Friends. Countrymen. Hated enemies who root for the Wrong Team. Four teams are remaining in the 2019 MLB playoffs: the Houston Astros, the New York Yankees, the Washington Nationals, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Their rosters feature some of the sport’s biggest stars: Justin Verlander, Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, Yadier Molina, and Tommy “MVP” Edman.
One star who is not playing: Bryce Harper, who is sitting out October after his team, the Philadelphia Phillies, failed to make the playoffs. And yet, if you listen closely to the autumnal churning of the Take Typhoon, you can hear his name on the breeze. It isn’t simply about the six-time All-Star’s absence from the Nationals, the team that drafted him and with whom he played for his first seven years in the majors before departing in free agency last winter. No, Harper’s shadow looms across much more than the Washington outfield (more on that particular hole later).
As his former squad heads back to D.C. for Game 3 of the Nats’ first visit to the NLCS with a 2-0 series lead over the Cardinals, it’s time for us to take a good, long look at Hurricane Harper.
Why is Bryce Harper somehow a notable story of the postseason?
Well, dear reader, let me tell you. The Nationals drafted Harper first overall in the 2010 MLB draft, and he—then a 17-year-old superstar prospect who had already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated—quickly became the face of the still-young franchise. He spent the subsequent years racking up achievements: He was named National League Rookie of the Year following his 2012 arrival in the bigs, earned NL MVP honors in 2015 (a year in which he and the Angels’ Mike Trout jointly led baseball with a mark of 9.3 wins above replacement), and made six visits to the All-Star Game.
At the end of the 2018 season, Harper reached free agency and became one of the offseason’s hottest commodities. The Nationals made him a long-term offer—reportedly 10 years and $300 million. Ultimately, Harper signed with the Phillies instead, who offered him a record-breaking 13-year, $330 million deal. The Phillies share a division with the Nationals, meaning that the teams met on 19 occasions this season.
While the Phillies are done for the year, the Nationals are still in the hunt for the Commissioner’s Trophy. The Nats made the playoffs for the first time since moving to D.C. in 2012—Harper’s rookie year—and then three more times with Harper on the team in 2014, 2016, and 2017. Each time, the team was crushed in the divisional series in excruciating fashion. Harper was far from being solely responsible for all those losses, but as the team’s biggest star, he got some of their stink on him: His batting average was just .211 across those four lost series, well below his regular-season mark in any of those years, and he made the final strikeout of the dreadful (for the Nats) Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS. He was a failure only in the sense that he faced such high expectations—but, well, he did.
The Nationals are now in the midst of the NLCS. Their presence follows another Game 5 of another NLDS last week, this time against the Dodgers. But unlike all the other times, the Nationals emerged triumphant after staging a remarkable late-inning comeback and dashing L.A.’s World Series hopes in memorable fashion. For viewers outside the DMV, this run may be the first time people are seeing the Nationals sans their erstwhile star in right field. The Nats finally busting through to a fight for the pennant without Harper seems notable. Voilà: The ghost of Harper looms.
Is Nats fans’ very vocal hatred of Bryce warranted?
A modestly surprising subplot of the 2019 baseball season was Nationals fans turning on Harper and heartily booing him throughout each at-bat of his visits to Nats Park. With the exception of some moments when it might have gone too far—last month, Harper’s wife, Kayla, complained that some fans had directed their heckling at the Harpers’ infant son, Krew—it seemed like a good old-fashioned sports rivalry, come by honestly. The Nats offered Harper hundreds of millions of dollars to stay, and then Harper left anyway for an offer that paid slightly less per year than the Nationals’ one did. He had his choice to stay in the city that revered him, bought his jerseys, and stood for his at-bats, but he went with the other guys instead.
Only that’s not really what happened. The 10-year, $300 million offer reportedly made to Harper by the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, is said to have included as much as $100 million in deferred money, such that the outfielder, now 26, would have kept getting checks until he was 60. Such deferrals significantly decrease the actual value of a contract, principally because they don’t include inflation. In reality, the Nats’ offer to Harper was well below its apparent heights—unlike the Phillies’, which contains no deferrals.
In effect, the Lerners made Harper a well-below-market-value offer that looked good only on the surface—enough, a skeptical observer might conclude, to be able to tell fans that they tried to keep him without actually having done so. Some fans, regrettably, have bought that story and chose to believe the ugly conclusions it points to: that Harper never liked D.C., that D.C. fans’ support meant nothing, that he’d rather play for a divisional rival instead. Never mind that Harper seems to have sincerely wanted to stay if the team was willing to pay him what a player of his talent is worth—and money, it’s worth noting, was hardly the issue for one of the wealthiest owners in baseball (and American sports, period).
Having said all that: Sports fandom isn’t rational. Of course, you’ll root against a rival team’s best players; of course, you’ll resent the stars who leave your team, however legitimate their reasons. Nats fans are perfectly free to resent the hell out of their former outfielder—just hopefully not because they’ve fallen for the organization’s version of how the departure happened.
Harper, for his part, seems to relish being a villain, or at least plays the part a little too convincingly. See, for example, the wave he offered a group of Dodger fans at Citizens Bank Park who chanted “o-ver-ra-ted” at him just before he singled in July.
