Bryce Harper has a 13-year contract with the Phillies. Barring a change in the way Major League Baseball does its scheduling, he could play as many as 117 games in Nationals Park in Washington during that span.
Over time, the place will become just another stop on the trail for Harper.
But not Tuesday night.
Harper will play his 473rd regular season game in the stadium on South Capitol Street.
It will be his first as a visiting player.
“It’ll definitely be different, walking down and not going into the home clubhouse,” Harper said. “It’s something that I’m going to have to get used to. But it will be fun.
“I wish them nothing but the best, all the players in that clubhouse. It’s a great fan base, a great city to live in.”
No player in baseball elicits more love-him, hate-him reaction and emotion than Harper. It has been that way since he slugged and swaggered his way on to the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16. At 26, he remains a superstar talent and he found his superstar payday —$330 million — two hours up the road from Washington in Philadelphia.
Harper won the National League Rookie of the Year award with the Nationals in 2012 and the NL MVP award in 2015. Last summer, Washington fans showered Harper with love when he won the All-Star Home Run derby in what was then his home ballpark.
It’ll be fascinating to see how he is received in his return trip Tuesday night. Will he be treated like a villain who bolted town for big bucks? Or will he be welcomed back as an old friend who has moved on to a new chapter in his life?
The guess here is that Harper won’t feel a whole lot of love. But he can handle it. He’s had a bullseye on his back for more than a decade and it kind of gets his adrenaline flowing.
“I’m sure some cheers, some boos, as well,” Harper said. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of sports. I’ll always remember and cherish all the screaming and yelling and the exciting times that we had there.
“I’m just excited to go back and excited to compete and do what we need to do as a team. I’m a Philadelphia Phillie. I’m excited to be a Phillie. I’m excited to be in the city of Philadelphia and we’re going back there to play a good team in the Nationals and we’re going to do it a couple more times this year and a couple more times in the next 13 years.”
Jake Arrieta predicted a mixed reception for his new teammate.
“Just because of his stature and the type of player he is, the hype around him, deservedly so,” Arrieta said. “Superstar, 26 years old, leaves a team to go to another team in the same division. I think it will be mixed but they should give him a really good ovation for what he was able to do with that organization for the last seven years.”
Harper’s new manager, Gabe Kapler, is eager to see the reception.
“I'm a baseball fan and I love human psychology,” Kapler said. “I love to see how people respond to moments like that, the players, the fans and the cities.”
Kapler, who often sees the bright side of things, believes the Washington fans will be more Welcome Wagon than hostile host.
“Very strong standing ovation,” he predicted. “My reaction is that fans understand players' contributions. And I don't think his contributions to D.C. and the Nationals can be discounted. They are really important for that city and for the history of that franchise.”
In just three games, Harper has already made a big impact on his new club. He has fueled ticket and merchandise sales, he has contributed to a 3-0 start with a pair of homers and four walks, and he leads the league in standing ovations. Not only have the Philadelphia fans shown him love, he’s returned it by bowing to the folks in the right field seats and tossing balls into the stands. It’s been one big love fest.
Harper won’t be feeling any love once Tuesday night’s game starts. The Nationals, like the Phillies, expect to contend in the NL East and they are sending their ace, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, to the mound. He is 9-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 17 career starts against the Phillies.
The Nats lost two of three to the Mets out of the gate. During Saturday’s game, pockets of Mets fans in the seats at the Nationals Park chanted, “Where is Harper? … Where is Harper?”
He was in Philadelphia, of course. But Tuesday night, he’ll be back in Washington and it should be quite the spectacle.
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