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Baseball’s Chosen One Is at a Crossroads

Bryce Harper was once seen as the prodigy who would save his sport and his city. But as he approaches free agency, his reputation has changed. What’s the legacy of the Nationals star? And what happens next?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s late September in Washington, D.C. The official start of fall is just two days away, but humidity still hangs thick over the Navy Yard, as if it is mid-July. In Nationals Park, a half-hearted smattering of fans trickles to the seats to watch their once-mighty baseball team trade blows with the New York Mets, who have not eyed a playoff berth in months. It is early evening, so the sun is out. It is Air Force Day, so before the game there is a flyover.

The Nats are 77-75 and six and a half games out of the second National League wild-card spot, barely on the fringes of a postseason picture they were supposed to define. Down the third-base line, Section 107 is filling up slowly. A woman wearing a custom Nationals jersey (Number: 45; Name: IMPEACH) takes her seat near the field.

Across the park, Bryce Harper’s hulking figure looms at the end of the first-base line. Once the baby of the Nationals outfield, the 6-foot-3 superstar is now its elder statesman. The 20-year-old Victor Robles and the 19-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto occupy center and left field, respectively. Perhaps they occupy the center of the team’s designs for the future, as well.

Like many 20-somethings, Harper is being forced to think about what he wants to do with his life. He’s lived and worked in the same city since he was 18, and has to decide if now, at 25, it’s perhaps time for a change. When he becomes a free agent after this season, he will have other opportunities, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or elsewhere. It might be worth giving one a shot, so long as the money is right.

The free-agent price tag that has orbited Harper, for more than a year, is a figure that could make even the richest MLB teams balk, despite Harper having an MVP and nearly 200 home runs under his belt. The Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton is the current owner of the richest contract in baseball, in the fourth season of a 13-year, $325 million deal. Harper could reportedly land the first $400 million contract in baseball history, a deal that would double as a lifetime commitment to the Nationals or any franchise willing to put it on the table.

But as the offseason draws closer, it’s not only unclear whether Harper wants to stay with the Nationals, but whether the Nationals want to stay with him. He told reporters throughout this season that he would not comment on inquiries about his future. At times, he threatened to walk out of interviews that broached the topic of his 2019 free agency. And just weeks ago, in the same August firesale in which the team sent Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and Matt Adams to the Cardinals, Washington placed Harper on waivers, where he was claimed by the Dodgers. Los Angeles failed to put together a sufficiently enticing trade package, and the Nationals kept Harper on the roster. In even entertaining an offer, though, Washington showed that it was willing to part with its most recognizable player.

The modern sports landscape is driven by personalities. Stars don’t just sell merchandise by putting up huge stats and making highlight-reel plays; they also create buzz during the months when there are no games. Baseball, especially, is hungry for characters who can straddle the past and the present, players with Instagrammable shocks of hair who can also challenge decades-old statistical records. Harper is that kind of player: a prodigy touted as a savior for his sport and his city. But even he is not priceless.

As he approaches home plate on this night, Harper taps the ground with his bat—four times on the plate’s edges and a fifth time in the dirt, out toward the pitcher’s mound. He squints. He grimaces. He decides not to swing at the first pitch he sees, which catches the inside corner. He looks at four more. All of them miss the strike zone.

AZ Fall League: Mesa v Scottsdale
Bryce Harper in the Arizona Fall League in 2010
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ten years ago, Harper’s at-bats would begin with a more elaborate ritual. He would drop his bat, bend over, and rub his hands in the dirt. Then he’d spit on his palms, rub them on the ground again, and finally assume his position in the batter’s box. As he got older, Harper cut this part of his routine after being warned that such a display would get a fastball thrown at his head. But much of the swagger remained. How could it not?

Harper was not just one of the most promising athletic prospects of his generation. He was one of the most mythologized too. His father, Ron, was a steelworker, and legend has it that Bryce grew up swinging a piece of rebar that Ron brought home from a construction site. Depending on the telling, the rod weighed as much as 25 pounds. Bryce smashed a 570-foot home run in a game as a freshman at Las Vegas High School. He hit a shot at a home run derby less than two years later that rang off the dome at the old Tropicana Field, stopping in the sky 502 feet from home plate.

