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The moment Dillon Burroughs has been waiting over a month for finally arrives, and somehow, it manages to exceed his expectations. At exactly 7:50 p.m. on the first Tuesday of April, the fans at Nationals Park collectively let out a lengthy, guttural boo.
“That was great,” Burrough shouts above the noise. “That was great! That’s exactly what I came for.”
Bryce Harper, in his first at-bat in D.C. since signing a then-record 13-year, $330 million contract with the division rival Philadelphia Phillies, has just struck out. Max Scherzer is on the mound. The temperature hovers in the mid-40s, but feels much colder. A few minutes earlier, the stadium gave the 26-year-old former Nats superstar a frosty welcome with heavy boos that grew louder with each Scherzer pitch. A particularly boisterous fan holding a beer in right field screamed, “Harper sucks!” Others chanted “ov-er-ra-ted!” Fans in the front row are wearing white T-shirts that spell out the word “T-R-A-I-T-O-R.”
Burroughs holds up a black-and-white poster of Harper dressed as Benedict Arnold. The first name has been crossed out and replaced with “Bryce.” Mayor Muriel Bowser had tweeted out the image a day earlier, before deleting it and claiming that it had been posted without her approval.
In the span of only seconds, D.C. has made clear how it feels about the player once ranked among the most popular athletes in the city. The vehement boos even stun some Nats fans, but for the majority of the announced crowd of 35,920, the experience is cathartic.
“I could leave right now,” says Burrough, “and be happy.”
Several hours before the highly anticipated game, Harper attempted to do some damage control. For weeks, he had been effusive in his love for his new city. He arrived at Phillies opening day wearing a Pulp Fiction-inspired T-shirt featuring the Phillie Phanatic and Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot. On social media, he repeatedly uses the hashtag #Phamily.
Harper’s departure left Nats fans feeling slighted, and the animosity continued to build as Tuesday night’s game approached. Harper, back in D.C. for the first time since leaving, took to Instagram to respond.
“You, Nationals fans, made me one of your own for the entire time I was part of the Nationals organization,” he wrote. “I’m so blessed to have been able to play for a fan base that cared so much about our team each and every night. You will always hold a special place in my heart no matter what.
“When I run on the field tonight I am sure to hear some boos, but I will always remember the cheers and the screams that are still with me right now, as I start my new chapter.”
Joe L. of Alexandria has been one of those fans. In 2012, he moved from the Midwest to Virginia and became a Nationals supporter. His wife bought him a No. 34 Harper jersey as a gift, and on this rainy and chilly spring evening, he is among the few wearing one—at least an unblemished version.
Joe, who asked to be identified by his first name and last initial because of his job in the military, has no hard feelings toward Harper. Right now in section 319, he’s surrounded by more Phillies fans wearing No. 3 Harper jerseys than fellow Nats fans, but happily munches on a chicken sandwich.
“You know, he did what he had to do. He took the money. He took a great contract. I mean, he played his heart out for us here,” Joe says. “I hope he does well in Philly. I feel for him. I mean … can’t complain when somebody offers you that kind of money.”
He says he understands why fans would want to boo Harper, but he hopes that’s not the case. “I hope they cheer him,” he says. “I understand [why they would boo], especially going within the division. I get that. We’ll see. I’m hoping that people cheer.”
After a 41-minute rain delay, the Nationals start the game with a minute-long video tribute to Harper. It’s greeted with loud boos.
The temperature continues to drop during the top of the sixth inning. Fans have started to head for the exits and the Phillies lead, 5-0. Harper’s first two at-bats have resulted in strikeouts to the delight of the sparse crowd of the remaining Nats fans.
He steps up to the plate again. The jeers get louder. But this time, Harper finally responds with his bat. He hits an RBI single to left field. To celebrate, he does a “Fortnite”-inspired exaggerated wave toward his team’s dugout.
The Phillies fans began to chant, “We have Harper!” A few vocal supporters even begin to shout, “MVP!”
Two innings later, Harper blasts a 458-foot homer to right center field. He follows it with a bat flip that will certainly be played on TV broadcasts across the country for days, if not longer. With a simple flick of the wrist, Harper has reminded the sports world why he’s the only baseball player on ESPN’s 2019 World Fame list.
(“I try not to watch,” Nats manager Dave Martinez would later tell reporters about the bat flip. Harper chalked his flip up to “the emotion of the game.”)
Even though her team is losing and Phillies fans are gloating, Lisa Stoddart, a partial season ticket holder since 2013, can’t help but feel disappointed by the booing.
“[The fans] don’t cheer that loud, so the fact they booed that loud shocked me,” says Stoddart, who lives in D.C. “I think they were uninformed about what was going on in the off-season, because if you followed anything you knew who his suitors were. If you’re really a fan you knew what it was down to … I mean, I don’t know why they came to hate him so much.”
Her friend, Michelle Sara King, jumps in: “It doesn’t help to boo him.”
When Harper came up for his first at-bat in the first inning the two simply stood and watched. “I still have all the Harper bobble heads and posters,” King says.
“It’s not like I’m throwing these stuff away,” Stoddart adds. “He’s a great player. I’m just so verklempt of how people behaved tonight.”
About a half hour before the game ends in a 8-2 Phillies victory, Burroughs leaves for his home in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. The Nats fall to 1-3 in the young season, but he’s satisfied with what he’s seen.
“The atmosphere was awesome,” Burroughs says. “It was great to boo him and feel the energy in the stadium. It felt like a playoff game. Wish the outcome was better but that’s why we play 162 games.”
Asked if he felt bad for Harper at all, he replies, “Not one bit.”
Back at home waiting for Burroughs is his 1-and-a-half year old cocker spaniel. Her name is Harper. At least for now.