The writing has been on the wall for some time that Bryce Harper was set to leave the Nationals, but his decision to sign with division rival Philadelphia Phillies has left many D.C. sports fans disappointed—if not outright angry.
Being one of the biggest names in baseball, Harper’s departure begs the question if home games, as well as the bars and restaurants nearby, will be affected on game days. With Harper in the lineup and the Nationals in the World Series chase, the bars in the area have hardly had a slow night during a Nats game the past few years.
The Bullpen, located right outside the stadium, is the place to be when the sun is shining and the beer is flowing. Whether you’re a diehard Nats fan or just coming from work to hang out, going to the Bullpen a few hours before a game, regardless of what time the first pitch is, has become a baseball tradition for many D.C. residents.
Nats Park had the 11th highest average game attendance in during the 2018 season, with 31,620 people per game, according to ESPN figures.
So now, Harper is gone, and the Nats’ future seems a little less promising. Right?
“Oh, I think it’s going to actually fuel a lot more energy because the seven years that he was here, we had aspirations of World Series, championship series … The powerhouse of National League. So now, I think the fans are going to be even more excited about this year … because even when he was hurt those few years, the team still did well without him,” says Freddie Ekuban, the bar manager for Declaration at Nationals Park.
For Eukban that means the drawing power of the team will be just as strong. He isn’t worried that Harper will negatively affect business. If anything, Harper leaving for a division rival is only going to fuel fan’s enthusiasm, he says. The Nats will welcome the Phillies into town on April 2 and 3.
“The fans are going to come out, and the bars in the area, I talk to a lot of guests, and they’re excited,” Ekuban says. “That’s going to drive business. The fans are fueled. I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat. I think it’s going to be a different vibe.”
The Big Stick, which is located directly across from the stadium, is taking making a positive out of Harper’s departure. Instead of burning or tossing Harper gear, the bar is encouraging fans to bring it in and get a free drink in exchange. The clothes will be donated to Bread for the City, a local non-profit helping low-income residents.
Harper’s Phillies jersey set a record for most sales in the first 24 hours after its launch by any athlete, according to the retailer Fanatics. But while there will be fewer Harper jerseys roaming Nationals Park, expect to see a growing number of fans wearing a No. 22 Juan Soto jersey.
As Harper’s popularity in D.C. declines, Soto’s rises.
Ekuban believes that Harper was “a problem player” for the Nats. “But, we do have Juan Soto, who is a younger version of Bryce Harper and is not a head case,” he says.
The 20-years-old Soto made his MLB debut on May 20, 2018, becoming the youngest player in the major leagues at 19 years, 207 days. Ranked as the Nationals’ top prospect last season, he instantly became a star—and a fan favorite.
And it’s not just that Soto’s a rising star among a handful of other already solidified starters that have given supporters hope. With the addition of several key offseason acquisitions, namely pitcher Patrick Corbin, the team’s management has earned the respect from fans.
“The Nats are a perennial competitor for the National League East,” says Alan Popovsky, the co-founder of the Presidential Restaurant Group in D.C. “I think the fans have a lot of trust in the team management and recognize that the team will be good even without Harper.”
He cited other stars like Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, and Soto as big draws for Nats fans.
The general consensus, Popovsky says, will be en masse curiosity as to how the Nats are going to pull together without one of baseball’s most famous faces.
And it’s not like Alex Ovechkin, the star of the Washington Capitals is gone.
“Ovechkin is the biggest star in DC!!!,” Todd Greene, the general manager of popular sports bar Penn Social, writes in an email to City Paper. “I don’t anticipate [Harper’s decision having] much of an effect on business to be honest. Soto is gonna be a superstar [outfielder] in his own right.”