As a high school sophomore, Harper was so far ahead of his competition, batting .626 and becoming the first non-senior to ever win Baseball America’s high school player of the year award, that he chose to get his GED and spend his would-be junior year in a wood-bat junior college league. There he was labeled, perhaps in part by MLB executives trying to tank his draft stock so that he would drop to their franchises, as a brat who pimped his home runs and taunted opposing dugouts when he threw out baserunners from the warning track. When he eventually did enter pro ball, in 2010, he was merely the age of a high school senior.

Of course, most prominent in Harper’s legend was the Sports Illustrated cover. In 2009, a 16-year-old Harper, eye black dragged down his cheeks, posed for the magazine somewhere in the Las Vegas desert, gazing off into the distance at the end of his swing. The cover line read: “Baseball’s Chosen One”; inside the magazine, the headline went further: “Baseball’s LeBron.”

The comparisons were not hyperbolic. LeBron had been so good at such a young age that he turned his pre-professional competitions into showcases. Harper did the same. His capabilities were so far beyond the measuring stick for typical teenagers that it was impossible to project how good he could be. In the SI story, Harper’s mother, Sheri, recounts the experience that convinced her that her son would be special: One weekend, she called Bryce to ask how he’d played at a travel tournament. “All right,” he replied. Later, a coach told Sheri that Bryce had gone 12-for-12 with 11 home runs.

Now a comparison to LeBron is seldom anything but high praise, but at the time James had not yet claimed his place atop his sport. In 2009, he was perceived much like Harper is now: as a generational talent with a track record of postseason disappointment. In fact, once Harper and LeBron had become inextricably linked, reporters took to asking Bryce how he could avoid replicating James’s path. “The question was about LeBron James, the basketball star, and it would have been understandable had Harper chosen not to answer it,” Dave Sheinin wrote for The Washington Post in 2011. “The question was: How do you avoid what has happened to James—who in the span of about seven years has gone from the most heralded teenager ever to enter the NBA, to the poster-child for the spoiled, detached-from-reality modern megastar?”

It’s stunning how on the nose that question reads in 2018. Almost like he could see the future, Harper responded to Sheinin by defending James and his choice to leave Cleveland. “Maybe he should have done it in a different fashion … but I don’t think people know he donated all the [proceeds] from ‘The Decision’ to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America,” Harper said. “I mean, he just did it to better his career.”

In the aftermath of The Decision, LeBron was at his least appealing. He seemed to have a knack for falling short in the biggest moments; worse, he made a show of leaving the city that worshipped him. Expectations for a child on the cover of Sports Illustrated exist only in the world of fantasy. From the time they were teenagers, both James and Harper were supposed to be the best players on the planet. Relentlessly dominating the competition was the floor for what they were supposed to achieve.

Stories about prodigies often drift toward anticlimax. The future is defined by its lack of bounds, its unlimited capacity for achievement. The present is marked by the opposite. The idea of a prodigy’s career is intoxicating and fantastical. It’s a dream of 600-foot homers, batting averages signified by infinity symbols, and piles of trophies, team and individual, that stretch to the moon. The reality, no matter how great, can never live up to the fantasy.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper and Mike Trout
Rob Carr/Getty Images

In that SI story, when a 16-year-old Harper was asked about his dreams for the future, he gave writer Tom Verducci a quote that is still referenced when speculating about where Harper might go and what he might do: “Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived.”

Because Harper spat out those words nearly a decade ago, some still believe he is bound for the Yankees this offseason, that the teenage dream was a long-term blueprint rather than a vague vision formed by an adolescent mind. Mostly, the quote established expectations, if the fawning profiles and scouting reports hadn’t already, that the next generation would produce the most impressive athlete to ever play the national pastime. It did—only that athlete is not Harper.

So bad were the Nationals teams of the aughts that the year before they drafted Harper, the franchise also had its pick of any amateur on the market in 2009. The Nats took flamethrowing pitcher Stephen Strasburg at no. 1 overall, 24 picks before the Angels selected outfielder Mike Trout.

