- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If you needed any more proof that once the clock strikes midnight for Bryce Harper to become a free agent, he will leave the Washington Nationals, you got it Saturday when the young star refused to attend the team’s winter NatsFest.

He is gone when he can leave. There is an expiration date on that Harper Nationals jersey you have — following the 2018 season, when Harper can become a free agent.

Harper showed by his refusal to attend the event — a chance for Nationals player to personally connect with the team’s fans — that this is about business.

That might come as a disappointment to those fans, who believe it is very personal — who believe that Harper would not let the business of baseball get in the way of the relationship they may have thought they had when they opened up and embraced the kid from Vegas.

This isn’t about a player seeking to get the best deal he can for himself and his family. This isn’t the same thing as a player leaving town for a better contract elsewhere. We’re not talking about turning the clock back to the days before free agency, when players had no control over their professional lives.

No, despite how Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, may hide behind the business of baseball, his decision not to attend NatsFest on Saturday was personal. It didn’t hurt the team. It didn’t hurt Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.

It hurt the families who lined up in the Washington Convention Center — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. They don’t care about grievances and arbitration. They cared about a chance to see the players they support — Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond — by taking a Saturday afternoon in December out of their schedule to be personal, however briefly, with those fans.

Rizzo told reporters Saturday he was “disappointed” that Harper chose not to attend. “He chose not to be here because of the grievance.”

The “grievance” that Rizzo is talking about is a dispute between Boras and the team regarding a provision that was not included in Harper’s contract in 2010. That provision would make him eligible for arbitration early.

Boras contends he had an oral agreement for the provision in the final minutes before the deadline to sign a contract following the 2010 draft, but the Nationals said no such deal was made.

Of course, if it was the other way around — if the Nationals didn’t get in writing a provision that benefited them financially — I’m sure the agent would have let the club off the hook.

By the way, where are all the geniuses now who have insisted that Boras has undue influence with the Nationals organization, and that Rizzo is somehow controlled by the agent?

Harper, through his representatives, issued a statement explaining his absence from the event. “I have attended NatsFest each year and always enjoyed my experience with the fans, but was unable to attend this year’s event due to matters out of my control. I look forward to next year’s NatsFest.”

I know the 22-year-old Harper is in a tough spot, and maybe, if the two events — NatsFest and the grievance hearing — might have been farther apart, perhaps he would have been there. I believe he cares about fans and wants to do the right thing.

But the decision to meet face-to-face with Nationals fans was totally within Bryce Harper’s control. Those people who were at NatsFest on Saturday had nothing to do with his contract grievance.

According to The Washington Post, the two sides have reached a settlement to avoid the grievance. But that does no good for the people who came to the Convention Center on Saturday. How did they get in the way of whatever deal Harper and the Nationals made to avoid a hearing?

Jayson Werth was at NatsFest. He didn’t talk to reporters, but he interacted with fans, and he is facing a 10-day jail sentence on reckless driving conviction.

“Werth is here and he’s going to be all over the place,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to be around and visit with the fans and I think that’s the important part of what he should be doing.”

Then again, Jayson Werth has already gotten paid.

Harper wants to get paid. That’s why he wasn’t there Saturday. That’s why he won’t finish his career with the Washington Nationals.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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