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Now that he’s officially gone, having signed for an unfathomable 13 years with the rival Philadelphia Phillies, there’s an image of Bryce Harper that will be seared in my memory of his too-short time in D.C. It’s of him, of all things, at a Caps game.
During Game 4 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, a fan snapped a picture of Harper decked out in the white, gold, and gray sweater and cap of his hometown Vegas Golden Knights. The look in his eyes, an empty middle-distance stare gazing vaguely off in the distance at nothing in particular, is a familiar one to anyone who’s ever seen a bored parent standing at a playground. Watching the third of four straight losses, Harper stands next to his wife in their luxury suite, surrounded by emptiness. None of the seats in his box are full, and the scarlet red pregame towel giveaways are still draped neatly over the backs of the chairs.
He looks like a stranger in his own city.
The image seems worse when contrasted with the energetic pre-game ceremony. There, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman (the latter, perhaps, uncharacteristically), decked head-to-toe in Caps uniforms, were the honorary fans of the game. They rocked the red, sharing a primal “Let’s Go Caps!” scream with the crowd, while the helmets on their heads wobbled and their sticks waved. They were part of the moment.
Harper’s legacy in D.C. is always going to be complicated. There was always a sense, going back to the day the Nats drafted him No. 1 overall, that his eye was elsewhere—not to the middle distance, but to a bigger city. He’s always carried the personality of someone who craves the spotlight of New York or Los Angeles, and that his time in D.C. was always going to be an intermittent step on his way to superstardom elsewhere. He felt of this city, but not always a part of it.
But for those that lived in the moment, and enjoyed what they had, Harper provided something pretty special.
“He was the closest thing we’ll have to Mickey Mantle,” says Nats fan Basil Tsimpris of Midlothian, Virginia. “He has a somewhat different skill set and not nearly as accomplished [as a player or as a drinker], but he was one of the few players with compelling raw talent; you stopped everything when he came to bat, even when he was slumping.”
Justin Howard of Arlington agrees. “He is one of few players to pass the ‘bathroom test’ at the stadium. You’re not getting up to go to the bathroom if Bryce Harper is batting next inning.”
Those players who electrify a park and create a buzz are rare. Harper had it, and he often stepped up to the moment. Ask any Nats fan, and they can spout off a list of moon shots and big hits they’ll remember.
I’ll never forget his massive playoff homer against the Cubs. In the 2017 Division Series, the Nats trailed 3-1 in the eighth, and were on the verge of going down 0-2 in the series. Yet there he was in the moment. Harper picked his team and the entire city up on his shoulders, crushing a curve 421 feet to the concourse in the right to tie the game. We saw the swing wind up. We saw him connect. We exploded.
We’ll remember the MVP award, and the way his helmet always flew off as he roared around the bases. We’ll remember the ferociousness of that swing and the homers that crackled and popped off his bat. We’ll remember the hairstyles and, yes, the choking. But we’ll mostly remember the feeling that we were growing up with someone.
“I call him my little brother,” says Nats fan Dara Lind of D.C. Like a lot of other Nats fans, Lind adopted the team when she moved here from another city. She saw Harper’s debut late night against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and the team’s meteoric rise to the first of four division titles.
How does a fan cope with the loss of family? “I don’t have time to go through a full performative grief cycle before opening day and I feel deeply robbed,” she says.
While the Nats reportedly made a $300 million offer to Harper before the offseason began, the amount of deferred money in the deal, some stretching decades into the future, considerably lowered the value. It was nowhere near what he’s now getting to play for a rival.
Despite his praise for Harper, Howard, the Nats fan, has misgivings about a team offering that much money for someone he considers a flawed player.
“Even billionaire baseball owners have a limit on what they’re willing to spend. With Harper, there are some legitimate concerns,” says Howard. “He was pretty bad in the first half of last season. He missed significant time with injuries in 2013, 2014, and 2017. In 2016, he tried to play through an injury and the results were ugly.”
In the end, the Nats made their offer and moved on. The team general manager Mike Rizzo has constructed doesn’t need Harper to contend for a National League East title, and you could make a solid argument that if the team was going to spend all that money, another arm or two would’ve added more wins than another corner outfield bat.
The Nats patched their holes and should be better, even if they won’t be quite as good as they’d be with Harper’s MVP potential.
Besides, there are always other players, even a rising star, to cheer. No pressure, Juan Soto.