Trout was not a particularly heralded prospect. As a teenager, he was not on the cover of magazines. He grew up in Millville, New Jersey, in the southern interior part of the state, which made it hard for him to be seen, as my colleague Michael Baumann pointed out last year. Scouts rarely head to the regions of the country where leagues stop for months when temperatures drop, so even the best players can have difficulty showcasing their skills. As Harper mashed against elite players while scouts looked on and drooled, front offices had a hard time figuring out when Trout would play at all.

After being drafted by the Angels, though, Trout quickly showed what many scouts had been missing. He excelled in the minors and was called up for 40 games, at 19, in 2011. The next season, in his (and Harper’s) official rookie year, he immediately looked invincible.

In 2012 Harper hit .270 and notched 5.2 WAR. He was named the NL Rookie of the Year and found his way onto an MVP ballot, finishing 30th. Trout, by comparison, hit .326, notched a gobsmacking, majors-leading 10.5 WAR, won the American League Rookie of the Year, and placed second in MVP voting, behind only the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who became the first player to win a batting Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Even then, the case has been made that only nostalgia for outdated metrics kept Trout from being named the best player in baseball in his first try.

The story of Harper and Trout has extended similarly from there. Harper has been fascination in the spotlight. Trout has been perfection shrouded by fog, a specter hovering over each of Harper’s failings. It would be much easier to dismiss criticism of Harper if Trout didn’t exist.

Trout is not fun. The way he plays is fun, at least in its sense of clinical athletic destruction. But Trout is not a personality; he is one of the few baseball players to whom Nike has given a signature shoe, but it’s unlikely you knew those cleats existed, let alone cared. So uninterested is Trout in the celebrity that can come with athletic stardom that he’s even made MLB commissioner Rob Manfred openly disgruntled. “Mike has made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time. I think we could help him make his brand very big,” Manfred said in July. “But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”

Harper, on the other hand, has personality spewing from his ears. His first season spawned an unintentional catch phrase. He has, at times, played the game with such energy that he’s put his body (and brain) at risk. Often, his hair and facial hair seem to be competing to see which can be the wildest. If Trout is a soloist bowing a Paganini caprice precisely and articulately, then Harper is young Eddie Van Halen, making his guitar wail and wheeze with his back turned to the crowd so that nobody can copy his tricks.

“You want kids to play the game, right?” Harper asked ESPN in 2016. “What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players—Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton—I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”

For years, Harper has vocalized his desire to make baseball more fun, but baseball has not seemed consistently fun for him. In the time since he and Trout won their Rookie of the Year awards, Harper has alternated between good seasons and average ones. In 2014, 2016, and 2018, he accumulated a WAR below 2.0. After hitting .330 during his MVP campaign in 2015, his average dipped to .243 a year later. During that MVP year, he was choked in the dugout by closer Jonathan Papelbon after not running out a fly ball.

Trout’s worst season at the plate came in 2014, when he hit .287 and … won MVP. Since 2012, he’s led the AL in WAR more often than he hasn’t. And somehow he’s been shielded from the most common argument against great players who lack team achievements, perhaps because the Angels rosters have been so bad that not even the most accomplished take artists have dared to suggest that Trout is at fault for the franchise’s failings.

Meanwhile, Harper has been at the center of some of the most promising teams in baseball. And though he hasn’t been directly responsible, each of those teams’ seasons has ended in disaster.

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals - Game One
Bryce Harper
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Washington, D.C., is a city with two faces. It is simultaneously a creative haven and a place that leans away from personal expression. If you wear a suit in the capital, make sure it’s a drab shade of navy or gray. If you commission a building, make sure it is not too tall. At the turn of the 19th century, it was home to both Duke Ellington and the McKinley administration. Halfway up the Washington Monument, the shade of the stone switches; the first quarry used ran out of materials.

The farther you get from D.C.’s purported center, the more this place shows its colors. In the past, burgundy and gold or blue and gray dominated much as they dominated the local conversation. Now, the color around this city is Capitals red: The sweaters, finally, are worn with pride. But red hats aren’t so popular anymore.

In 2005, the Nationals moved from Montreal to a city that wasn’t ready for them. They played their first three seasons in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, a decaying football arena on the Anacostia River that, for nearly a decade, had hosted no professional football. After the Washington Senators left for Texas in the early ’70s, a hole opened up and an entire generation of DMV baseball fans fell in. They decided to either love the Orioles or give up on the sport.

