Seven miles from Nationals Park, at the Takoma Community Center in the northwest quadrant of Washington, there is a refurbished youth baseball field named for Bryce Harper.
It’s a symbol of both the impact Harper made in the nation’s capital and the void he left behind.
Those two forces, which might well be at odds, will collide Tuesday night. After a smashing season-opening weekend in Philadelphia, where he hit two home runs and played before packed houses at Citizens Bank Park, Harper is slated to visit Washington for the first time as a member of the Phillies.
Harper will face three-time Cy Young Award-winning former teammate Max Scherzer in the opener of a two-game series against the Nationals, the team that drafted him first overall in 2010, brought him to the big leagues two years later, and gave rise to arguably the most recognizable star in the baseball universe.
Will Harper be welcomed back as the returning hero or condemned as the traitorous villain? Or, in a city known for political polarization, will the reception be somewhere in the middle?
“I’m sure (there will be) some cheers and some boos as well. It’s part of the game,” Harper said. “It’s part of sports.”
Ah, but like any fractured relationship, this runs deeper than that. There’s emotion involved. There’s history.
Harper spent seven seasons in D.C., and became the face of the franchise. The Nationals made the playoffs four times, all as division champions, but lost in the first round each time. In three of those best-of-five series, they were defeated in the fifth game, each time at home.
The Nationals tried to keep Harper, too, offering a 10-year, $300 million extension at the end of last season. Five months later, he signed with the rival Phillies for 13 years and $330 million.
So, yes, it’s complicated.
“I think (the reaction) will be mixed just because of his stature and the type of player he is, the hype around him,” Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “Superstar, 26 years old, leaves a team to go to another team in the same division. I think it will be mixed. But they should give him a really good ovation for what he was able to do with that organization .”
As a baseball town, Washington lacks the insatiable passion of Northeast neighbors Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In part, that’s because the Nationals, formerly the Expos, didn’t move to D.C. from Montreal until 2005, 34 years after the Senators left town and became the Texas Rangers. But it’s also because the city has such a large transient population. If most people who live in a place aren’t from that place, it’s difficult to identify with its sports teams.
But the Nationals have consistently drawn about 2.5 million fans per season since 2012 and ranked in the upper half of the National League in attendance. And when Harper signed with the Phillies, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, one of the Nationals’ most well-known backers, had a strong reaction.
“There will never be a statue of Bryce Harper at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.,” Todd said on the air at the close of his Feb. 28 show on MSNBC. “Bryce, we love you, man. But dude, Philly? Philly? Seriously? They will never love you the way Washington would’ve loved you. Anyway, I hope you enjoy third place.”
Judging by some photos that emerged on social media over the weekend, other Nats fans might feel the same way. Several fans showed up to Nationals Park on Opening Day wearing Harper jerseys with his name covered by tape or cut out entirely.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said he believes that the fans will give Harper a “very strong standing ovation” to honor his achievements with the Nationals, including an average of 26 homers per season, a 2015 NL MVP award, and an All-Star Home Run Derby crown at Nationals Park last summer.
“Fans understand players’ contributions, and I don’t think his contributions to D.C. and the Nationals can be discounted,” Kapler said. “They are really important for that city and for the history of that franchise.”
But Harper isn’t expecting a full-on love fest. He’s even bracing for the opposite.
It wouldn’t be new for him to get booed in a visiting ballpark. Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old. He reached the big leagues at age 19. And he has drawn strong reactions, both positive and negative, throughout his career.
Why should D.C. be any different?
“I’ll always remember and cherish all the screaming and yelling and exciting times that we had the last seven years,” Harper said. “I wish (the Nationals) nothing but the best, all the players in that clubhouse. It’s a great fan base, a great city to live in. Just excited to go back and excited to compete.”
When the Nationals and D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation dedicated Bryce Harper Field last May, the air was thick with his looming free agency. Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, daughter of Nationals owner Ted Lerner and chairman of the Nationals Dream Foundation, addressed the situation directly to Harper in remarks during a news conference.
“You and (Harper’s wife) Kayla are very dear to us,” Lerner Tanenbaum said. “Wherever you go, whatever you do, this is your home. You are a once and forever Washington National.”
Harper is about to find out if the fan base feels the same.
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