Time was when the not-quite-accurate legend of Washington baseball was: “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” After Tuesday, the legend may yet become, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and lack of class in the National League East.” Not because of the Nationals, but their fans.
Simple elementary wisdom includes that the right to boo comes with the price of a ticket, but it went on particularly grotesque display in Nationals Park when Bryce Harper hit town for the first time as a Phillie.
Grotesque and, when all is said and done, ignorant. And, in the case of seven fans spelling out “T-R-A-T-I-O-R!” on the front of white T-shirts, evidence of either ditching or flunking third-grade spelling.
No matter, almost. Harper himself obliterated the grotesquery and the ignorance with a parabolic eighth-inning home run, punctuated by the most epic bat flip this side of Jose Bautista, that actually chased a lot of the Nats fans who came to abuse him out of the park while a large enough contingent of Phillies fans who’d made the trek for the, ahem, big event remained to love him.
Washington’s number one industry—government—is well populated by those in its employ who never allow the truth to get in the way of a good rant. Except for the Phillies contingent the fans in Nationals Park behaved most of the night as if they were auditioning to join the government.
They ramped it up to fever pitch after Harper faced Max Scherzer twice and struck out both times, once on a changeup not even a golfer could meet and the second time on a cutter Mariano Rivera himself would have admired. Scherzer refined the cutter last year and got tougher on lefthanded hitters than he’d ever been before in his sterling career.
The third time up, the lefthanded Harper figured Scherzer enough to wait for something down and in but not too far down and lined a one-out double to right, setting up a second and third the Phillies couldn’t cash. Then Scherzer was gone in the middle of the fifth and the Phillies got to play rough with the Nationals’ rickety bullpen.
After Jean Segura hit a three-run double with two out in the sixth, Harper drove in another run with a single up the pipe off lefthander Matt Grace. Making it 6-0, Phillies, the shutout rudely broken when Anthony Rendon hit one over the left field fence with Wilmer Difo aboard.
But with Segura aboard and one out in the eighth, the T-R-A-T-I-O-R caught hold of Jeremy Hellickson’s down and in four-seamer and blasted it into the second deck past the right center field fence. With a propeller-like bat flip a few steps up the line. Bautista’s after hitting what proved the 2015 American League division series-winning three-run homer was a measly helicopter. Harper’s was a Lockheed Constellation striking to cross the Atlantic.
That was the third longest of any ball Harper ever hit in Nationals Park. After such a night’s disrespect there wasn’t a reasonable observer anywhere who’d have said that propeller flip was unjustified, after he’d built himself up to where he could hit that bomb in the first place.
“You hit the ball that far,” said no less than Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, who got to see more than his fair share of Harper lunar launches, “do whatever the hell you want.”
It was no April Fool’s Day joke that, on that very day, the Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga published a final in-depth examination about how Harper went, as the headline read, “from ‘I’m going to be a National’ to ‘We’re going to Philly’.” An examination that went too obviously un-read.
The article explains in depth how, essentially, the Nationals low-balled Harper but the Phillies in due course didn’t, especially knowing that no matter which teams out west wanted him, Harper may live in Las Vegas but didn’t want to play out west. “I love the East Coast as well,” he told Svrluga. “I love the vibe there, the intensity, the way Sunday Night Baseball is actually at night. Stuff like that mattered.”
Lost in the hoopla over Harper’s personality, the kid who dared to want to make baseball fun again but ruffled a lot of twisted-panties types of Old School Old Farts by having the nerve to play that way, was one fact: this family-oriented kid who’d done enough traveling around as a pre-organised baseball star in the making wanted a baseball home. Long term. Irrevocable.
“Harper’s desires,” Svrluga wrote, “were specific and contradictory to what the public thought: He wanted as many years as possible. He wanted a no-trade clause. He did not want opt-outs—which would have given him a path back to free agency—even if that might be more lucrative. He wanted, basically, to never again answer the question that to that point had defined his career: Where are you going next?”
