It’s about winning, stupid

2019-03-03 PhilliePhanaticBryceHarper.jpg
Sharing a high fist with the Phillie Phanatic—it was about a lot more than the money for Bryce Harper. 

For those who think about actual or alleged free agency market tightening and tanking teams, Phillies owner John Middleton has the answer every baseball fan of every team should wish their teams’ owners have every season. It turned out to be a key reason why he was willing to spend for Bryce Harper—and on terms that might surprise you.

It’s about winning, stupid.

At Saturday’s press conference introducing Harper as a Phillie officially, his uber agent Scott Boras told the story, quoting Middleton himself:

Scott, I want to tell you something, I’m not interested in talking about marketing dollars, ticket sales, billboards, concessions. There’s only one reason I’m talking to you, and that’s because I believe this guy can help us win. I’ve made enough money in my life, I don’t need to make more. My franchise value has risen dramatically over the last 25 years. I don’t need it to rise more. If it does, fine. I’m here to win, and I think your guy can help me win.

“He was emphatic on that,” Boras said. “I saw the passion,” Harper said about his own meetings with Middleton. “I saw the fire.”

But Middleton saw such fire in Harper, too. And that’s why Harper now wears the Phillies’ red pinstripes with number 3 on his left shoulder and his back. Among other reasons aside from the fact that he’s a paid-in-full (and how!) member of Millionaire Acres 333 times over.

And that’s why all you tankers pocketing your up to $90 million a year before a season’s first pitch is even thrown, before the first umpire on Opening Day hollers “Play ball,” have just been left with eggs benedict on your faces.

Last year’s mostly young and mostly talented and mostly not-quite-experienced Phillies surprised the game and the National League East until their inexperience caught up to them, perhaps with a little exhaustion thrown in. The Baby Braves snatched the division but the Phillies left an indelible imprint on the race, anyway.

And Middleton—who bought into the Phillies with a fifteen-percent stake in in 1994 and became its principal owner by late 2016—liked the taste of winning after the last great Phillies teams finished their injury-and-aging dissipation.

He had two targets to help kick the new Phillies up a few notches and maybe into the serious championship hunt. Both young, both gifted, both considered mercurial and usually by people who don’t know them, and both worth the equivalent of a Pacific archipelago nation’s economy.

Harper wasn’t likely to become a Yankee no matter how much he rooted for them growing up; the Yankees’ offseason priorities were pitching and a little infield help. Other prospective suitors were more interested in infielders than outfielders. Especially a young power-hitting outfielder whose defense—which was compromised often enough by over-aggressive mistakes and injuries—took a dive in 2018.

Forgotten, formerly: Harper learned to play the outfield only after he signed his first professional baseball contract. He’d been a catcher in his once-celebrated schoolboy youth. He incurred a hyperextended knee on a baserunning play late in 2017, hitting a wet base, and the injury cost him a second National League MVP, most likely. Then he spent the first half of last year trying to shake its lingering effects.

The knee was his left knee. The one from which he drives his swing at the plate. Marry that to his early-season concern with his launch angles and with pulling the ball, and you find the real source of his horrid first half. Then he adjusted right before the All-Star break. And he hit an even .300 the second half while still reaching base and slugging.

If you consider a real batting average (RBA)—the sum of your hits, walks, intentional walks, sacrifices, and the times you were hit by a pitch, divided by your plate appearances (not your official at-bats)—Harper’s for all 2018 was .429. That was higher than a) all top ten MVP vote-getting position players in the league including winner Christian Yelich, and b) the guy who signed with the Padres, not the Phillies who also wanted him, for ten years and 300 million balloons.

It was also higher than all top ten MVP vote-getting position players in the American League except three: J.D. Martinez, winner Mookie Betts, and Mike Trout, whose .507 RBA beat the whole pack of them.

And as things turned out, Manny Machado himself made sure he wouldn’t be a Phillie from the moment his sit-downs with Middleton began. According to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, Machado made a big mistake—he let his agent from the MVP Sports Group do most of the talking. Then Middleton met Harper and Boras together for the first time. And Harper went the opposite way.

Harper did his own talking. About the Phillies’ 2008 World Series conquest, which he’d seen while he was still a high school comer. About how pitchers approach and attack him, and how he approaches and attacks them back. Machado deferred to a mouthpiece; Harper practically taped Boras’s mouth shut. And talked the game as much as himself. Maybe more.

“I’ve been around a lot of professional players,” Middleton says, “but I’ve never seen a player who could talk about the game with such specific recall. This guy is different.”

About the only thing Boras pitched in with at that first confab was on whether Harper would hold up for the ten years he first sought. According to Verducci, Boras then pitched Harper’s core personality, the non-drinking, non-smoking Mormon, who learned what even his critics acknowledge is a strong work ethic from his iron-worker father, whose third home, behind the one he makes with his wife and the one he makes at the ballpark, is the gym.

The third tripped Phillies manager Gabe Kapler’s trigger. For all the (false) speculation that Harper wasn’t exactly a big fan of Kapler’s, it turned out Kapler’s the kind of fitness nut that appeals to Harper. They yakked it up about training, fitness, nutrition, and if Kapler had an intensity about that Harper apparently saw and raised it.

2019-03-03 BryceHarper
Wearing his new number 3 for the first time. Harper refused 34 out of deference to the late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay.

