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Bryce Harper’s Unholy Baseball Trinity

The Phillies’ new $330 million man is a rare breed: a true baseball celebrity. He’s also the protagonist, antagonist, and agent of chaos in his own story. He hopes that story now includes 13 years of brotherly love in Philadelphia; we can be sure it’ll include Harper’s signature blend of heel, face, and Vince McMahon.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Hold two tickets for the mayor,” one Phillies employee reminds another on a recent Saturday morning at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Florida, about five hours before Bryce Harper’s big spring training debut. Harper has been a Phillie for less than a week and hasn’t even suited up for a game yet, but the 26-year-old outfielder has still been the biggest story down here in Clearwater and up there in Philly and, really, across baseball for the past several months. That’ll happen when a six-time All-Star and former NL MVP signs a 13-year, $330 million contract with a divisional rival situated just a few hours north on I-95 from his old team, following months—years!—of speculation about where baseball’s most-hyped free agent might wind up.

This seemed primed to be a circus of an offseason, with Harper and fellow franchise cornerstone Oriole-turned-Dodger Manny Machado hitting the free-agent market at last. In November, Phillies owner John Middleton said, “We’re going into this expecting to spend money and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.” Instead, the hot stove stayed cold, the players and front offices idled, and it took until after spring training began—a previously unthinkable timeline—for Machado to sign a $300 million, 10-year deal with the San Diego Padres. When it came to Harper, even just a couple of weeks prior to his spring debut MLB fans were still reduced to feasting on scraps of information about private planes landing in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas and dodging fake rumormongering Twitter accounts. This spring day in Florida, though, after a last-minute push by the Giants, the Dodgers, and the Phillies to woo the player Sports Illustrated anointed “Baseball’s Chosen One” on its cover when he was just 16 years old, here it is at last, proof that this is all real: Harper’s name written on the Phillies lineup, batting third.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has set expectations low for Harper’s first spring game, noting in advance that he’ll bat only twice, at best. But at Spectrum Field, the morning still has a brisk big-game-day pace that stands out from the usual dazed amble of spring training. Fans begin arriving far in advance, the better to snag a good seat at the tiki bar, Frenchy’s, out beyond right field, or to peruse the merch tents. Merch is a hot topic lately; after Harper signed with the Phillies and selected no. 3 as his new number, the uniform retailer Fanatics reported that initial demand for his jersey had outpaced demand for anyone else’s, including when LeBron James signed with the Lakers. (This even led to a citywide shortage of the letter R in Philadelphia.) The Harper bump was felt beyond retail: According to The Athletic, the Phillies sold 340,000 new regular-season tickets in Harper’s first week with Philadelphia, including single-game and season packages, nearly seven times more than in the same time period last year. Hotel rooms down in central coastal Florida sold out fast, as did tickets for today’s spring training game.

It is all a rare frenzy, because Harper is a rare breed: a true baseball celebrity. He is the protagonist, and the antagonist, and the agent of chaos in his own story; he is the heel and the face and the Vince McMahon all in one unholy trinity. He is every kid who always got picked first in gym class—for the athleticism, sure, but almost more so for being so outrageously annoying to have to compete against. He is “not your father’s Mormon.” To put it in Philadelphia terms, he is Eric Lindros crossed with Joel Embiid. He is an attraction and a distraction, a baseball purist’s daydream and nightmare. He is “the most overrated player in the league” and preferred over Machado by Twitter users polled by MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, which would be a completely unscientific sampling not even worth mentioning if it weren’t for the fact that Middleton himself referenced it as something the franchise had taken into consideration when going after Harper, which, honestly, feels right.

All of which is why there’s a small but perceptible commotion when Harper grabs his bat and heads to the cage that has been rolled onto Spectrum Field. TV news camerapersons creep around the dirt, seeking a decent angle; early-bird fans in the stands jockey for an unobstructed glimpse. Harper finishes his batting practice, pauses in the stadium’s Hooters VIP Diamond Dugout to sign a few baseballs, and heads into the clubhouse. If all goes well—for Harper, for the Phillies, for Hooters corporate—he’ll be doing this, or at least a futuristic approximation of it, every February and March until 2032.

