him to the majors in 2012. Let Harper take the lead.
“From Day 1 when I got drafted, it was all about, ‘He’s going to the Yankees, he’s going to the Dodgers, he’s going here, he’s going there,’ ” he said. “. . . That’s all anybody talked about. They wanted to talk about this moment. And for me going through this process, it was: ‘Where could I be with no opt-out, no trade? Where I could be for a long time and not have to worry about going anywhere else?’
“Because for me, when I was in D.C., I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I didn’t want to be part of two organizations or anything like that. That just didn’t work out for me.”
The Nationals’ fan base — knowing it has a team that could well beat the Phillies even with Harper, knowing Washington has a chance to extend third baseman Anthony Rendon’s contract, knowing it has a franchise that has expected to win the division title each of the past eight springs — might find this separation relatively easy. Harper clearly doesn’t.
As messy divorces go, this one doesn’t seem to have frying pans being hurled across the kitchen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t mud to sling. At some point, we will stop going over what already feels like old territory. But the reality is, there are still emotions here, and they’re raw and fresh on both sides.
The Nationals feel, after their pre-free agency offer to Harper — 10 years and $300 million, heavily deferred, concluding with annual payments of $5 million per year from 2043 to 2052 — was rejected, that Harper’s camp never really reengaged. Harper’s camp feels as if it brought Bryce to Palm Springs, Calif., for lunch with Nationals owner Ted Lerner and his wife, Annette, in good faith. And it’s clear to me that Harper’s wishes were to have other offers bounced off the Nats, to allow the Nats the right of first refusal. Tie was going to go to the runner, and the Nats were the runner.
Somewhere in the middle of all that is the underlying truth, which varies depending on whom you talk to. The overt truth that no one can avoid: Harper and the Nationals were tied together for the first seven years of the player’s career, and they will be tied together over the next 13 years as they pursue the same prizes: National League East titles, pennants and World Series, one or more. How will the success or failure of this deal for the Phillies and this non-deal for the Nats be measured? How about with winning championships?
“Does it look like stupid money to you?” Phillies owner John Middleton asked, doubling down on his words from earlier in the offseason, when he said his club was ready to “be a little stupid” with its spending in free agency.
It’s not stupid money. It’s just more than $25 million per year spent on a $30 million-per-year player.
So what’s next? Harper is well aware of how many times he will face his old team, his old organization, his old city — year after year after year, 247 matchups over the course of the contract. At some point, the edge will wear off. On Saturday? It wasn’t even an edge yet, because he was still hearing from old Nats teammates.
“I love everybody in that clubhouse,” Harper said. “I grew up inside that clubhouse. I grew up in that organization. I have so much respect for Mike Rizzo.”
Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, was among those from the organization who reached out with congratulations. In the coming days, Harper will put on a full Philadelphia Phillies uniform, take batting practice as a Philadelphia Phillie, play in a game as a Philadelphia Phillie.
All of those things will matter in achieving closure. But closure, even with Bryce Harper wearing a new jersey and a new cap while welcoming his new reality, didn’t settle in Saturday. This separation, it’s clear-cut in so many ways. But in so many others, it’s going to take some time — and not just for the Nationals’ fan base but for Bryce Harper himself.