So it didn’t help that when the Nationals came to town they were bad. They were unwaveringly, uncompromisingly, early Process-level bad. Over their first six seasons, the Nats lost an average of 93 games. In 2008 and 2009, they lost more than 100. But those lean years netted the franchise the draft picks that would become Strasburg and Harper. In 2010, Strasburg was called up and struck out 14 in his debut start, a display of superhuman command in front of a ravenous crowd that had gone 40 years without watching promising baseball. Two years later, Harper was called up, and the team won an MLB-high 98 games. In a blink, the organization ridiculed for sharing a logo with Walgreens had morphed into a powerhouse.

But the Nationals’ first postseason berth ended in heartbreak. In the NLDS they faced the defending World Series champion Cardinals, who had underachieved for most of 2012. With the best-of-five series even at two games apiece, the Nationals raced to a 6-0 lead in Game 5. Then, almost on cue, Washington’s offense went dead, and the Cardinals clawed back. In the ninth inning, closer Drew Storen got Washington to within one strike of advancing. (Perhaps he did get that last strike. You tell me.) But the final punch-out never came.

Since then, the Nationals have finished the regular season with 95 or more wins on three more occasions. Each time, they’ve lost in the NLDS in spectacular fashion. In 2014, they lost to the Giants in four games in a series that included the longest game in postseason history. In 2016, they lost in five games to the Dodgers after blowing a 2-1 series lead; Game 5 set the record as the longest nine-inning game in playoff history. In 2017, after leading 4-1, Washington lost to the Cubs 9-8 in Game 5. That broke the previous year’s record for the longest nine-inning postseason game. Each year has brought a narrower, more painful failing. Harper’s Nationals have been good, but never quite good enough.

This continued the recent trajectory of D.C. sports. Between 1997 and 2017, none of the city’s four major franchises even reached the penultimate stage of their respective playoffs. In the early aughts, there was no semblance of a national competitor or MVP-caliber player anywhere near the city. In 2009, three of four teams finished last in their divisions by large margins. The lone exception to the awfulness was the Capitals, the hockey team that, after undergoing a rebrand, turning its gear bright red, and drafting winger Alexander Ovechkin in 2004, turned into an attraction for a city that had previously liked, but not loved, the sport.

Ovechkin immediately became a star and beloved fixture in the area. He won the Hart Trophy in his third season, in 2008. He made silly Eastern Motors commercials (a rite of passage for DMV athletes). He flashed his toothless grin at Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church. There was a rumor that he gave kids copies of NHL 2K if they came to his door on Halloween.

As he improved, so did the team. By the 2009-10 season, the Capitals were far and away the winningest team in hockey. But in the playoffs they lost consistently and dramatically. In 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2017 they lost hard-fought Game 7s in either the first or second round. It seemed like a taunt: You thought that losing all the time was bad? Well, here’s a new trick.

A shadow crept over the Capitals and Ovechkin. Like Harper, he had a far more successful foil, the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby. And like Harper, patience with him, despite his rare skill set, grew thin. This was most evident at the end of the 2017 postseason, when the Caps dropped a second-round matchup to Pittsburgh, which went on to win its second straight Stanley Cup. It seemed that the two preeminent D.C. athletes were destined to chart parallel paths to sporting tragedy.

But this year, for one of the city’s sporting heroes, fortunes reversed: Ovechkin and the Capitals won the first Cup in franchise history. Not only that, but they dispatched Crosby and the Penguins along the way. “We waited so long,” Ovi said in the aftermath of the win. The Russian’s relief reverberated throughout the city: in the streets where cars honked their horns in the cadence of a “Let’s go Caps” chant, in the Georgetown fountain where the players went swimming with the Cup, and in the team’s notably well-attended championship parade.

The recollections of Ovechkin’s tenure in the city will change now. If he is not remembered as the city’s all-time signature athlete, he will surely be among them. Perhaps one day he’ll be commemorated with a statue outside Capital One Arena.

Harper isn’t assured such a storybook ending. The Nationals will not get their redemption with a 2018 World Series win, because now even the playoffs are beyond reach. Hope of a narrative-shifting October is gone; soon, Harper may be gone too.

