It’s a presidential election year, so naturally a lot of the talk in D.C. and other spots across the country is about — Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals.
With Election Day less than five months away, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney best get busy if they want to catch up with the buzz Harper and his buddies are creating. The always-mighty New York Yankees are coming to town for a three-game series this weekend, and Nationals Park will be full or close to it. But, unlike in many other seasons, the Nats themselves will be a huge part of the draw.
They go into the weekend with a 38-23 record and sit in first place in the National League East. They’re coming off a 6-0 road trip to Boston and Toronto, and their success didn’t go unnoticed in either city.
The front page of Saturday’s Boston Globe sports section said it all. A six-column photo of 19-year-old Harper, stretching across the width of the page, his eyes watching the flight of a 425-foot home run to center field at Fenway Park.
“Nationals show off treasures,” the headline read, referring also to pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
The Nationals have become a must-see attraction.
They’re averaging 3,500 more fans per home game this season than last. Their pitchers are the best in baseball. They’ve won nine of their past 11 games. Harper’s throwaway line — “That’s a clown question, bro” — goes viral and turns into T-shirts before 24 hours have passed.
The best team in the National League East and the second-winningest team in baseball will be playing at Nationals Park this weekend. The fact that the Yankees, once a draw the organization drooled over, will also be there? It’s become secondary.
“It’s going to be great,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, his team coming off a trip in which Curly W flags were hung from the windows at Rogers Centre and Nationals fans were spotted in droves at Fenway Park.
“Big bad Yankees come to town,” Johnson said. “Arguably the best ball club, almost every year, forever. A lot of tradition. They’re in first place, we’re in first place. Even with [Thursday’s] off day, I don’t think I’ll have to get the guys up.”
“I’m excited,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters this week. “They’re No. 1 in pitching, [top three] in defense. They’re just playing good baseball. So, yeah, I am excited.”
Tickets for Friday night’s game were nearly sold out by Wednesday, mostly high-end suites the only remaining seats to be had. A quick search of the online secondary market showed $48 as the cheapest ticket available for Friday’s and Saturday’s games, but more were in the $250 to $300 range.
And the eyes of the baseball world will descend on them this weekend. Friday night’s game will be shown on MASN as well as MLB Network.
“It keeps getting better,” Nats rookie Tyler Moore said. “It’s a fun, fun place to be. Everywhere we go, we have Nats fans. Even in Toronto. It’s been great.”
Catching the eye of the baseball world the most, though, is unquestionably Harper. The hitter with the best numbers on one of the best teams in baseball, Harper has been drawing admirers from across the game. After a double Friday night at Fenway Park, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia made sure to walk over and tell him just how impressed with him he’s been. David Ortiz told him the same.
Add Alex Rodriguez to the list.
“They’re very, very talented,” said the Yankees third baseman, once a 19-year-old prodigy himself. “There’s no hiding that.”
“I love everything [about Harper],” Rodriguez added, likening Harper’s aggressive base running to that of Larry Walker. “I’m a huge baseball fan above all, even being a baseball player. He’s the kind of guy I would pay my money to watch play. I’m sure well after I’m done I’ll be paying my money to watch him play and break all the records.”
To this point, Harper and his teammates have brushed off those compliments and that attention.
“We don’t pay attention,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said Wednesday. “We all know we have a long ways to go.”
They can take their next step this weekend, against the Yankees, in a park full of fans who came to see them, not their opponent.
“They’ve gotten a lot of national attention,” Rodriguez told reporters. “They’re a force to be reckoned with, and I think you’re going to have to worry about them — and not only this October, but many Octobers.”