Harper’s free agency had been one of the most anticipated in baseball history, but as the holidays approached, its pace was glacial. Major League Baseball’s winter meetings, held right in Harper’s hometown, had produced no movement; he took not a single meeting during those four days. When he and Kayla boarded that plane, Harper had met only with the Chicago White Sox.
Harper intended to hear proposals from various owners in Las Vegas. But the Nationals — and the Lerners — were different. They were the only team, the only ownership group Harper had ever known. Plus, Scott Boras, Harper’s longtime agent, had a history of working out deals at the Lerners’ home in Palm Springs. Boras visited there annually, whether he was selling a specific player or not. And Harper had a personal relationship with Ted and his wife, Annette, that dated from when he was drafted as a teenager.
“I was like: ‘Gosh dang, this is the only meeting I’m going to take outside of Las Vegas,’ ” Harper said. “ ‘This is a huge meeting for me. I want to go back. So, of course, I’ll do whatever it takes to go back.’ ”
Harper, of course, did not go back. Tuesday night, he will walk into Nationals Park and, instead of taking a right turn toward the home clubhouse and his former locker, he’ll turn left and find his way to the visitors’ locker room, where he’ll pull on the road grays of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“It’s definitely going to be weird,” Harper said. “I can’t imagine flying into the airport, into Dulles, and taking that 45-minute drive to stay in a hotel instead of my place.”
His place is now in Philadelphia. His team is now the Phillies, unbeaten in three games this year in part because Harper has two monstrous homers, a double and four walks — a taste of what he can offer his new team, his new town. But some issues remain unresolved, not the least of which is how he will feel about playing as a visitor in Washington and how Washington will feel about hosting him with another team.
“I’m not sure what to expect,” Harper said during a wide-ranging discussion last month at his locker in the Phillies’ spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla. During that chat, Harper described his excitement about trying to help the Phillies win the World Series while continuing to sound wistful about his time with the Nationals. At turns, Harper said he understood why the negotiations fell through but in the next breath seemed mystified that he’s a Phillie, not a Nat.
As Christmas approached and the Harpers met with the Lerners, Harper said his mind was clear: He wanted to return to Washington.
“I walked away from that meeting like, ‘I want to go back, so let’s get the friggin’ deal done,’ ” Harper said. “I told Scott: ‘If we can get the thing done with them, like, now, let’s go. Because I want to get it done, be back in D.C., and be done with it.’ ”
'I'm going to be a National'
Toward the end of the 2018 season, Harper grew increasingly nostalgic about Washington and his time with the Nationals. One night, he stood in the outfield during a pitching change, turned to teammate Michael A. Taylor and asked, “Do you think they’ll bring me back?” He wondered publicly, “Am I in their plans?”
In the Nationals’ final home game Sept. 26, Harper came to the plate four times against the Miami Marlins. Four times, he received a standing ovation from a Nationals Park crowd of 28,680, a gathering thinned by a gloomy forecast. When the rain intensified in the eighth inning, Harper headed down the steps from the dugout to the clubhouse for what felt like the final time.
As Harper sat at his locker, Alan Gottlieb, the chief operating officer of Lerner Enterprises and a longtime confidante of the Lerner family, walked through the clubhouse and asked Harper to come to Manager Dave Martinez’s office. When Harper walked through the door, Martinez wasn’t there. Instead, he was faced with the organization’s most important figures: Ted Lerner and his son Mark, who earlier in the summer had taken official control of the club from his then-92-year-old father.
Harper was still in his uniform. The game hadn’t yet been called, but he was about to have a business meeting. At that time, the Nationals were the only team that could offer him a contract. The Lerners said they loved Harper, that they wanted him to be part of their future. They handed him an envelope. Harper was stunned.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” someone asked him.
Harper said no, not yet. There might be more baseball still to play. They shook hands, thanks all around.
