Bryce Harper always makes things too easy, which is why it’s so hard to look away from the guy. He is easy to love and easy to loathe and easy to watch play and extremely easy to project oneself upon. He is a modern athlete but a timeless human. As a kid, he already played baseball with the simple mastery of a big leaguer; as a big leaguer, he still sometimes carries himself with the earnest wretchedness of a teen. When he’s happy, he preens; when he’s not, he sulks; when he speaks, he misspeaks; and when he connects with the baseball in the right way, everything else—just for that instant—is forgotten, because did you see that? And then he does a Fortnite dance or whatever, as he did when he hit a double for the Philadelphia Phillies in his first return to his former team in Washington D.C. and reacted with a smirking wave, and then everything is remembered again.
Bryce Harper with 2B for 1st hit vs Nationals and waves to his Phillies teammates!!! @6abc #BryceHarper pic.twitter.com/Y7kF1wB14Q— Jeff Skversky 6abc (@JeffSkversky) April 3, 2019
From the contours of his hair to the sweep of his career, Harper is a walking broad brushstroke: the wannabe hero, the natural villain, the guy who left a team that immediately went on to win the freaking World Series. On the surface, he is not only a new example of the decades-old Ewing Theory—an archetypical framework once developed by Bill Simmons’s buddy Dave Cirilli that suggested teams can actually benefit from losing their top player—but perhaps even more of a manifestation of the idea than Patrick Ewing himself. (After all, even the Ewingless Knicks couldn’t take home a trophy.)
“I can’t wait to bring the title back to D.C.,” Harper accidentally said this spring during his introductory press conference in Philadelphia, where he had signed a $330 million free agent contract that lasts through 2032. This botched, cursed wish was granted: This season, Harper’s Phillies not only did not make the playoffs, they instead struggled so badly that coach Gabe Kapler, only in his second year, got the boot. Meanwhile, the Nationals not only did not lose in the first round of the postseason, as they historically always have, they instead won a title for the first time in franchise history on Wednesday night, in a Game 7, less than a year after losing their biggest-name player.
The tenets of the Ewing Theory are twofold: (1) “A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest,”—check!—“and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).” Check, and the parenthetical isn’t even needed! A little bit trickier, however, is (2): “That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency, or retirement)—and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.” That wasn’t quite the case with the Nationals.
Harper may have been the most well-known baseball player in Washington, but whether he was the best player on his team is a point of dispute; in the seven years he spent in Washington, he only led the team in WAR once, in 2015. (Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer each posted the top WAR twice during that span.) And going into this season, it wasn’t really a fringe belief to think that the Nationals would be fine without Harper; plenty of baseball analysts looked at the team’s mix of promising youth like Juan Soto and their new acquisitions like pitcher Patrick Corbin and felt the team had the weapons to move on quickly. Recently, Harper himself retroactively made this same point.
In mid-October, speaking with The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, Harper pointed out that the Nationals’ situation was, in his words, “kind of the perfect storm.” Their outfield trio of Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton cost collectively less than $10 million this season. The financial flexibility they obtained by failing to keep Harper allowed them to go after better pitching. Reading about Harper going on in this way was a reminder that he is not just a baseball player; he’s also a baseball mind, and a baseball nerd, and a baseball fan, not unlike so many of the passionate people who were out there in their doctored Harper protest jerseys, booing their former favorite into oblivion, because he continued to make it so easy to do.
@UniWatch Bryce Harper Nats jersey "remade" with tape into a Juan Soto jersey pic.twitter.com/3r3tboaHQX— Ryan Frazer (@ryan_frazer) March 28, 2019
In his interview with Harper, Stark asked the question that pretty much everyone has been thinking since the Nationals turned their season around after a slow start and began their championship ascent: How does it feel to watch, in absentia, while his former team thrives? “Jealousy isn’t good,” Harper said (maybe too?) quickly, adding that both he and the Nationals had made their decisions, and that he had made the right one for his growing family, and that being in Philadelphia had “made me love the game of baseball more than I ever have.”
That last part stuck out a bit, though, because loving the game of baseball has never seemed like an area in which Harper has been deficient. If anything, it has felt like the opposite. For years, Harper’s lifelong obsession with the sport has sucked all the air out of the room, making him come across more like a persona than a person, as more of an avatar than an athlete. There has always been a genuine purity to Harper’s competitive spirit, but this makes him particularly susceptible to being considered a tortured soul. As a reporter (speaking of tortured souls) who wrote about Harper during spring training, I thought I’d be in for some dramatics or at least some bro-ing of clown questions. But he wasn’t playing a caricature; he was just being himself. The only clowning in sight was the laughter of Harper and his new Phillies teammates around the clubhouse breakfast table.
Still, as a Mets fan (speaking of tortured souls), I not only understand the base and basic gut reaction to Harper; I have lived it, even as I objectively know better. It’s possible that the Ewing Theory has endured all these years not because it is about teams or the WAR of athletes who leave them, but because it is about the fans who remain: fans who are petty and loyal and overly invested, fans who are walking contradictions just like Harper himself, fans whose lives are filled with daily indignities and embarrassing jealousies and who seek escape by contemplating the social chaos of others. It’s an act of self-preservation to view Harper in Ewing Theory terms, to relish in the idea of addition by subtraction, to wonder how it must feel to be him, to guess that it must really suck. It turns out a World Series win by a divisional rival can be palatable, even delicious, when it happens right in the face of a longtime pesky adversary like him, a total villain like him.
Take off the NL East goggles, however, and Harper-as-villain doesn’t quite check out. At any rate, the more intriguing Ewing Theory candidate is Harper-as-self-aware. He knows Nationals fans are derisively duct-taping their old Harper jerseys. He hears the boos from Nats and Phillies fans alike. He remembers with clarity every at-bat in Washington that could have ended triumphantly and then didn’t. (He rattled off a list of them to Stark.) He’s not one of those athletes who insists, truthfully or not, that they don’t watch the playoffs if they’re not in it; he is proud to say that he scrutinized every second. He also has a competent new manager in Joe Girardi going into next season, and maybe even something that he’s never had before in his baseball career: a weight off his back.
I have no doubt Harper is being completely honest when he says he was thrilled for his former Nationals teammates throughout their championship run. I also have no doubt that he wishes he could be completely honest when he says that he didn’t envy them. What human wouldn’t? But there I go again, projecting my emotions onto Harper, pretending I have any idea what it feels like to be him, this enraging and engaging star professional athlete who continues to be so easy to judge and so impossible to resist.