The mayor must have gotten his tickets, because he is among the people milling around on the field, watching it all, and it turns out he’s not the mayor of Clearwater or even Tampa, but is Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia, in town with his girlfriend just to see Bryce, like plenty of others in the building. Ryan Howard, the former Phillies first baseman who won a World Series with the team in 2008, is here too. The unspoken hope, looming as powerful and heavy as a late-summer storm cloud, is that Harper and the new-look Phillies can play their way back to the heights of their championship run and reciprocate the mayor’s winter visit with a November celebration up at City Hall.

Baseball is a game about anticipation turning into reaction, about potential energy becoming kinetic, about monotony being broken by occasional moments of trigonometric perfection or cosmic chaos or sometimes, weirdly, both. Bryce Harper is also that sometimes-weirdly-both: He is fundamentally sound, and also deeply unpredictable; he seems like a loose cannon even when—especially when—he’s hitting his chosen targets. It’s part of the appeal: Every at-bat could be legendary, whether for the velocity of the baseball off Harper’s bat or the abandon of his subsequent celebration. Will he hit a walkoff homer? More importantly, will he charge the mound? Even a bad at-bat can be exciting: It might mean incredible postgame content. A “rockstar” is how Brian Dawkins, who played 13 seasons for the Eagles and who, like Mayor Kenney, is on hand for Harper’s first game, describes him.

“He plays with his emotions,” says Dawkins, who is sitting in the Phillies dugout in a T-shirt that says “Blessed by the Best” and chatting with the media a few hours before the game. “Some people don’t like it. I guess there’s an unwritten rule in baseball, certain things you’re not supposed to do. He challenges those things, stepping outside, playing the way [...] I would think a football player would play.” Earlier today, Dawkins spoke to Phillies players—“We were all ready, I think, to run through the brick wall,” is how first baseman Rhys Hoskins describes it to reporters—and a few months back, when teams were courting Harper, Dawkins was part of the obligatory “choose us” video montage of local Philly personalities. A reporter remarks in a serious tone that Dawkins is lucky: He has “a chance to be here for history today,” Harper’s “first time ever in the uniform.”

Such a fever pitch borders on absurd, but for Harper, it always has. There was the “Chosen One” SI cover when he was 16, which also dubbed him “Baseball’s LeBron.” There was also the time Baseball America crowned him “possibly the best pure hitter under 12 years old.” As a junior college student he set a new team record for home runs (the previous high was 12, and he hit 31) and also got suspended from the Junior College World Series after he drew a line in the dirt with his bat to make a point during a disagreement with the umpire. (It was his second ejection of the season.) That he was a junior college student-athlete at all was evidence of Harper’s savvy for finagling: He enrolled after graduating two years early from high school and was able to enter the MLB draft a year early that way. When he first stepped up to the plate for the Washington Nationals, who drafted him no. 1 overall, Harper was still a teen.

Harper’s seven years with the Nationals were marked by frustrations and delights and absolutely no discernible filter. For all of Harper’s baseball heroics, like his broken-bat home run against the Mets or his six dingers in three games, his most viral moment to this day probably remains the time he told a reporter, “That’s a clown question, bro.” He had a homer and a triple in a series-ending playoff game that the Nationals lost. His best season, 2015—when he was NL MVP, hit 42 home runs, and led all of baseball in on-base percentage and slugging percentage—was the same year in which Washington missed the playoffs and watched its divisional rival, the Mets, get all the way to the World Series. It was also the same season that “Jonathan Papelbon Explains Decision to Choke Bryce Harper, Then Apologizes” was a real headline.

Over the years he has covered his face in eye black, grown a beard that looked downright prehistoric in its bushy splendor, repped Under Armour, all while sporting a head of hair that doesn’t seem like it ought to be able to coexist with a sport organized around various hats and helmets. Having been teased for years for supporting a grab bag of bandwagony teams, from the Dallas Cowboys to Duke, Harper was psyched when an expansion NHL franchise opened in his native Las Vegas and thrilled when the Golden Knights romped all the way to the Stanley Cup final. Of course, this being Harper, it couldn’t just end there. The team the Knights met in the Stanley Cup final was the Washington Capitals, putting Harper’s earnest enthusiasm in direct conflict with his city. A photo of Harper and his wife looking glum after the Capitals won a Cup final game last spring came to sum up, in some ways, his weird and increasingly distant final season in Washington.

