Sports

Bryce Harper Isn’t From Here, But He Was Born to Play in Philly

Why this phenom from Vegas was never going to sign anywhere else.


Bryce Harper’s background is proof he was meant to end up here. Illustration by Britt Spencer

Bryce Harper had been set up to fail.

It wasn’t a position the great baseball prodigy — he whose greatness had been foretold from the age of six, whose ultimate success was the only sure thing in a sport full of uncertainty — had found himself in before. Sure, he had been challenged at every step of his storied career. He’d played baseball against grown men when he was still a Las Vegas schoolboy; gone off to college as his classmates started their junior year of high school; got the call to the major leagues at 19 and then exceeded ridiculously high expectations. But this was the first time he had been put in a seemingly impossible spot.

All last winter, everyone in baseball knew that the Phillies had positioned themselves to outspend anyone and, thanks to principal owner John Middleton’s big mouth, were under intense pressure to do just that. Yet for months, as Harper, one of the most anticipated free agents in the history of free agency, pointedly did not sign with the Phillies, rumors trickled out onto Twitter. One: Harper, who as a child had dreamed of wearing Yankees pinstripes, pined for New York. Another: Harper’s family wanted him to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, closer to his Las Vegas home. Another still: Phillies manager Gabe Kapler’s approach and personality were a turn-off. Even at the 11th hour, as February creaked to a close and spring training kicked into gear, Harper was still, per yet another rumor, “unsure” about Philadelphia.

Maybe it was all true. Maybe it was just idle Twitter chum. And maybe it was something else: a series of strategic leaks by Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, intended to drive up the offers for his transcendently talented client during a shockingly somnambulant free-agency period. After all, nothing tweaks Philadelphians like the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us.

Immediately after Middleton flew on his private jet for a weekend of meetings with the free agent, reports surfaced that Harper was taking meetings with the Giants and Dodgers. The panic in the media got so bad that on the morning of February 28th, with still no announcement about Harper’s decision, 94 WIP’s Angelo Cataldi, the id of a certain segment of Philly sports fandom, had had enough. He announced preparations to give Harper the J.D. Drew treatment — to boo him mercilessly the moment he set foot in town as a member of whichever team he’d be spurning the Phillies to join. So later that day, when the world learned that Harper was indeed signing with the Phillies after all — for $330 million and 13 years with no opt-out clauses, essentially committing to spending the rest of his career here — it was a particularly Philly sort of anticlimax. Excitement and anticipation had eroded to resentment and bitterness, and just as we’d started to unpack our trusty anger and invective, we had to put them away. To hell with the bum! Oh? He’s signing with us? Heh-heh-heh … we loved you all along!

Which is why what’s happened since has had me scratching my head, made me wonder if we’re not living in some parallel Philadelphia. In 1978, Philadelphians were excited when Pete Rose signed with the Phillies but also indignant about his haul, the then-unheard-of sum of eight hundred thousand dollars a year — to play baseball. In 1984, we struggled to comprehend how Mike Schmidt deserved $2 million a year. More recently, we bristled as slugger Ryan Howard played out the string on his five-year, $125 million contract extension. Given this history, it was fair to expect at least some blowback upon the exquisitely coiffed and formerly dreaded Washington National who’d just inked the richest contract in North American sports history despite, at least according to the whispers, maybe not thinking that highly of Philly.

But that blowback didn’t happen. Instead, Harper embarked on a charm offensive, triggering a sort of mania, a full-on lovefest between player and city. And only with a bit of hindsight does it all make perfect sense — do you realize that just as Bryce Harper was born to be a baseball star, he was also born to play in Philadelphia.

Sports, like everything else, is different than it was in 1978. The grumbling you once heard about grown men getting paid millions of dollars to play a child’s game has been replaced, rightly, by an understanding that sports are big business and wealthy owners wouldn’t pay huge contracts if they couldn’t afford to.

