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Hostile Homecoming: Bryce Harper’s Bizarre Return to Washington

This game had everything: boos, bows, and bat flips

Elias Stein/Getty

The people of Philadelphia are not, as a rule, interested in toning things down.

See, for example: the literal busloads of Phillies fans trundling southward on I-95 in a coordinated attack on enemy territory, armed to the proboscis with Fatheads, Phanatic hats, and just-purchased jerseys.

Also: a newly minted—as in, a little shy of five weeks—Philadelphia resident declaring his love for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Gritty, and Italian markets (various), and pledging to bring up his just-announced fetus as a “Philly-raised little man.” Oh, and then clobbering a home run out into the upper deck on his first visit back to Nationals Park, and flipping his bat for good measure.

On Tuesday, Bryce Harper returned to Washington, D.C., for the first time since leaving the Nationals in free agency. In one of the most hotly anticipated matchups of the 2019 baseball season, things did not go well for said Nationals, who lost 8-2 and nabbed their third loss in their first four games. Things also did not go well for those hoping that Harper would receive comeuppance: He came away with a double, a single, that home run, and a relationship with his one-time D.C. fans that is now officially acrimonious.

The baseball fans of Washington, D.C., are not generally known for their fearsomeness. The District is a transplant city; just take it from A-Rod, who decreed that in Philadelphia, Harper is at long last experiencing a “sports town.” Case in point: D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, fired off a lightly spicy tweet this week comparing Harper to Benedict Arnold—and then deleted it an hour later. (She later explained that it was posted by a member of her staff, and thanked Harper for supporting D.C.’s statehood bid.)

So forgive me this indulgence, but: We should all be very proud of D.C. fans for even summoning the chutzpah to boo Harper.

OK, fine: The justification is just a little bit tenuous. After seven seasons in D.C., the six-time All Star hit free agency this offseason. The Nationals reportedly made him two different offers: $300 million over 10 years and then, as negotiations continued, $250 million over 12 years. Both deals came with an asterisk: The contracts were reputedly massively backloaded—as in, payments continuing until 2052 or 2072, respectively—such that their real value would be tanked by inflation. Scott Boras, Harper’s agent and, while hardly a neutral party, at least an old hand at analyzing mega-contracts, told Harper that the real value of the 12-year deal was closer to $107 million.

This, and the fact that the Lerners are among the wealthiest owners in baseball, has led many to conclude that the Nationals’ offers were largely face-saving endeavors: They weren’t willing to pay the outfielder his market value, at least not for as many years as he wanted, so they made offers that only outwardly appeared to be competitive. The goal of such a move? To appease fans who’d rather not see the face of the franchise go: See, they might say, we tried, and he left anyway.

And, well, the ploy worked. When Harper signed with Philadelphia instead—for 13 years and $330 million, none of it deferred—the mood in D.C. began to darken. The prevailing feeling in the crowd on Tuesday was one of betrayal. In the front row of the right field stands, fans in white T-shirts lined up to spell T-R-A-I-T-O-R. Across the city, people marked up their Harper jerseys, to read “sellout” and Voldemort and “Harpoop.” And each time Harper approached the plate, they let loose anew. Early on, Nats fans launched into a “Soto’s better!” cheer—which was, on Tuesday night at least, not exactly true.

Asked after the game whether he was taken aback by the boos—he had, after all, predicted he might hear a few—Harper spoke only of Philadelphia fans: “I heard the boos but kind of just remembered I have 45,000 people in the city of Philadelphia, and more, that were screaming at their TV cheering,” he said. And indeed: After a hamlet of Phillies fans in the outfield started chanting “M-V-P,” and then, when booed by Nats fans, a resounding “We’ve got Harper!” taunt, Harper himself turned to them and bowed.

As far as rivalries go, this one is perhaps not the most grounded in reality. But when has that ever gotten in the way? Baseball schemers on both sides acknowledge that the theatrics have their advantages: “It’s good for baseball right now,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said before the game. If that entails the occasional bat flip, so much the better: Said Nats GM Mike Rizzo of Harper’s bat flip, “You hit the ball that far, do whatever the hell you want.