When he got back to his locker, Harper texted Kayla: You’re not going to believe this, but they just made me an offer in the middle of this game. When the rain wouldn’t relent and the final innings were canceled, Harper went to the hallway outside the clubhouse, still in uniform, and met Kayla. Together, they opened the envelope with the Nationals’ official offer: 10 years, $300 million, with explanations of how roughly $100 million of that money would be deferred, the last payment coming in 2052.
“I was kind of shocked at it, because it was kind of like, ‘Hey, this is an offer you can’t reject, and it’s going to be great,’ ” Harper said. “I was like: ‘All right, cool. I got it. We can build off that. We can work off that.’ If that’s their first offer, cool. Awesome.”
Boras called Ted Lerner the next day to discuss the offer. The Nationals, though, didn’t consider it a starting point, and it didn’t exist in perpetuity. Free agency begins the morning after the World Series ends. The Nationals needed to know Harper’s intentions by then so they could approach the offseason accordingly. But Harper hadn’t come that far, to the end of his seventh season in the big leagues, not to test free agency. The surprising part, two Nationals officials said, was that neither Boras nor Harper got back to them in the month between the end of the season and the beginning of free agency.
“Not one word,” one official said.
For years, as Harper’s impending free agency became one of the sport’s central story lines, the annual winter meetings — held this offseason in, of all places, Las Vegas — seemed to be a natural place to conclude the process. Harper’s camp, though, wasn’t looking at it that way. Boras told Harper that he probably wouldn’t sign until March 1, even as Harper said he told Boras to go back to the Nats with any offer they received from another club. So as the Nats went about rebuilding their roster, most prominently signing left-hander Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140-million deal, Harper’s camp didn’t counter the original proposal.
“We were like: ‘Thank you for the offer. We appreciate it. We’ll consider it. But let’s keep working towards one,’ ” Harper said. “So I didn’t talk to them for probably the first two months of the offseason.”
Regardless of his ultimate destination, Harper’s desires were specific and contradictory to what the public thought: He wanted as many years as possible. He wanted a no-trade clause. He did not want opt-outs — which would have given him a path back to free agency — even if that might be more lucrative. He wanted, basically, to never again answer the question that to that point had defined his career: Where are you going next?
“Scott told me and Kayla, ‘This is going to be a fight,’ ” Harper said. “He goes: ‘The [average annual value] might not be there, but we’ll get you the years. If the years are the biggest thing, we’ll get there.’ I said: ‘That’s fine. That’s what’s most important.’ ”
The Dec. 23 meeting in Palm Springs was Harper’s best chance to re-engage the Lerners. The two couples enjoyed an afternoon lunch with Boras and his top lieutenant, Mike Fiore. On speakerphone from Washington was Ted Towne, the Nationals’ assistant general manager in charge of finance.
Harper was thrilled with the meeting. At one point, he said, Annette Lerner turned to her husband and said, “Ted, get it done.”
“I was like, ‘Cool!’ ” Harper said. “Mrs. Lerner usually makes great decisions.”
By the time the Harpers headed back to the airport, the player was convinced his free agency wouldn’t last much longer.
“I’m sitting there like: ‘I’m going to be a National. I’m going to be a National,’ ” he said. “ ‘They’re going to make me an offer this week. We’re going to build off of that, and it’s going to happen.’ I told Kayla, ‘Be ready to go back.’ I flat-out told her. I was psyched. I was like, ‘Be ready to go back, because if we can, we’re going back.’ I was pumped.”
When the calendar flipped to 2019, the Nationals got back to Harper and Boras with a new offer Jan. 3: 12 years for $250 million, according to one person with direct knowledge of the terms. Much like the proposal they made to Harper before the season ended, some of the money was deferred. The last payment from this contract, according to the person, would have come in 2072.
The deferrals lessened the net present value of the contract considerably, although the Nationals and Boras’s team differ in their calculations. Boras’s team told Harper that, using a 6 percent discount rate, the new contract offer was worth just more than $107 million.