Weeks after Bryce Harper signed his record deal, South Jersey native Mike Trout signed a $430 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that bumped Harper’s deal from its brief perch atop of the list of the biggest deals ever signed in North American sports. And few people think they don’t deserve their paydays. Harper, a seven-year veteran at 26, is truly great. Trout, an eight-year veteran at 27, may be the best ever. And both presumably have a lot of baseball left to play.

And just as teams are getting smarter about analytics and finances, fans are savvier than ever about the realities of the sports they obsess over.

I ask Jim Gardner, the venerable 6 ABC anchor — who once confided to me that he wants to be the Phillies beat writer in his next career — to weigh in on Harper’s deal. “I don’t think most fans begrudge a star the crazy money in sports anymore,” he says. “These supersized contracts are now part of the landscape, and perhaps some fans even see a Harper-like contract as a badge of honor. Phillies fans were excited when John Middleton said he was ready to spend some ‘stupid’ money.”

With Joel Embiid earning some $30 million a year with the Sixers and Carson Wentz poised to do the same should he sign an extension with the Eagles, Harper money — he’ll average more than $25 million a year — isn’t unprecedented here, even if the length of his contract is.

It’s this idea of a “badge of honor” that starts to get at why Philadelphia has been so quick to embrace Bryce Harper, the man who in 2009, at age 16, was declared “Baseball’s Chosen One” on the cover of Sports Illustrated and “Baseball’s LeBron” inside it. The Phillies don’t have a particularly rosy history of landing big-name free agents. Before Harper, the list is four names long: Pete Rose. Jim Thome. Cliff Lee. Jonathan Papelbon. The organization has tried to sell fans on the likes of Gregg Jeffries, Danny Tartabull and Kevin Millwood, none of whom became the difference-maker that was promised.

“I’ve been through the wars, and I know we rarely get the guy,” observes David Caplan, a Lafayette Hill-based accountant who’s a co-owner of Center City wine-bar juggernaut Tria and a long-suffering Phillies fan. As a numbers guy, he’s naturally nervous about the length of Harper’s deal while recognizing its importance to the city’s psyche. “We are always looking at ourselves in self-deprecation mode. And then we get the big guy and it’s like, ‘Hey, I can’t believe we actually landed somebody.’”

Philadelphia — the nation’s first capital, the city of firsts — is a place that’s spent the past century chasing down its former glory. In this context, getting Bryce Harper or the DNC or the Pope is bigger than simply landing a baseball player or a convention or a pontiff. It explains why Philly was so excited that he signed here. But to really understand why we’ve fallen in love with him, you have to dig deeper.

For a 26-year-old, Bryce Harper has been the subject of a lot of profiles. It comes with the territory when you can hit a baseball 570 feet as a 15-year-old high-school freshman. Read enough of those profiles, and a few themes start to emerge:

• Though Bryce Harper was tabbed as a phenom at a young age, he wasn’t some prep-school golden boy. His father, Ron, was a union man, a “rodbuster” with Reinforcing Ironworkers Local 416 in Las Vegas — he literally built casinos. He worked the early shift so he could get home to pitch batting practice to his sons. He instilled that blue-collar, lunch-pail work ethic in his kids. At home, Bryce reportedly swung pieces of iron rebar like some desert Paul Bunyan.

• Follow baseball long enough and you’ll hear most hitting prodigies described as having a “pretty” swing or a “sweet” swing. That’s not really Harper. In a 2016 ESPN the Magazine profile, senior writer Tim Keown called Harper’s hitting motion “raging and primeval, a broken dam, a convulsion … engineered for a different time — perhaps to slaughter animals … or enemies.” In his 2009 Sports Illustrated profile, Tom Verducci wrote of Harper’s swing, “It is not pretty. Neither was Al Capone.”

• Bryce Harper not only loves being great at baseball; he craves adoration for being great at baseball. At 16, his goals, per Verducci, included “be in the Hall of Fame” and “be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived.” In a 2011 Washington Post profile on the cusp of Harper’s major-league debut, he told Dave Sheinin, “I love talking to the media. It’s a blast. I love people knowing where I came from and what I’m about.”

