Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight once taught us “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Is that what’s happened for Bryce Harper after signing with the Phillies? Probably not.
On the surface, it seems clear that Harper isn’t actually that much of a villain. He’s been painted as such since day one, but while he’s not the most gregarious player in MLB history, he’s also not known as a jerk.
Early on, veteran players felt the need to put Harper in his place. Cole Hamels notably intentionally hit Harper with a pitch to show him where he stood as a rookie. Harper took it in stride, and came around to score.
Harper has always pushed for the game to be more, and especially more engaging with its biggest stars and personalities. That’s rubbed a few older fans the wrong way, and older players too. The unwritten rules of baseball have come up more than once in reference to Harper.
Through it all, however, he’s continued to play hard and do whatever he can to help the Nationals win games. In fact, he often plays too hard, crashing into walls and injuring himself while playing recklessly.
Ask any Nationals fan prior to this winter, and they all would have told you how much they love Harper.
Then this winter happened.
Not only did Harper leave the team that drafted him and made him a massive offer, but he A) waited until the last day of February to announce his decision, the latest date for a top-10 contract in baseball history, B) toyed with fans all offseason with intentionally misleading and “trolling” tweets, especially in partnership with PlayStation, and most importantly, C) ended up signing with Washington’s biggest rival, the Philadelphia Phillies.
It’s impossible to blame Harper for agreeing to the largest deal in American team sports history, but it’s also easy to understand why it would rub Nationals fans the wrong way. The Nats’ offer to Bryce was also a record-breaker, though only for free agents as it wouldn’t have passed Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension, and it carried a higher average annual value.
It could be argued that Harper put himself to earn less money, and in the process he went to the absolute worst team in the eyes of Nats fans. The optics aren’t great.
Additionally, any “highest-paid player in history” is going to be considered a villain to a degree in their sport. It happened for Alex Rodriguez earlier this century.
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The other question is who else could be considered the biggest villain in the game today? Mike Trout is the best player, but is one of the only superstars in athletic history with just about a 100% approval rating. Mookie Betts is as lovable a character as it gets, despite playing for the Red Sox. Plus, his name is Mookie.
Trevor Bauer has the personality to be a villain, but isn’t a big enough name. Fans love Max Scherzer’s competitiveness, Nolan Arenado staying loyal to a mid-level market, and Francisco Lindor’s smile.
The only other player worth considering besides Harper is the other major free agent from this offseason: Manny Machado. The former Oriole also drew out his free agency, and has turned fans against him with comments about not hustling and controversial slides.
In the end, Machado is probably the right call here, especially when you consider he also seems to have opted for a bigger payday over a chance to win early. His run-ins with the defending World Champion Red Sox don’t help either.
Personality-wise, and sometimes on the field, Harper is a hero for the game. And this isn’t Kevin Durant-to-the-Warriors, because the Phillies have been so bad in recent seasons.
But as Christopher Nolan reminded us, it’s hard to stay the hero forever. He’s not there yet, but Harper’s mega-deal, whether it makes sense or not, puts him one step closer to the mantle of biggest villain in the game.
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