ATLANTA — Sunday evening, Bryce Harper buttoned up his dress shirt, slipped on his tie and prepared to vacate the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field for the final time this season. Playing the Braves has not been easy for the Nationals this year, and they’ve lost 12 of the 16 games between the two teams.
Harper has hit just .195 against the Braves in those 16 games, remarkably lower than his numbers against every other divisional opponent.
These series have not been easy for him, either.
For three days here this weekend, Braves fans treated him like an enemy of the state. The booed him relentlessly each time he stepped to the plate or made a play in the outfield. They cheered raucously when he was hit with two pitches in Friday evening’s game, and spit derogatory terms at him and about him on Twitter throughout the weekend.
Harper declined to comment on whether he thought the Braves had hit him on purpose.
Sunday’s game ended with Harper being tugged into the dugout by Jayson Werth as Braves fans showered him with more of their feelings and he tried to get a few words in to umpire Marvin Hudson about what he felt was a blown call.
And yet, with all of that fresh in his mind, Harper did not hesitate when asked what the past weekend was like for him.
“I love these fans, I really do,” he said. “These people are absolutely unbelievable for their team. If I was playing for a team like this and had a crowd like that I’d be stoked to play here every night, too.”
“I love when the crowd goes crazy or they boo me,” he added. “I live for that situation. I think a lot of guys do. Just like the old commercials, ‘We live for this.’ I live for the booing and when they’re going crazy, it makes me a better player.”
The response was interesting.
Harper is a fascinating figure in today’s game. His talent is immense but his reputation and the preconceived notions about him are such that some people still seem to hate him on principal for being something they think he is, even if it’s not the case.
But perhaps Braves fans and Harper are a unique — and yet familiar — case.
No one should hear cheers after they are hit with a 90-plus mph pitch, regardless of where they are, as Harper did twice on Friday.
But what went on between Harper and the Braves fans this weekend was reminiscent of the relationship Braves great Chipper Jones had with Mets fans and Shea Stadium.
One local writer who covers the Braves also made that comparison. He put it this way: Rival fans love to hate him, but you’d take him on your team in a heartbeat.
Harper holds Jones in extremely high regard, so it’s a comparison I’m sure he’d find flattering.
From his very start, Jones crushed the Mets. He hit .313 with 19 homers and 55 RBI in 88 career games at Shea Stadium, named one of his sons Shea (though he says that was just a coincidence) and, eventually, wore the Mets fans down to turn their hate into hateful respect.
Asked in 2012 about playing at Shea and against the Mets, Jones’ answer sounded an awful lot like Harper’s on Sunday.
“I always held New York to a higher standard than other cities,” Jones told The New York Times 48 hours before his final three games in the city. “I was jacked up to play there.”
If Harper and the Braves are going to establish a similar type of camaraderie, they’re in the infancy stages of it. but it could be a very similar relationship over the years. But he said the right things on Sunday.
“I love playing at Nats Park,” Harper said. “We have a great crowd, too. Going to Philly, coming here. Fenway. New York. There are so many great crowds. This is a fan base and organization that really love the Braves.”