• Despite Bryce Harper’s future as a Major League Baseball star being all but assured since he was a child, this past off-season was the first time he really had much of a choice about where he played baseball. He was bused and flown around on the travel-ball circuit as a kid. A plan for him to take his GED after his sophomore year of high school so he could enter the draft early was cooked up by — his eventual agent, Scott Boras. After a year in juco, he was drafted in 2010 by the Nationals, who, under baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement, controlled his rights until last winter.

The first time I saw Bryce Harper’s parents — during his introductory press conference in Clearwater — the Philly kismet started to make sense. Ron Harper, bearded, brawny, tattooed, sat next to Sheri Harper, who, with her ample hair and vibrantly patterned dress, would be played by Katey Sagal in the made-for-TV movie The Harpers. These are not D.C. people. These are not Big Apple people. These are real people. While 15-year-old Harper listed playing for the Yankees among his goals, it’s not difficult to see why Philadelphia — and not New York, or L.A., or D.C., or San Francisco — has become his forever baseball home.

When you watch Bryce Harper play — the way he wants to stretch every single into a double, how he’ll bust ass from first to score the 10th run in a laugher of a first inning against the Mets, even the preposterous way he’ll try to hurdle a catcher when he’s dead-to-rights at home — you see why Philly was always the perfect fit.

When Harper signed with Philadelphia, my friend Nick, a jilted Nationals fan, sent me a GIF of Harper. In the 2018 clip, Bryce, trying to stretch a single into a double, runs so fiercely that his helmet flies off his head. The helmet hits his heel, causing him to stumble, then trip, then belly-flop, before he ultimately lunges, pompadour flapping, into the waiting tag of Rays second baseman Brad Miller. “Now Philadelphia will pay him $330M to boo him, rather than doing it for free,” Nick chided.

Harper does look ridiculous in the clip, as he has in other moments when, like an overexcited puppy, he appears just too eager to please. (See the aforementioned catcher hurdle.) New York and D.C. would laugh at such effort, but it’s the kind Philly ultimately respects, and demands, of its stars. Here, that sort of drive becomes legend. Harper isn’t some prep-school prodigy. For all his preternatural ability, he’s still raw, still struggling to harness his massive talent, resisting what seems like an ever-present urge to run through the nearest wall.

Harper, ultimately, seems incapable of pretense. It’s why, when he embarked on his campaign to show Philadelphia how committed he was to the city, none of it seemed fake, despite the fact that elements of it almost had to have been concocted by a marketing team: the Fresh Prince walk-up music during spring training. Wearing the fan-art Phanatic/Gritty t-shirt to the ballpark on opening day (and making it go viral). The custom Phanatic cleats he wore on the field later that day. The bowing to fans in right field. The Instagram-perfect announcement that he and his wife, Kayla, were expecting a baby boy (a fact they must have been aware of when they chose to live in Philly for 13 years).

In a brief email exchange, Harper told me that his and Kayla’s impressions of Philadelphia, from their visits when he was a National, were “that it was like one giant neighborhood. That the fans were extremely passionate.”

If it’s true that Harper wants not only to be great but to be loved, he couldn’t have picked a more perfect city in which to play the remainder of his career. He was great in D.C., but D.C. is too transitory, its recent history with baseball too short. Los Angeles and San Francisco are too jaded, aloof. And unless your name is Jeter or Mariano, New York will never truly love you. Nobody can love an athlete the way Philly can. And Harper’s the type we fall hardest for. Mercurial but imperfect. Talented and a little unhinged. In Philadelphia, Harper may have found a town whose passion, whose desire, whose need can be seen as great matches with his own.

In other words, we’re enabling Bryce Harper. And Bryce Harper is enabling us. And right now, that feels more than okay — it feels fabulous.

Published as “Bryce Is Right” in the June 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.