PHILADELPHIA — When the Nationals’ Bryce Harper was bat flipping, fighting teammates in the dugout and calling out reporters for asking clown questions (“bro”), he developed a reputation — fair or unfair — as a brash, cocky, immature superstar.
“I hated him,” Phillies fan Bill Gwynn admitted before Game 3 of the World Series
Gwynn wasn’t alone. Most die-hard Phillies fans despised Harper, either for his braggadocious persona or just because he played for a rival team in Washington.
But now in his fourth season in Philadelphia, Harper — and baseball fans’ perception of him — has evolved. After a rollercoaster tenure in the District, Harper has come into his own in Philadelphia, winning an MVP last season and leading the Phillies to the World Series for the first time since 2009.
“We don’t support imposters here,” declared lifelong Phillies fan John Nagel, who used to think Harper was “self-centered” when he played for the Nationals. “Harper is a Philly kind of guy. He’s worked really hard to embrace the city as his town. And he’s right. It is his town.”
As he stepped to the plate for his first World Series plate appearance at Citizens Bank Park, Harper and the Phillies fanatics chanting “M-V-P” officially ushered in a new era for the generational talent. Once he demolished the first pitch he saw 402 feet over the right field fence and Phillies fans literally made the city shake on Tuesday night, Harper’s name — and likely the logo on his future Hall of Fame plaque — will first and foremost be associated with the Phillies, not the Nationals.
“He’s now a lifelong Phillie,” said Philadelphia fan Troy Heiland, who wore a Pete Rose Phillies jersey to Game 3 against the Houston Astros. “He’ll be accepted among the ranks of Mike Schmidt and Lenny Dykstra. He’ll be the guy of this era like Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins before him.”
It’s not too common for a player of Harper’s caliber to be associated with a team other than his first. Ken Griffey Jr. is a Seattle Mariner, not a Cincinnati Red, for example.
But now Harper, 30, will join the likes of Alex Rodriguez (Mariners/Rangers to Yankees) and Frank Robinson (Reds to Orioles) as players who are remembered less as youngsters for their first team and more as veterans with another franchise.
Robinson, for example, played his first 10 years with the Reds, but he’s in the Hall of Fame as a Baltimore Oriole, for whom he played only six seasons but won two World Series.
If Harper is inducted into the Hall of Fame — a likely achievement for a player with 42.5 wins above replacement, two MVPs, seven All-Star appearances and a pennant under his belt all before his age-30 season — some may argue which logo should be displayed on his plaque.
But from the way he talks about Philadelphia, his four years in the City of Brotherly Love have made an imprint on him, especially now that the team is battling for its first World Series trophy since 2008.
“I’m so grateful for them opening their arms to me and my family,” Harper said about Phillies fans while choking back tears in an interview with Fox’s Tom Verducci, “giving me the opportunity to just be Bryce and to play this game like the kid I am.”
Since his debut with Washington in 2012, Harper ignited arguments between traditional baseball fans and younger generations about what place his antics, like bat flipping after crushing a long ball, have in the national pastime. “Make Baseball Fun Again,” Harper wore on a trucker hat in 2016, a parody of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, as a way to stick it to the game’s gatekeepers.
“I wasn’t real keen on him. I didn’t like his attitude when he was younger with the Nationals,” said Heiland, 49 of Orefield, Pennsylvania. “But I just thought he was going to be a National for life.”
Before he became a National, though, Harper was a child baseball prodigy. At 16, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and compared to LeBron James. Then, once he reached the major leagues, he was constantly judged against Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout — a comparison Trout ended up winning, despite Harper’s extreme success.
“He’s been in the spotlight for a long, long time,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who managed Harper in Washington in 2016 and 2017. “He’s a force to deal with. We had a couple run-ins, like you always do at some point in time, but he actually thanked me for those times. So, I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
He hit a peak in 2015, putting together one of the best seasons from a modern-day hitter (.330 batting average with 42 home runs). But the following year he had the worst full season of his career, hitting just .243 and raising questions about his consistency.
Those concerns have mostly gone away with the Phillies, as Harper has played well in each of his four seasons, including his monstrous MVP campaign in 2021.
“I think everybody matures a little bit as they get older and get more experience,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “From the time we got him until now, he’s really become a really good teammate. It looks like he feels very comfortable in this clubhouse. Guys are comfortable with him. He walks around with a lot of confidence, and that spreads throughout his teammates as well. I think he’s matured in a lot of different ways, to tell you the truth.”
Harper and the Nationals were unable to strike a deal before he hit free agency. He chose Philadelphia as his new home, signing a 13-year, $330 million contract — a deal that will likely take him through the end of his career.
That contract — the fact that he wanted to end his career with the Phillies — was the first step of many that endeared him to the fanbase.
“It was exciting when we signed him. He was that first piece that got them where they are today,” said Gwynn, 67 of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. “He seemed to grasp this city and what’s important to this city. He’s not coming here to just cash paychecks.”
But even his start in Philadelphia was a little awkward, as Harper said he wanted to “bring a title back to D.C.” during his introductory press conference with the Phillies. That season, despite not having Harper’s bat in the lineup, the Nationals exorcised their playoff demons and won the World Series without him. Meanwhile, in Harper’s first three years in Philadelphia, the Phillies were the most mediocre team in baseball — posting near-.500 records each year.
Then the Phillies made the playoffs this year largely without Harper, who missed about two months with a thumb injury and struggled after he returned. However, once the postseason began, it became clear who the leader of the lineup was. Going into Thursday night’s Game 5 of the World Series, Harper was hitting .368 with six home runs and 13 RBIs in 15 postseason games.
All six of his long balls have come in Philadelphia wins, including the game-winning blast in the pennant-clincher over the Padres in the NLCS. And his towering shot to open Game 3 was the perfect illustration of the new, Philadelphia version of Harper.
Instead of chucking his bat in the air, Harper gently dropped it as he admired the ball flying over the right field fence and jogged around the bases with an elegant swagger.
“This is my house,” Harper said to the TV camera as he approached home plate.