- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2018

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. When Bryce Harper took the plate in Sunday’s 6-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds, the Nationals star was greeted with a chant of “OVERRATED!” from opposing fans.

He responded by slugging a home run.

The moment was prime Harper — showing up critics in a true superstar fashion. Since joining the team in 2012, Harper’s defiant on-the-field demeanor has helped transform the Nationals from doormats to yearly contenders.

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Among the early-season favorites for the World Series again this season, Harper and his teammates looked like a work-in-progress in Thursday afternoon’s loss to the N.Y. Mets at Nationals Park in their home opener.

What’s different this year is this could be Harper’s last “Opening Day” in a Nationals uniform. His free agency next year looms over the season, despite the 25-year-old’s best efforts to ignore questions on the topic.

His departure, should it happen, will, like his arrival, redefine the franchise.

A superstar like Harper can change the course of an organization’s history — for good or bad. Just ask the Pittsburgh Pirates. Or the Orlando Magic. Or the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Before and after

In 1996, former sports agent Joel Corry was a consultant to Leonard Armato, the agent who represented Shaquille O’Neal in his departure from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers. Corry watched the entire process unfold.

Preparations for O’Neal’s free agency, Corry said, started months in advance. Even with the NBA’s salary cap, O’Neal’s team wanted to get creative with how to structure his next contract. They tried to calculate O’Neal’s impact on the city — and the Magic.

“Before he got there, they weren’t on the NBA map,” Corry said. “We attributed that to him.”

Corry said they measured the growth of the Magic’s overall value from year-to-year. They internally explored adding a provision to O’Neal’s contract that would give him a bonus tied to the increase of the Magic’s valuation from the start of his rookie year to when he signed his new deal. But when they floated the idea with the player’s union, they were told the collective bargaining agreement limited that type of structure.

An expansion team in 1989, the Magic went 70-176 over three seasons before drafting O’Neal with the No. 1 overall pick in 1992.

O’Neal transformed the Magic, which finished O’Neal’s rookie year with a .500 record and secured an NBA finals appearance in his third.

Harper’s impact on the Nationals is more difficult to calculate, perhaps, than O’Neal’s on the Magic. But according to Forbes, the value of the Nationals franchise has more than tripled — from $450 million in 2012 to $1.6 billion in 2017 — since Harper joined the club.

And Nationals’ revenue has jumped by at least $100 million since 2011, Washington’s last season without Harper. The team recorded $304 million in revenue in 2016, compared to $200 million in 2011. Revenue data for the 2017 season is not yet available.

Economists, agents and executives all struggle to put a precise evaluation on the impact one player has in baseball. The Nationals, for instance, have made other key acquisitions, such as signing three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and second baseman Daniel Murphy.

But in basketball, the star is everything. Just look at what happened to Cleveland after LeBron James left in 2010 for the Miami Heat.

The Cavaliers went from a 61-win team to 19 in the following season. Cleveland failed to finish with more than 33 wins over the next three. Attendance declined. Coaches were fired. Players left.

The franchise only turned around when James returned in 2014.

In 2017, a Harvard study found that James had a significant impact on both Cleveland’s and Miami’s economies. Authors Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger found the number of establishments within one mile of the stadium increased by 13 percent with James’ arrival — and employment went up 23.5 percent.

When James left Cleveland and took his talents to South Beach, the number of restaurants surrounding the stadium decreased. The same decline happened, at a lesser rate, when he left Miami as well.

“After Mr. James returned to the Cavaliers, the number of restaurants near the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland spiked, while the number of restaurants within a mile of the American Airlines Arena started to slide,” Shoag and Veuger wrote.

Circumstances for leaving

Harper doesn’t like to talk about leaving the Nationals, so his reasons to stay or go remain his own. But typically, superstars change teams for one or a combination of three reasons: more money, a fresh start or a better opportunity to win.

When Sid Bream slid across home plate in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS for a 3-2 win in the bottom of the ninth, former Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke recalled knowing that was the beginning of the end.

The Braves’ walk-off sent the Pirates packing, and star Barry Bonds ended up leaving for the San Francisco Giants. Bonds signed a seven-year, $43 million contract, making him the highest-paid player in baseball history at the time.

The Pirates went on to suffer a 21-year playoff drought that didn’t end until 2013.

“We would have loved to have Barry stay in Pittsburgh, but financially, the ownership wasn’t committed to Barry Bonds,” Van Slyke said. “Which is unfortunate because just a few years later they put a lot of money into Jay Bell. It probably would have been wiser to spend that money on Barry Bonds … nothing against Jay.”

It seems remarkable, now, but the Pirates let Bonds, already a three-time MVP at that point, walk. But in December 1991, then-Pirates general manager Larry Doughty declared “we’re trying to cut our payroll, not double it.”

And what was the Pirates’ payroll in 1991? $26.1 million. For comparison, the Nationals will pay nearly $182 million this season.

It could take $400 million or more next year to land Harper, the 2015 MVP, with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers possible suitors.

Contracts are always about the bottom line, but there’s usually more going on behind the scenes, as well. Just look at the drama that unfolded the last three years with the Redskins and Kirk Cousins, who last year turned down the team’s low-ball offer. Respect came into play in O’Neal’s case, too. The Magic, Corry said, insulted O’Neal with an offer far off the $20 million per year asking price. Corry called the proposal the wrong approach for a “once-in-a-generation player.”

“They treated him like he was the average run-of-the-mill free agent,” Corry said.

To make matters worse, O’Neal became furious once the Orlando Sentinel published a poll asking readers if he was worth $115 million for seven years. An overwhelming margin — 10 to 1 — voted no.

The poll soured O’Neal’s relationship to the city, and O’Neal bolted for Los Angeles. Until that point, O’Neal’s return to the Magic seemed like such a sure thing that his camp had a lucrative sponsorship already lined up in Orlando.

The idea? “Shaq’s Place” — a restaurant at Universal Studios, all set with an enticing licensing fee and a portion of the profits.

“So we were thinking he’s staying,” Corry said, laughing. “Otherwise, we’re not going to have a deal like that ready.”

Eyeing the future

O’Neal and Bonds didn’t have to worry about waking up in the morning and seeing talking heads like Skip Bayless shout over which destination would be best for their services. Harper, on the other hand, does.

Over the past decade, every tweet has become fodder for debate.

Perhaps in anticipation, Harper in spring training declared any free agency questions off-limits. “So if you guys do anything or talk about anything about that, then I’ll be walking right out the door,” Harper said.

As much as he would like it to, the conversation won’t stop. Until he makes a decision, this will be the dominant storyline around Harper this season, especially when national reporters trot into the District for the All-Star Game.

For the Nationals, the most challenging question is what happens to the franchise if Harper leaves.

Washington still has Scherzer locked up until 2022, and fellow ace Stephen Strasburg is under contract until 2023.

Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Victor Robles are solid, young pieces, though Rendon is a free agent in 2020.

There’s plenty of evidence that a team can survive — or even thrive — in the wake of a star’s departure. The Oklahoma City Thunder remained a playoff team because they had Russell Westbrook, another top-five player. Even the Magic made the playoffs two of the next three seasons after O’Neal left, before Penny Hardaway broke down.

In baseball, teams usually trade stars ahead of time to recoup assets and rebuild. But with the Nationals seen as title contenders, the possibility of trading Harper is close to zero.

So the Nationals will try to carry on with business, as usual.

“Whoever plays right field next year for the Nationals, and if it’s not Bryce Harper, you’ve got to live with it,” Van Slyke said. “It’s just not going to be as good.”

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