One element of his D.C. experience that Harper seemed to want to expressly avoid when mulling over his choices in free agency was the constant, grueling chatter about whether and when he would no longer be on the team. “During the seven years I spent in D.C.,” he recently told ESPN the Magazine, “all everybody talked about was me going somewhere else.” This is part of why Harper ultimately didn’t choose the Dodgers, who offered a four-year deal for a record-shattering reported annual value, but that probably would have turned into four years of speculation about what’s next. It also explains why he eschewed the opt-out clauses that are typically the signature flourish of his superagent, Scott Boras. “It was not only important not to have an opt out,” Boras told SI, “he refused to allow me to do it. He said, ‘I want to be with one team.’ I tried to talk him out of it.”

As a result, Harper’s contract is so large, but primarily so long, that it feels like it has its own gravitational field, distorting the very concept of money and, by the transitive property, time. It’s the length that truly boggles. Harper will, theoretically, be in Philadelphia for the span of three, and almost four, presidential election cycles! When his deal expires, Harper will be 39: baseball’s perpetual kid, pushing 40! He could be a dad, of a tween. It seems like both yesterday and forever ago that articles about Harper praised him for making pasta and included details like this one from The Washington Post his rookie season: “Many of his older teammates have families, and so he does not want to bother them on off days at home.” Now, Harper is openly fantasizing about starting a wooder-pronouncing clan of his own. “At the end of this,” he said at his initial press conference, “I could have a couple of kids, and they could be able to say they’re from Philly!” Harper being Harper, he also made an unfortunate slip, telling the eager onlookers how excited he was to bring a title back to … D.C.

That 2012 Sports Illustrated story was not the first time Harper received LeBron James comparisons. Both athletes were not only teenaged prodigies in their respective sports, they also managed to live up to their own impossible hype. And lately Harper has started resembling James in a new way, with his high-profile free-agency decision and his vocal, if as yet unsuccessful, attempts at amassing a superteam.

Ever since he was a kid, Harper has been a precocious and outspoken baseball soul, perpetually operating in midseason form, so it is no real surprise that he has only been a Philadelphia Phillie for a few days before endearing himself to his new audience by stirring up shit via local sports radio. “If you don’t think I’m not gonna call Mike Trout in 2020 to have him come to Philly,” he tells hosts from the station WIP as his team plays a spring training game a few days before his own debut, “you’re crazy.” (The double negative is presumably unintentional.) To Phillies fans, this is catnip; the mayor even makes a joke about “trout fishing” during his annual budget address. To the Los Angeles Angels, who are understandably not psyched to hear such acquisitive comments about the best player in baseball, it is worth complaining to the league. In general, it also serves as one more reminder that, while they are both elite baseball players, the head-down Trout and the neck-out Harper could not otherwise be more different.

And so now Harper stands in front of a Phillies backdrop in a hallway outside his clubhouse, with a dozen or so cameras and recorders aimed at his scruffy face. “I mean, if I didn’t mean it, I wouldn’t have said it,” he says, nonchalantly doubling down when given the chance to walk back his remarks. A reporter asks him whether it feels like he’s been called into the principal’s office. “I’ve never been called into the principal’s office,” he says. “I don’t really know what to say. I’m not sure what you’re trying to ask.” Harper has said in the past that he is a Lakers fan, but when asked whether he follows the NBA, where the circus of free agency has given way to the even earlier circus known as pre-agency and where athletes are exerting more leverage than ever, he doesn’t bite. “I’m more of a college football guy,” he says.

In the weeks since, contract negotiations around the league have gotten a jump start, although notable names Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel still remain unsigned. Two weeks after Harper’s controversial radio hit, Trout—who isn’t slated to be a free agent for two more seasons—signs a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension with the Angels. Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros reups through 2024. And this week even the Mets manage to get in on the trend and not mess with a good thing, locking up their ace Jacob deGrom for five years.

When Harper’s teammate, pitcher Aaron Nola, describes facing him from the mound in past seasons, it sounds like he could be describing Harper’s broader off-field aspirations, too. “It was kind of like a cat-and-mouse game,” Nola tells reporters. “The guy can change a game with one swing of the bat.” Harper wants to influence the game and its perception, too, though when it comes to that he has a little less plate discipline than usual.

