- - Wednesday, September 26, 2018

There’s no reason to put on your complete uniform three-and-a-half hours ahead of a baseball game. Not usually. Not unless you have some reason to reminisce.

Bryce Harper clearly felt wistful as he dressed in the Washington Nationals’ home locker room for what could be the last time, long before Wednesday night’s game was scheduled to start.

“It’s definitely crazy walking in today and knowing this could be my last game at Nats Park in my white jersey,” Harper said. “It’s definitely something that you’re not sure how you’re going to react, and not sure what it’s going to be like. I knew I wanted to get here and put the uniform on right away and just cherish that moment, if it’s going to be the last time or not.”

From teenage phenom to Rookie of the Year and 2015 NL MVP to seasoned Nationals veteran, with a stint as baseball’s “bad boy” somewhere along that timeline, Harper has had a jam-packed career for someone who’s just 25.

Now, the Nationals‘ disappointing 2018 season is about to expire, and Harper’s contract along with it.

After more than 900 games, the man who put Washington back on the baseball map might have played his final home game at Nationals Park.

“It’s like I’m standing here like a 35-year-old, but I’m only 25,” Harper said. “I’ve never done it in my life — possibly playing my last game somewhere, anything like that — and it really means something to me.”

Whether he comes back or moves on comes down, like so much in life, to the money.

As a slugger in his prime, Harper is likely to attract gargantuan offers in free agency, an expectation backed up by an anonymous general manager who told ESPN last year that “$400 million is light” for Harper.

Even if a record-breaking offer does not materialize, his price tag is predicted to be out of Washington’s range. Harper is also represented by mega-agent Scott Boras, and a member of the agent’s staff is a common sight outside of the Nationals clubhouse.

Still, for Nationals fans who aren’t ready to say goodbye, there was hope on Wednesday — after all, Harper himself conspicuously left the door open.

The Las Vegas native, who grew up a Yankees fan and openly rooted for the Golden Knights to beat the Washington Capitals in last spring’s Stanley Cup Final, has sometimes seemed content to keep his adopted hometown of Washington at arm’s length.

But he has flipped that narrative in recent days, stressing that he would like to stay with the team. In comments to The Washington Post earlier this week, which he then reiterated to reporters Wednesday, Harper made clear he would “absolutely love” to return, if he is in the team’s plans.

“This is my home. This is my city,” Harper said. “Being able to come here — of course I root for the Golden Knights and I root for Duke and I root for the Cowboys and things like that, but I’m a Washington National.”

Harper hit the national consciousness at 16, when a Sports Illustrated profile dubbed him “Baseball’s LeBron.” The Nationals made Harper the first overall pick of the 2010 MLB Draft, and he made his big league debut in April 2012 as a 19-year-old.

The left-handed hitter has led the Nationals in their metamorphosis from the new team in town to perennial contender. They’ve won four division titles since his 2012 debut after losing 100 games the year before drafting him.

“I am proud of that,” he said. “Just being able to see this organization grow from the ground up. We compete every single year. We have a lot of guys who can play the game. It is a lot of fun to be a part of.”

One of Harper’s favorite career moments, he said, was the walk-off homer former teammate Jayson Werth hit to beat the Cardinals in a 2012 playoff game.

This season has been less kind to Harper and his squad, as the Nationals are sputtering toward a .500 finish. Harper’s uncertain future has served as a backdrop all year, right from the start: He opened his first press conference of spring training by saying if he was asked about 2019, “I will be walking right out the door.”

Some seven months later, Harper now can’t stop talking about his future, perhaps trying to make up for lost time and convince general manager Mike Rizzo and others in the organization that he wants to stay.

For one magical night in July, Harper made Washington the sports capital of the country with a come-from-behind Home Run Derby victory during MLB All-Star Week at Nationals Park. He sported a District of Columbia flag bandana and an American flag sleeve and bat for the occasion.

That night also served as a turning point for his regular-season numbers. Thanks to a hot start to the second half, he entered Wednesday with 34 home runs, 100 RBI and 101 runs scored this season, with a league-high 129 walks and an average of .246. He is the only NL player with triple-digit RBI, runs and walks this year.

Nationals manager Dave Martinez turned 54 on Wednesday, and it goes without saying one of his wishes would be to write Harper’s name on his lineup card for Opening Day in 2019. But Martinez said before the game that he advised Harper to “take care of the seconds.”

“The minutes, hours and days take care of themselves,” Martinez said. “Enjoy every second and things will work out. Be proud of what you have done. You have done an amazing job here the past six years. Hopefully it will be a lot longer. I truly believe that. Be proud of what you have done. Your future is bright.”

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise before Harper became a superstar, has watched the outfielder mature and grow “more as a person than a player,” from a teenager into a married man.

“We all knew the talent he had,” Zimmerman said. “Watching him come here as a kid, he had never really been on a team for a long time. To grow up, get married, get to know his family a little bit … It has been fun to watch. He has come a long way.”

Like Zimmerman, Nationals fans have witnessed Harper grow up, too. He wasn’t old enough to legally buy a drink when he made his debut. In fact, when a Toronto reporter asked that year if he would take advantage of the lower drinking age in Canada, he famously replied, “That’s a clown question, bro.” Irascible at times, he has racked up 11 career ejections, but only one this season.

Fans at Wednesday’s rain-shortened 9-3 win over the Miami Marlins were split on whether Harper would return to the Nationals. Theresa Dawson, 47, of Alexandria, stood on her feet in section 316 when Harper came to the plate in the last of the fourth inning Wednesday.

“I think there is a better chance than at the beginning of the season,” Dawson said. “I think he likes it here.”

Standing a few feet away, partial season-ticket holder and Leesburg resident Carl Dodson, 63, wasn’t as confident.

“Not good,” Dodson said of those chances. “I don’t think the Lerners (ownership) will pay him enough.”

Harper will have family members in attendance when the Nationals wrap up their season this weekend with a three-game series at the Colorado Rockies. But the team’s flight to Denver does not necessarily mean “goodbye.” Maybe it’s just “see you later.”

“I can’t really stand here and say it’s going to be ‘farewell’ or anything like that, because nobody knows,” Harper said. “Nobody knows what this offseason holds.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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