His jersey hung on a hook at the only locker he has ever known, the home white with HARPER facing out to the clubhouse at Nationals Park. A cardboard box sat in front of him, ready to be filled with whatever essentials he needs to take away from here, back home to the comfort of Las Vegas, into the vast uncertainty beyond that. Bryce Harper is supremely confident in his abilities as a baseball player. And yet his last homestand under his current contract with the Washington Nationals, which concludes Wednesday afternoon against Miami, is unsettling and emotional.
“If I walk into Nats Park as a visiting player?” Harper said Monday afternoon, sitting at that double locker in the prime spot, just off the entrance to the shower. “That’s weird. And who wants to see that? That’s really weird.”
The story that, in some ways, has consumed the Nationals and dominated baseball talk is coming to a conclusion this week. Harper has the rest of the series against the Marlins at home, then three games in Colorado over the weekend to close it out, and he will be a free agent, finally. The assumption, since he debuted with the Nats as a 19-year-old missile back in 2012, has been that when this day came, he would casually leave Washington and be happy to do so. But in the course of a 30-minute interview Monday afternoon, he more than challenged that assumption.
“I think about other cities, but I love it here,” Harper said. “Am I in the plans, you know? I don’t know. It’s hard to think about, because it’s all you know, and then you think about it, it’s like, ‘Well, it could all be over in a,’” and here, he snapped his fingers, “ ‘a second.’ It’s kind of crazy.”
It’s absolutely crazy. It’s crazy that an iconic player, one of the few characters capable of being the face of baseball, is winding down his days with the Nationals not knowing whether the club wants him back. There is a financial element, of course, and it’s significant. But it would be nice to know, on both sides: Does Harper fit? Over the course of that free-wheeling conversation Monday, it’s clearly easier for him to envision staying than going. He looked to his left, toward the locker of 19-year-old Juan Soto — “He kind of sparked me when he came up,” Harper said — and on to Victor Robles, the prospect who has been groomed to replace him.
Looking forward to free agency? Doesn’t sound like it.
“I’ve always said: If I’m in those plans, I’d absolutely love to be here,” Harper said. “But if I’m not, there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I can do. I would love to play next to Robles or Soto or [Adam] Eaton. I’d love to. But am I in those plans? I have no idea.”
If Harper sounds wistful, well, it’s because he is. He is a star, and loves every bit of the hair-flipping and bat-tossing that goes into playing that role. But he is also simple, something of a homebody. He relishes leaving the ballpark with his wife, Kayla, rolling into the comfort of their Arlington apartment, and settling into “our shows,” whether it’s “Suits” or the new “Yellowstone” right now, or “Grey’s Anatomy,” on which they’re only up to season four, or the old “Entourage” episodes he still likes to pull out. It’s an escape from the pitch he took off the plate that was called a strike, from the warning-track flyball that he just missed, from the grounder into the shift.
“Being able to separate is huge for me,” he said.
So is familiarity. And professionally, there is only once place with which he is familiar. For more than a year — and, realistically, going back three or four seasons — Harper has been in the unenviable position of having people speculate about his future when he was dealing with his present. But he is not only a professional athlete; he is a professional interview subject. He has been talking to reporters since he was 15, so he doesn’t hesitate to use the on-off switch that allows him to address delicate matters with platitudes, passing the time rather than facing the issues.
Now, at the end of his contract, the issues are right there. So flip the switch to “On.”
“If it comes off the top of my head like it is right now, I mean it the most,” Harper said. “It’s those times where I get into an interview, and it’s like, ‘All right, what am I going to say now? That’s boring.’ And I get how to use the clichés.
“So when I talk about D.C., I get giddy. I get happy. Because it’s me. It’s what I know. I don’t know anything else. I don’t know what it feels like to play for the Dodgers. I don’t know what it feels like to play for the Yankees. I don’t know what it feels like to play for anybody that you look at. I don’t know!”
He will find out, because free agency is going to be a frenzy. For now, let’s put aside how many millions it will take to sign Harper. There is first the matter of Harper as a player. For some reason, this discussion leads to discord.
Here’s what we know: Harper’s 2018 has been billed as a disaster because at the all-star break he was hitting .214, and the struggle was real. But look now. Monday night, he drove in his 100th run, the first time he reached that standard. Should he hit one homer in his remaining five games, he will have 35 of those, 100 runs scored, more than 100 RBI, more than 30 doubles and more than 125 walks. Since 1951, here are the players who have hit all those marks in a single season: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield and Joey Votto. That’s it.
That’s a down year?
“Is it great, great, great? No,” Harper said. “But am I upset with it? No. I can’t be.”
Plus, there is the matter of age.
“I mean, I’m only 25 years old,” Harper said. “Think about that. I’m able to play this game for another 15 years, possibly.”
When Harper arrived in Washington in 2012, he knew nothing but his unusual path: graduating high school early so he could enroll in junior college and be drafted as a 17-year-old, exploiting a loophole that made him an outlier before he was a pro ballplayer.
“This has kind of been like my college and high school all in one,” he said, and he romanticized about the places that have become his spots: Filomena in Georgetown, where Mack is always happy to get his party the back table, and Acqua al 2 on Capitol Hill, where his signed plate sits in the case as you walk in the door.
His memories as an adult, they’re in two places: Las Vegas and Washington. The Nationals, Harper knows, aren’t perfect. They don’t draw the biggest, most enthusiastic crowds on a nightly basis. They haven’t, collectively, pushed past the first round of the playoffs. And this season, Harper’s walk year, they failed as a group. The Nats’ final week of irrelevance puts Harper not in position to prepare for the postseason, but to reflect.
“Just reliving that moment . . .” he said, and he was thinking about the Home Run Derby this summer, held right at Nationals Park, won by the hometown hero in comeback fashion with a packed house chanting “Let’s go Harper!”
“It was epic,” he said. “It was absolutely incredible.”
It mattered, because it reminded him of what this place can be. And when it was over, he could pack up his parents and his wife and the rest of his family and look for a familiar spot.
“I’m like, there’s no way we’re going to the Silver Diner right now.” And yet there they were at 1 a.m. in Arlington, the home run hero and his family eating breakfast together, sharing the moment as simply as possible.
“I grew up here,” Harper said. “I mean, I was 19 years old living in Arlington, Virginia, driving up [Interstate] 395 every single day. Then you get married while you’re here. You live with your wife here. You’ve kind of built your family a little bit. That’s what you know.”
What he knows, too, is how big a story line his coming free agency would be during the year. It’s why he didn’t go on Twitter. It’s why he didn’t flip on MLB Network. It’s why, before this final week, he made it a policy not to discuss it. He wanted to avoid the swirl, even as he knew the swirl was inevitable.
“I love it, because it’s like, what do people talk about all the time?” he said. “ ‘Oh, he doesn’t want to be there. He wants to go here. He wants to go there.’ Really? I didn’t know that. Thanks for telling me. I appreciate it.”
It’s the final week of what might be Bryce Harper’s final season as a Washington National. Wednesday, he’s not sure what to expect. “It’ll have to be emotional,” he said. “How could it not be?” It will be emotional because, whatever comes next, this was the first big league uniform he ever wore. It hung there next to him — HARPER in red across the back — and he looked at it.
“I know what it feels like to walk into the clubhouse as a Washington National and to walk into a playoff atmosphere with the Washington Nationals,” Harper said. “And I love it. I love every minute of it.”
The cardboard box sat empty in front of him. And the minutes dwindled away.