- - Thursday, September 27, 2018

On perhaps Bryce Harper’s last day at Nationals Park Wednesday, the superstar outfielder declared that Washington was “his city.”

Not really. It was his office, and even that, more like a satellite office, like all the other ballparks, where he came to work.

He never really embraced Washington like he could have — not like teammates Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle. And the longer Harper stayed, the most distance he seemed to put between him and his so-called city.

There was a time, though, when it seemed Harper would someday be the Prince of the City, a moment when it felt like all things were possible for Harper and the District of Columbia.

It was maybe Harper’s most D.C. moment.

It didn’t happen on the field. It happened in the place that symbolizes Washington — the National Mall — and it took place just shortly after Harper arrived in Washington in May 2012.

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Harper was walking around the Mall with some friends, taking in the sights of his new home, when he happened upon a softball game between the Alliance to Save Energy Killer Watts and the World Wildlife Fund Fighting Pandas — two teams playing in an environmental softball league. So D.C.

Harper didn’t just walk by. He stopped, began talking to some players, and then, in the moment that could have been the start of a love affair with the city, asked if he could take a few swings.

“He was a kid,” said Nick Conger, one of the players in that game. He was just 19 years old. It was just a pure, honest moment it was absolutely one of his most D.C. moments.

“A lot has happened since then.”

None of it, perhaps, approaching the connectivity with Washington that Harper had stumbled upon that spring afternoon on the Mall.

Steven Marcus was pitching when Harper asked to take a few swings.

“He was walking around the Mall with a few of his friends,” Marcus remembered. “He stopped by and was talking to a couple of us. We had invited him to play. At first, he said no. But then 15 minutes later, he was walking back through the Mall and he decided he wanted to take a few swings. It just so happened at that time I was on the mound pitching.

“You stop and say to yourself, this is a real interesting experience,” Marcus said. “I think somebody on the other team caught it on the phone, then it was up on YouTube, then by the next morning the video was up on ESPN.” It also appeared in the D.C. Sports Blog in the Washington Post.

“It was a great moment for D.C. fans,” he said.

You could argue some of his greatest moments on the field — the home runs, the Home Run Derby win this summer at the All-Star Game — were greater career moments, and you would be right. But when you declare on the way out of town, like Harper did on Wednesday, that this is your city — well, he had the keys to Washington that day but never really opened the door, not like he could have.

This moment did follow the public proclamations of his love affair with sports teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Duke basketball, which of course was a turn-off to his fans in Washington. But this seemed like an organic moment — one with great possibilities.

“He was talking with everybody, shaking hands, very friendly with everybody there,” said Marcus, 40, who is the director of major gifts for the Global Fund for Children. “Everyone who knew who he was were awestruck. He hung around for another 15 minutes before he and his friends wandered off. Very casual and very unique.”

“It was such a rare opportunity, someone who may be a Hall of Famer someday just rolling up to play some softball, and how lucky we were to be part of it,” said Conger, 38, now communications director for former Vice President Al Gore in Nashville. “It really hit me a couple of days later, what a cool thing.”

Harper, 25, has a resume that includes dipping his toes in his connection to the community — this summer he dedicated the Bryce Harper All Star Complex in Herndon, Virginia — but as time went on, he never really built on that moment on the Mall. More walls went up as the years went by.

He missed three of the last four Nationals winter fan festivals — one in a contract dispute, the second while making plans for his wedding, and most recently for his anniversary. But if it is “your city,” as Harper declared, and these are your fans, then you’re there.

There is momentum for the narrative that Harper — who will likely become the highest-priced free agent in baseball history this offseason, under the direction of high-profile agent Scott Boras — may wind up staying in Washington and sign with the Nationals. On Thursday, he posted a photo of waving to Nationals fans at the ballpark with this message: “to the fans and the city of DC, thank you.”

Sounds like goodbye to me. Then again, Harper seemed to be saying goodbye ever since he arrived in Washington.

But not in that moment on the Mall more than six years ago. Then it was as if he really was saying, “Yes, this is my city.”

You can hear Thom Loverro with on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and also on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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