Harper has long used at-bat songs the way God intended: as emotional cries for attention, little Facebook status updates blasted over a public address system. As a rookie with the Nationals, he achieved mild virality by walking out to the Justin Bieber jam “Boyfriend.” Other choices have included “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “Body Like a Back Road,” and “Radioactive.” In 2013, Harper revealed that he didn’t actually know the given name of his longtime default clip, “Flower” by Moby. (To anyone who ever downloaded “Bring Sally Up” from Limewire in the aughts, this was extremely relatable.) And today’s choice, as Harper walks to the plate for his first at-bat as a Philadelphia Phillie, is a familiar one.

In West Philadelphia, born and raised... It’s the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a heartfelt, corny gesture, the athlete equivalent of a politician over-enunciating “whiz wit” before wolfing down a cheesesteak. It is also extremely Harper, in that almost immediately upon being disseminated on social media, his choice sparks strong, disparate reactions: from some, widespread approval; from others, a slew of tweets pointing out that Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was, famously, a TV show featuring a character who is urgently leaving Philadelphia for his own personal safety.

After all these months of buildup, Harper looks like an amateur golfer on a first tee as he faces his first pitch, trying unsuccessfully to absolutely crush the ball. The grassy outfield berm looks like Wildwood beach in July, towels and sunburns everywhere. There are occasional pops of color other than Phillies red: the green of an Eagles hat, the orange of a Flyers jersey with GRITTY written across the back. There are ads in the outfield for Wawa and Delco’s cheesesteaks. Harper settles into his at-bat, working the count. Ultimately he is walked, just as he was 130 times last year with the Nationals, an MLB-leading total dampened by the fact that Harper’s old teammates struggled to drive in runs behind him.

But at Spectrum Field, the Phillies’ Hoskins takes the plate after Harper and brings him home with a two-run bomb that flies over the top of Frenchy’s Tiki Pavilion. The sellout crowd of 10,267 reacts with the heady, swaggering glee of a group that suspects there will be a lot more where this came from. Hoskins later tells reporters that as he ran into home plate, Harper hollered at him: “Get used to that!”

The sequence is a good wake-up call that, for all his fame and his infamy, Harper is only one bat in the lineup. “I think the way the lineup is constructed is to be relentless,” Kapler tells reporters after the game. The Phillies were aggressive about bolstering their roster this offseason even before they signed Harper, making moves just about everywhere except to their starting pitching. They signed veteran left-fielder Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal and traded for offensive-minded shortstop Jean Segura. “It kind of becomes a pick-your-poison-type thing,” Hoskins says to the media. “Adding guys like Cutch, Segura, Harper, that take their walks, real professional bats, that just kind of spreads, I think, through the lineup.” And in early February, the Phillies emerged the victors of a hotly competitive trade sweepstakes for former Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, a speedy 28-year-old who hit 21 home runs last season.

Philadelphia gave up their top prospect, pitcher Sixto Sanchez, for Realmuto, a move that signaled the franchise’s win-now intentions and maybe also caught the eye of Harper, who during his introductory press conference called Realmuto his “favorite player in the game,” unsolicited. Nola agrees: “It’s going to be huge,” he tells reporters about the upgrade at catcher. “I mean, his preparation is off the charts.” Harper has made a point to say that he knows his decade-plus in Philadelphia will include the bad times with the good, but it’s also clear he expects the team, with this roster, to be a contender right away.

As the season begins, there are the usual questions and considerations about chemistry and outfield configurations and lineups, but one relationship that could wind up being most intriguing to watch—besides the one between Harper and his dismal UZR—is the one between no. 3 and his new manager. Kapler, a former MLB journeyman and lifestyle blogger (no, really—kaplifestyle.com is his URL), is in only his second season as a major league manager, and he is part of an emerging generation of skippers whose style falls somewhere between innovating and overthinking. “When we faced [Kapler] last year in September,” Harper tells the media, “they had like 45 guys or whatever they had in the clubhouse. Switch this guy, switch that guy, and our game was like five and a half hours.” But last season, as the Phillies tumbled from first place in early August to their sixth straight losing campaign, Kapler’s tactics came under fire. And off the field, he was part of the troubling reports early this February that, in his former capacity as head of player development for the Dodgers, he had failed to properly escalate complaints of assault against some of his minor league players in 2015.