Middleton even made a point of taking no one but his wife, Leigh, to meet Harper and his wife, Kayla, in Las Vegas near February’s end. (The Harpers married near the end of 2016.) “We’re going on 41 years of marriage,” the owner said, “and they were kind of curious as to how that career marriage arc works. We talked about the ups and downs that you face and how you work through those kinds of issues. It was a really personal conversation.”

So the Phillies also brought out a side of Harper unsuspected though all the mohawk flapping when his cap fell off, the legendary “That’s a clown question, bro,” even his “Make Baseball Fun Again,” even the actual or alleged cockiness. Maybe the boy’s growing up faster than we thought.

Whatever you do or don’t think about Boras, this much turned out to be true when it came to Harper this winter: Harper called the dance. Even if it meant calling for things contrary to Boras’s preferences for his clients.

It was Harper who wanted to stay put for the rest of his career; Boras usually prefers to put his clients on the market at least once more before they call it a career. It was Harper who didn’t care about the average annual value of his deal as long as it was more dollars in the long run than Giancarlo Stanton; Boras usually prefers his clients go for the fattest possible yearly salary.

And it was Harper who insisted: no opting out. He wanted a baseball home, preferably with a team either built to win or approaching the winning threshold and committed to staying there.

Put all that together and you not only have Harper as a Phillie but the Phillies with plenty of room to move below the luxury tax—room enough to retool on the fly while playing to win (no tanking here, folks); room enough, even, to think about reeling in Mike Trout, unless the Angels decide they can’t afford to lose him in two years.

The right fielder who’d hoped until the end of last season, and maybe a little beyond, that he’d see that in the Nationals, with whom he actually wanted to stay, didn’t see it in the team that nurtured, raised, and mostly shone with him. When he slipped during his Saturday presser remarks and reference bringing a championship “back to D.C.,” some thought it was a little too telling.

But not the way they think. “I’ve always said: If I’m in [the Nationals’] plans, I’d absolutely love to be here,”  he told the Washington Post in September. “But if I’m not, there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I can do. I would love to play next to [Victor] Robles or [Juan] Soto or [Adam] Eaton. I’d love to. But am I in those plans? I have no idea.”

He learned soon enough. The Nats wanted him, but on terms that included deferred money that might have shrunk the real value of the ten year/$300 million deal they offered. Not even when Harper and Boras, out of deference to the Lerners who own the Nats, met on their turf instead of Harper awaiting suitors to come to his Las Vegas home.

Now the Nats can think about making Anthony Rendon their long-haul anchor. He’s in his walk year this year, and Harper not returning gives the Nats room to burn to make him that long-term anchor. Harper inadvertently gave Rendon leverage that he himself didn’t quite have no matter how he once thought he’d be a Nat for life.

“For me, it was all about the long haul,” the new Phillie said emphatically. “It was about being able to dig my roots, being able to plant somewhere I wanted to be for a long time. I said that in D.C. when I was there, as well. I said I wanted to be somewhere for a long period of time, and we went through that whole process, and it just didn’t work out. It didn’t happen.”

Middleton and Harper made it happen with the Phillies. In one dramatic swoop, the owner and the player threw a gauntlet down to every major league organisation in thrall to the idea of tearing down, rebuilding slowly, pinching dollars while making them regardless, and barely caring whether anyone cares what’s on the field now.

Middleton cares. In a city where it’s heaven to be a winner but hell resembles a tropical vacation when you lose. So does Harper. “I want to be part of this organization, I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he said Saturday as he slid into a Phillies cap and jersey. “I want to be part of this family, this Phillie nation. Through the bumps, the bruises, the good the bad, I want to be here.”

Harper is also calmly aware that baseball no matter what is a very rich business with or without his own Millionaire Acreage.

“I think baseball is worth about 11.5 billion dollars, so I think some of it should go back to the players, as well,” he said. Citing his annual salary to come, knowing it’s not even close to pulling the Phillies into luxury tax territory, he added, “I think that’s going to be able to bring some other guys in, as well as be able to help this organization win. I know there’s another guy in about two years that comes up off the books, we’ll see what happens then.”

Translation: He’ll like the Phillies continuing to build the farm but he also wouldn’t mind if a certain Angel should happen to become a Phillie in two years. He’d have only about 1.6 million people in Philadelphia agreeing with him both ways. Especially if that certain Angel isn’t made an Angel for life before then.

Harper even refused to wear his old number 34—out of deference to a new Hall of Famer. “I thought Roy Halladay should be the last one to wear it,” he said, perhaps unaware that two others have since the late Halladay’s retirement.

“He’s somebody in this game that, you know, is greater than a lot of guys who have ever played it,” he continued. “A Hall of Famer. Somebody who played the game the right way. Was a great person and was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, being able to play across from him in 2012. So, for me, it’s Roy Halladay. He’s number 34 and he’s what represents that number in Philly. And when you go in there and see his name on that flagpole in center field, it’s something that he should be remembered for.”

Life as a Phillie wasn’t even a week old and Harper made a pitch for the Phillies’ next uniform number retirement. But he couldn’t resist offering one more good reason to become a Phillie: “I don’t have to face Aaron Nola anymore.”

Harper’s lifetime slash against Nola is .303/.333/.576. despite thirteen strikeouts, and including three home runs and seven steaks. I think it’s probably Nola thinking, instead, “I don’t have to face Bryce Harper anymore.”

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