T-Mobile Home Run Derby
Bryce Harper
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In July, for maybe the first time, the entire baseball world looked to Nationals Park. Washington hosted this season’s All-Star Game festivities. Harper, who had struggled for much of the first half, hitting .214 as the Nats limped to a 47-47 record, signed up to headline the Home Run Derby.

He walked into the stadium on that Monday dressed flamboyantly, a cross between Rambo and Captain America. On his right arm, he wore a sleeve wrapped in stars and stripes, a motif that extended through the bats he’d use that night. Socks with an image of the Capitol rose over red, white, and blue cleats. Over his forehead and under strands of his product-rich hair was a bandana resembling the D.C. flag.

Harper tore through the bracket-style tournament, unfurling that great, mythical swing and pinging pitches thrown by his father toward the lights above the stadium. He smashed 13 home runs in the first round to advance past Braves slugger Freddie Freeman; he hit 13 again in the semifinals to best the Dodgers’ Max Muncy. “The way the ball’s coming off his bat, it’s just different,” ESPN’s Karl Ravech marveled of Harper on the telecast. “It looks like every ball’s going to be a home run.”

In the final round, Harper came to bat second, having to top Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber’s mark of 18 home runs. With just 87 seconds remaining in the allotted four-and-a-half-minute hitting window, Harper was off pace, nine homers behind. Then he kicked into high gear, twisting and vaulting each offering into the stands. The home crowd, sensing their man catching fire, collectively leaned toward home plate. The park grew louder and louder, until Harper’s winning blast disappeared into the cacophonous euphoria of the night.

In that moment, Harper touched his ceiling. There was no team to carry, no Trout to compete with, no city with decades of demons to exorcise. There was only the swing that had inspired all those stories years ago, and an audience that was happy to gaze upon it in awe.

Harper has otherwise seemed tired in 2018. Before the season, he mused within earshot of Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes about quitting baseball and enjoying a quieter life, perhaps as a firefighter. He approached the season, and speculation about his future, largely without joy. “I feel like I’ve always wanted to try to get away from the field and just relax and be away as much as I can, I guess,” Harper told the Post in March. “But also, I know when I come to the field I have to strap it on and be Bryce.”

The derby was, if just for a night, a return to form for the player who once seemed overjoyed to step on a diamond, the precocious talent who would inevitably become the face of his city and his sport. Now, he’s arguably not even the face of MLB’s 2019 free-agent class; that distinction belongs to do-it-all infielder Manny Machado, who was traded from the Orioles to the Dodgers in July. It’s almost time for Harper to make his version of The Decision, but the stakes are stranger than he ever could have imagined. He’s no longer the Next Big Thing, and the next thing is uncertain.

“Bryce has already been compared to LeBron. So [fans] probably figure as soon as he gets done [with his commitment to Washington], he’s going to bolt,” Ron Harper told the Post in 2011. “That’s not Bryce. That’s not me. That’s not us. I want him to be a National for the rest of his life. I would love that for my son.”

Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

It is approaching midnight in that humid, late-September game. As the contest has stretched into extra innings, with the Mets and Nats locked at four, Nationals Park has emptied. After each additional frame, streams of fans, tired from the day’s small failures and the season’s disappointing shape, have filtered out, past the blocks of unleased condos and restaurants that serve photogenic brunch plates, to the last departing Metro trains.

By the 11th inning, the game feels like a hallucination. A remix of Matthew McConaughey’s chest-beating chant from The Wolf of Wall Street is playing through the loudspeakers while a man in a raccoon suit, the Chick-fil-A cow mascot, a hippo wearing a pink skirt, and the Geico gecko throw T-shirts into the stands. After each at-bat, more fans abandon the cause, until the stadium is nearly empty.

By the 12th, it is so quiet that the radio calls of the game emanating from speakers in the concourse are audible over everything else. The saturated greens and browns of the field start to blur with the blues of the empty seats and the red dots that mark the few remaining fans in attendance. Under an inky, starless sky, Harper walks to the plate. There is one out and nobody on. He takes a deep breath, and taps the ground with his bat five times.

An earlier version of this story misstated Stephen Strasburg’s debut MLB season. He was called up in 2010, not 2011.

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