Standing against some padded walls in the outfield following a spring training game, Kapler tells reporters that with all the high-profile additions to the Phillies, he wants to step back a bit. “These are guys that really don’t need a whole lot of any sort of counsel,” he says. “Like, you put them in the game and you let them play their game.” Still, it’s hard to imagine Harper staying quiet for long if he disagrees with some future unorthodox move, because it’s hard to imagine him staying quiet for long, period.

As a kid, Harper longed to play for the Yankees; now he is hamming it up for the cameras after his first spring training game as a Phillie and singing the praises of a similar-but-different uniform. “Everyone said the pinstripes are slimming,” he says, and it’s a good thing: A 13-year contract paying out an average of more than $25 million annually comes with the heft of some pretty burdensome expectations. Harper’s decision to come to Philadelphia, a ravenous sports town that spent years considering him an avowed opponent, adds further weight.

One fan attending Harper’s debut, a woman named Nancy Robinson who managed to cop a Harper jersey at Spectrum Field before they sold out (she called to see if any were left, then rushed right over), describes the roller coaster ride she’s gone on this offseason. “It was like, one day he’s a Dodger, next day he’s a Giant, next day going somewhere else,” Robinson says. “Then it was the Phillies, then we were out.” She began hearing that Harper, or maybe Harper’s wife, didn’t want to come to Philly; Robinson grew convinced that Harper, being from Vegas, would want to be out West. When he chose Philadelphia, she had to reprogram years of knee-jerk dislike of the former Nat. “And then when he came, I said, wow,” she says, sounding like someone describing what it’s like to encounter a kindred spirit. “None of that was—all of that was—it was all past.”

In his first few spring training appearances with Philadelphia, Harper goes 0-for-8 at the plate and, thankfully, weathers a painful-looking and terrifying-sounding fastball to the ankle that has visions of insurance policies flashing before everyone’s eyes. Finally, though, the magic happens: one dinger, then another, both in the same game.

If it had been a bit strange to see Harper in his Phillies uniform generally, it’s a truly dissonant experience to see him in full round-the-bases stride, his body leading with the star-struck Phillies logo across his chest. But as Harper might say, get used to it. Beyond the uniform, though, what might be weirder still is to see how Harper is beginning to consider himself (accurately!) as a veteran presence. He may still be young, particularly as free agents go, but he’s racked up a lot of experience. Only a couple of days after arriving in the Phillies clubhouse, he is already sitting at the head of the breakfast table, rocking a cutoff sweatshirt and a headband and drinking a green juice, laughing with his teammates like he’s been here for years.

“He kind of came up to me and was like, ‘Hey man, you know, whatever you need, I’m here,’” says Mickey Moniak, a 20-year-old who, like Harper, was selected first overall in the MLB draft and who will probably start his season in the minors. “He said he wasn’t always like that,” starting pitcher Jake Arrieta tells reporters about Harper. “That’s how a lot of leaders are. It’s something that they learn over time from either a mentor or just from immersing themselves in a leadership role.”

But no matter what happens, no matter how deep the immersion, there will always be an additional layer of scrutiny on Harper, whether in the form of frustrated talk-radio callers; or bloggers gleefully calculating salary-per-strikeout; or meme merchants who know they’ve struck gold with such a demonstrative, honest, and frequently prickly subject; or newspaper editors who run headlines like “Bryce Harper Has to Be More than Just a Pretty Face.” At one point during his first week in Florida, during just an ol’ simulation game, Harper hits the ball out of the park, and everywhere around him all sorts of reactions kick into high gear. “I guess you can stay!” a teammate in the dugout calls out. A fan sitting in the stands heckles, kidding-but-probably-not, “Hey! Save it for the season!” The media asks to interview Jerad Eickhoff, the teammate who was on the mound. A flurry of tweets and brief articles and video snippets and MLB App alerts hit the internet. Somewhere, probably, a new season-ticket package is sold. Welcome to your future, Philadelphia.

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