This wasn't a T-shirt.
It wasn't a shout in an empty ballpark.
It wasn't a signing motion in the air.
This was a gauntlet being thrown to the ground.
"J.T. Realmuto needs to be our catcher next year — plain and simple," Bryce Harper declared moments after another dismal Phillies season ended with a losing record and no trip to the playoffs Sunday.
Realmuto will become a free agent right after the World Series. He may have played his last game with the Phillies on Sunday. He declined to speak with reporters after the 5-0 loss in Tampa Bay.
Harper has long pushed for the Phillies to re-sign Realmuto. He began the campaign in spring training and continued it throughout the summer. He memorably wore a Realmuto T-shirt in the early days of summer camp. He shouted "Sign him!" — knowing full well that it would be caught by TV cameras — after Realmuto belted a homer in an intrasquad game during summer camp at Citizens Bank Park. Harper even made a signing motion, caught on TV, as he crossed home plate ahead of Realmuto after one of the All-Star catcher's early-season home runs.
On Sunday, Harper laid a full challenge to the Phillies to keep Realmuto in red pinstripes.
"He's the best catcher in baseball," Harper said. "He's the best hitting catcher in baseball. Our guys love to throw to him if that's (Zack) Wheeler, if that's (Aaron) Nola, if that's anybody.
"Anybody that's the best at their position — hitting and fielding — needs to be signed and that is J.T. Realmuto. I don't think that should even be a question. There's going to be two teams or three teams in the NL East who are going to go after that guy and if that happens, I mean, that's going to be tough to swallow for us."
The New York Mets are definitely one of those teams. They have a hole at catcher and a rich, new owner. In fact, Steve Cohen will become baseball's richest owner once he's approved by the rest of MLB owners.
In addition to the Mets, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals could make a play for Realmuto.
The New York Yankees, who also have a need at catcher, are expected to make a play for Realmuto.
The Phillies beat Realmuto in a salary arbitration hearing in February; the arbitration panel sided with the Phillies and their $10 million offer. The team then commenced negotiations with Realmuto on a long-term extension that would keep him off the free-agent market this winter. Those negotiations shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March. When the game restarted in June, general manager Matt Klentak said the "landscape" had changed as it related to the Phillies' attempts to retain Realmuto. That was a reference to how the pandemic had caused revenues to shrink, revenues that would fuel a signing like Realmuto.
The Phillies are still expected to make a serious attempt to re-sign Realmuto this offseason. It won't be cheap. He is seeking to become the highest-paid catcher in the history of the game and word is he's targeting a figure way beyond the $23 million per season that Joe Mauer made in an eight-year deal with Minnesota Twins.
Word in baseball circles is that Realmuto wants to stay in Philadelphia, but money will talk. He is said to have an attraction to Atlanta or one of the Texas teams — close to his Oklahoma home — if he doesn't re-sign with the Phillies, but the Mets could change the calculus entirely.
It remains unclear who the point man in the Phillies' negotiations with Realmuto will be. General manager Matt Klentak has been that guy but after a fifth straight non-winning season, his future could be in doubt.
Harper was asked about that topic after the Phillies went out with a whimper Sunday.
"I'm not an owner," he said. "I'm glad I don't have to make those decisions."