That wasn’t his first notable wave of the year: At the start of the season, he took to doing a speedy wave after hits—one that is apparently a Fortnite reference but felt quite a bit like taunting when he doubled during his first visit to D.C. as a Phillie.
Nationals fans now exuberantly tweet the GIF at him whenever he has a bad outing at the plate. Naturally.
Is Nats fans’ very vocal hatred of Bryce a good thing for the fan base?
For as long as the Nationals have played in Washington, Washingtonians have hemmed and hawed about whether or not Nationals fandom is authentic. The topic has largely been dismissed in other quarters—look at all those people in red screaming their hearts out for Juan Soto’s three-run single in the wild-card game!—but in D.C., the question of whether Nats fans are good fans or, more broadly, if D.C. qualifies as a sports town continues to be a source of anxiety, derision, and pride.
Some of the uncertainty can be expected for a team that’s been around for only 15 years: While there are many devoted Nats fans, many of them grew up rooting for a different team. And part of this is inherent in the weirdness of our nation’s capital: D.C. is a city of transplants, meaning that people here occasionally have dual rooting affiliations and are not exactly the type to exhibit bloodlust for the local baseball team’s opponents. No one, in short, is getting Screech tattooed around their belly button any time soon.
So for Nationals fans, hating on Harper this season has become an unlikely rallying point. The newfound rivalry went beyond booing. A local pizza chain, for one, offered $3 pizzas every time Harper struck out during a September series. The cherry on top? The Phillies, who were fighting late in the season for their own wild-card berth, were ultimately eliminated from contention after a loss at Nationals Park.
What have Nats fans done with their Bryce Harper jerseys?
Well, they’ve certainly purchased duct tape:
Duct tape fixes anything—including converting a jersey to Scherzer. ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/sFX02CmiGK— Laura Peebles (@ArVaFan55) August 14, 2019
They wore modified jerseys for Harper’s first visit to Nats Park as a Phillie:
And even for a potentially decisive Max Scherzer start in Game 4 of the NLDS:
“This is a Max Scherzer jersey” pic.twitter.com/I4NSBCJcE9— Paul Mancano (@PaulMancano) October 7, 2019
Is there any chance of the Bryce-D.C. relationship mending soon?
Well, no. Harper is exceedingly likely to be booed every time he enters Nationals Park for the duration of his tenure with the Phillies. Sports fandom has never been about taking the high road, and it’s unlikely to start now.
Unless, well, the Nationals try to make nice. They’re not likely to, but hear me out for an idea I’ve admittedly borrowed from my friend Russell—one of the relatively few in D.C. who still holds Harper in high regard: Why not have Harper throw out the first pitch at a Nats game? Hell, why not have it happen this week, giving Harper some small role in the Nationals’ first NLCS? Leave it to Nats fans to decide whether they’d like to cheer for the player who gave them so much during his seven years in D.C., or whether they’d like to boo. (OK, they’d definitely boo.)
Is Juan Soto already better than Bryce?
Twenty-year-old Soto has been lighting up the Nationals’ outfield all year, and this month, at the end of just his second season in the majors, he has furnished his team with the kind of electrifying postseason highlights that Harper never managed. It was Soto’s two-out, bases-loaded smack to right field that sent the Nationals ahead of the Brewers in the eighth inning of the do-or-die wild-card game and stamped the team’s ticket for the NLDS:
We think we can tweet videos again so here's Juan Soto's game-winning hit and OH MY GOODNESS IT'S EVEN MORE INCREDIBLE THAN WE REMEMBERED.#ChildishBambino // #STAYINTHEFIGHT pic.twitter.com/iBCkc7hUaJ— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) October 2, 2019
The following week, in another do-or-die game against L.A., Soto joined Anthony Rendon with back-to-back home runs off Clayton Kershaw to tie the game that would ultimately go to the Nats and send D.C. past the NLDS for the first time. Nats fans, in short, are not exactly feeling an offensive void in their outfield.
Do we want to watch the clip of Juan Soto celebrating with his dad after the wild-card game again?
Juan Soto getting celebratory tackled by his dad is so amazing. pic.twitter.com/8atUzu4Ck2— Cut4 (@Cut4) October 2, 2019
Is the Harper process about to begin again with Anthony Rendon?
Oh god, please no. Rendon, the Nationals’ third baseman and one of the sport’s lesser-known (criminally, if you ask me) powerhouses, will hit free agency this offseason. He was drafted in 2011, just a year after Harper, and likewise becomes a free agent having spent his entire career in D.C. This year, he led the team in WAR (7.0) for the third time, made his first All-Star appearance, and led all of baseball in RBI (126).
The Nats made him an offer before the postseason began reportedly for seven years and between $210 million and $215 million. Unlike the Harper offer, this one has only modest deferrals, all of which would be paid off within seven years after the contract concludes, according to The Washington Post. But Rendon’s team reportedly believes that the Nationals’ offer is below his market value—the Rockies, for one, gave star third baseman Nolan Arenado an eight-year, $260 million extension earlier this year—and he seems all but certain to consider offers elsewhere. Should the Nationals not revise their offer, it is quite possible that Rendon, like Harper, will depart. Rendon, who shares the same agent as Harper in Scott Boras, has never been the firebrand that Harper is, so he might not lend himself to villainy and rivalry quite as well. Still, here’s hoping that if Rendon does leave, the Nats make an enemy of only one former star.