“I got that offer, and I kind of was like, ‘Dang,’ ” he said. “But for me, it was like: ‘Okay, I understand they’re building a team there. I understand they’re going to be really, really good. I understand they have Juan Soto. I understand they have [Victor] Robles.’ So my thing was . . . I don’t want to take something that’s way, far less than I’d get elsewhere, and less than the first offer, with high deferrals. I don’t want to be a guy that gets paid till I’m 65. That doesn’t do it for me. . . . So after I got that offer, it hit me like, ‘Damn, I could be going somewhere else.’ So I turned it. I was like, ‘I really need to start focusing on my meetings.’ ”
That meant not only analyzing cities. It meant analyzing rosters and finances.
“He said: ‘Okay, now I understand you can’t keep your good players if you have a good team. What you have to do then is go to a team that’s not so good and build your way through,’ ” Boras said. “I said, ‘Hold on; I think we have some unique situations that allow you to get to a team that could win today and win in the future, and have the ownership wherewithal to do that.’ ”
In January, Harper and his team began taking more meetings, with more urgency, in a suite at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas. The national baseball media had long considered West Coast teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and even the San Diego Padres to have an edge because of their relative proximity to Harper’s Las Vegas home.
That was a misconception.
“I really didn’t want to play out west,” Harper said. “It’s a little close to Vegas, you know what I’m saying? I love my family. But I love the East Coast as well. I love the vibe there, the intensity, the way ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ is actually at night. Stuff like that mattered.”
Still, he had to be open. He met with the Padres and was tempted by playing in San Diego. He met with the Giants, who started with an eight-year offer. He met with the Dodgers, who were interested in a shorter-term deal but with a record-setting average annual value: four years, with the opportunity for Harper to opt out after each season.
“But then I would have been right back like it was in D.C., with everyone saying, ‘What’s he going to do next?’ ” Harper said. “I didn’t want that.”
The Phillies, though, seemed to be different. For the first meeting Jan. 12 at the Aria, Philadelphia sent a large contingent that included not only owner John Middleton but General Manager Matt Klentak, Manager Gabe Kapler and others. Like other teams, they showed Harper spray charts of his hitting that displayed how well he would perform at Citizens Bank Park. The talks were productive but not initially distinctive.
What mattered more: Middleton and his wife, Leigh , flew back to Las Vegas for a Feb. 22 dinner with Bryce and Kayla Harper. The next day, Middleton called Boras and told him he wasn’t leaving. Could they have lunch? “John was so intense,” Boras said. After those meetings, Harper said, he could imagine signing with the Phillies.
“They were just open and honest with me about their concerns about me coming to Philly and vice versa,” Harper said. “They wanted to understand if they could trust me as a person, trust me as a player. And I love that. I was like, ‘Man, these people are really engaged on the players they want in their clubhouse and the players they want in their city.’ John was able to put his faith in me with the amount of years that he offered, and that’s a big leap.”
Over the years, Harper had discussed Philadelphia — its fans, its ballpark, its restaurants, its neighborhoods — with Jayson Werth, his longtime teammate and mentor in Washington who helped the Phillies win the 2008 World Series.
“Those memories for him were super vivid,” Harper said. “You could see how good they were. I was like: ‘Man, this could be a great place to play. It could be a lot of fun.’ ”
On Feb. 28, Harper was still sleeping at 9 a.m. Las Vegas time when Boras called with the news: He had a deal with the Phillies for 13 years and $330 million, none of it deferred beyond the length of the contract. He was still waiting to hear back from the Giants. But Harper knew where he wanted to be.
“I kind of hugged Kayla and said, ‘We’re going to Philly,’ ” he said.
And so, now, that’s where they are: Philadelphia, with the first of 10 games this season in Washington on Tuesday night. He has played three games as a Phillie in front of Phillies fans. He played 472 as a National in front of Nationals fans. That’s hard to shake.
“There’s just so many memories, so many good memories,” Harper said. “I’ve said it a million times: Those are the fans I grew up in front of. That was my first fan base. . . . Really, I cherished it. Every single day I walked in there and loved it.”
Beginning Tuesday, and forever more, the walk will be different.