Maybe that as well as the truly personal touch Phillies owner John Middleton applied in meeting Harper before their deal got done is why Harper took a no opt-out, no-trade, no-deferral thirteen-year, $330 million deal that’s actually paying him less in average annual salary than than Scherzer, a shade above Stephen Strasburg, and two shades above Patrick Corbin.
“Nobody did anything wrong,” said veteran Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman to Thomas Boswell, who tweeted the remarks before the game and published them in his post-game column Tuesday night. “There are no bad guys in this. It is okay. Everyone can be happy. Bryce is not the first MVP to switch teams. This happens. He came. He played. He exercised his right. Sounds like any business anywhere. I hope they cheer him. Once, anyway.”
Not quite. Not even during that classy pre-game video tribute to the controversial but engaging kid who, by the way, reached base as a Nat and before his 26th birthday more than any major league player through that age except Mike Trout and Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline. Not even for the classy thank-you Harper posted on his Instagram account the morning of the game.
“[T]his is how society has turned,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci. “Negativity sells. This is how you get noticed, not with civility. Online comments sections, with the cloak of anonymity, have become our town squares. Snark has become so normalized that it promotes role-playing, as if to be ‘cool’ and to be noticed you’re supposed to be caustic. Nationals fans played down to the role.”
Come Wednesday, Harper had himself a 2-for-2 day with a run scored and three walks—two of which were intentional. You think the Nats didn’t get the message from Tuesday night? They weren’t going to give him a chance to drop another nuke on them if they could help it. They made sure he couldn’t hit with men aboard and walked him intentionally when he did bat with men on.
And they could sort of afford it, since the game got to an eight-all tie after eight innings between Aaron Nola being roughed up for three home runs and a fair amount of sloppy Phillies play—two infield errors and a catcher’s throwing error—abetting the Nats’ side of the ledger. The Phillies scored two in the first, two in the fourth, and four in the eighth; the Nats scored three each in the first and the third and two in the eighth.
Then the ninth got extremely interesting: after Rendon led off with a single, Phillies reliever David Robertson—having a shaky season’s beginning after several years of lights-out relief—channeled his inner Craig Kimbrel: he walked the bases loaded and then walked pinch-hitter Jake Noll to send Rendon walking home the 9-8 win.
It left the Phillies 4-1 to open the season and left the Nats still wondering about how to fix a bullpen they only thought was solidified with three bulls who let the Phillies bat around in the eighth Wednesday. Not to mention having to make do without Trea Turner, who suffered a broken finger Tuesday night when a pitch he was trying to bunt hit the finger wrapped around the lower barrel of his bat.
After Tuesday’s game, Harper faced his Phillies teammates and compelled them to delay for a few moments their usual post-win clubhouse routine, complete with spinning bright coloured lights. Then, according to Verducci, he spoke to them, at one point seeming on the brink of tears, thanking them for embracing him and having his back.
Wednesday seemed like just another back-and-forth game involving two of the National League East’s four expected dogfighters compared to Tuesday night. But Tuesday was the real first night of the rest of Harper’s baseball life.
The Phillies and the Nats play seventeen more times against each other this season, including eight in Washington. Maybe by then Harper will be just another opponent on just another team challenging for the NL East, instead of the guy Washington thinks, witlessly and ignorantly, is a T-R-A-T-I-O-R.
They were co-fueled by no less than Washington mayor Muriel Bowser the morning of the Big One. The woman who applauded Harper last year for kicking in on a six-figure project to renovate a community center baseball field tweeted an image of Harper’s bearded phiz atop the body of Benedict Arnold. She deleted the tweet post haste, but not in time to stop some of the Nationals Park fans from holding up posters showing that image Tuesday night.
Philadelphia fans have a long-term reputation once described best by a short-term Phillies pitcher, Bo Belinsky: “Those people would boo at a funeral.” Do you think they’ll hold up signs showing Bowser with a photoshopped muzzle over her mug and under a Nats cap the first time the Nats hit Philadelphia come next Monday?
No, I take that back—don’t give the bastards any more bright ideas!