Aren’t people supposed to have that option? Shouldn’t you be rewarded for that? Or at least be given several palatable choices? Doesn’t America cheer risk takers?
But choice is also a risk. And every place that’s not home is, by definition, the unknown. Now Harper is the star who left for just a few dollars more. His final deal is, essentially, not that much better than the Nats’ reported offer.
And he will play in Philadelphia, a town with a team seldom if ever associated with him and his future until, one by one, the more glamorous suitors all said, “No thanks.” And the Nats, their money spent and their roster completed, never circled back for a player who, if they met his price, might have hampered them in building competitive rosters over the next decade.
His drama feels like a parable but not the kind that we usually tell little children at bedtime if we want them to sleep tight. For no particularly compelling reason, except that he got trapped without any other appealing destination, Harper left the only team he has ever known — the Washington Nationals — with whom he was a third of the way to a Hall of Fame career.
Five months ago, Harper turned down $300 million for 10 years from the Nats, albeit much of it in deferred payments, so he could discover his value. What he found was a shockingly barren market.
One losing team wanted him for 10 years: the 89-loss San Francisco Giants, weighted with bad anchor contracts and aging stars. That’s winning the lottery? One great franchise he has always imagined himself playing for — the Dodgers — apparently offered Harper less than half the guaranteed money he already had turned down in D.C. Well, you can’t save face that way.
And then there’s Philadelphia, a mere 37-hour drive from his home in Las Vegas.
The Phillies have had a wonderful offseason, adding all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and closer David Robertson while subtracting only first baseman Carlos Santana. Their starting rotation remains fourth best in the division, but with Harper aboard, they should be knotted up with the Braves, the Nats and maybe the Mets for first place all season.
Nonetheless, Harper — supposedly the ultimate free agent at just 26 years old and dedicated since childhood to branding himself with flair and quips — did not land in one of MLB’s half-dozen most glamorous cities — or even on one of its best teams — in an era with 100-win clubs such as the Boston Red Sox, Yankees and Houston Astros.
Harper has guaranteed himself a ton of money, but that was inevitable. His new average annual salary of $25.4 million will rank 11th in the majors this season. He made $22.4 million last season in D.C. If he had negotiated with the Nats during a seven-week window last fall, he probably could have improved their offer by a few percent or reduced the amount that was deferred beyond the first 10 years.
When Harper comes back to Nationals Park on April 2, he will face a Nats pitching rotation in which Max Scherzer ($30 million a year), Stephen Strasburg ($25 million) and Patrick Corbin ($23.3 million) all make almost as much as or more than Harper per year. He left adulation and a city that loved him — and that he claimed to embrace in return — for a new start in America’s No. 1 town for boos.
Fair or not, this 123-day offseason circus, dubbed Harper’s Bazaar by agent Scott Boras when it began, probably will be remembered as Harper Bizarre. All along, cynics said, “Just watch: It’s all about the Benjamins.” Now Harper has signed in the city whose most famous citizen is the face on that $100 bill.
Harper indentured himself to the Phillies for 13 seasons, with no opt-out clause, so that he could edge past Giancarlo Stanton’s previous “biggest guaranteed contract ever” by 1.5 percent and “Team Harper” could claim a record.
Or maybe it’s just coincidence that Stanton’s 13-year deal in Miami was for $325 million.
My hunch, as I have said before, is that Harper’s career may resemble that of another extroverted, sometimes controversial outfielder who loved to study baseball history, craved a prominent place in it, had a knack for a snazzy quip and loved the spotlight: Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
Baseball life was rarely easy for Reggie — the Straw That Stirred the Drink, Mr. October. The Oakland A’s traded him after he had been part of three World Series winners. He didn’t like comfy, boring Baltimore and went to the Yankees as a free agent. Yet he played less than a quarter of his career in New York, where he was always in a tabloid swirl, and played more games as an Angel than as a Yankee.
Many will assume that Harper, with his no-trade clause in Philly, has made his last baseball stop and will either make more noise than the Liberty Bell or end up with a giant crack in his reputation. But stories as rich as Harper’s are seldom so simple. Washington, especially as a baseball town, was always just a little too quiet, maybe even a little too cerebral and sane for him.
Harper wants to play from the gut and to the crowd. He wants to be loved or hated but always watched — intently, knowledgeably and loudly. He will get that in Philly, which has had a team continuously since 1883.
Our first read is that Harper ended up a Phillie almost by default and perhaps even with some bitterness. But the fit between town and player is probably better than most think. Like his dad, Bryce is hard labor and working class to the bone. He’s a hard hat with, sometimes, a hard head. If Philly thinks it just got a rich, spoiled prince, it’s wrong. Harper will make mistakes and get booed, go into slumps and be mocked, but he will also light up Citizens Bank Park for weeks.
The Nats, after their remarkable offseason, probably will be roughly as good over the next few seasons without Harper as they would have been with him — because, among other things, they probably wouldn’t have been able to afford Corbin if Harper had taken their offer.
The Phillies, however, have become vastly more interesting — and combustible. In baseball’s 14 years back in Washington, the Nats have had no marrow-deep rival that made you circle the date of its next visit in town. There’s been no foe like the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Capitals or, once upon a time, the Dallas Cowboys to that Washington NFL team.
The Nats have that now. Almost by accident, Harper will make it so — 19 times a season.
The Nats can start getting their video board “tribute” ready for Harper in that fourth game of the season. Washington fans can give Bryce one huge cheer of thanks. Then, with luck, with Harper homers and hair on fire, with Harper strikeouts and strangulation, all hell will break loose, now and for years to come.