It’s somewhat fitting that the (maybe) final home game in Bryce Harper’s storied Nationals career ended after just seven innings thanks to a storm.
As the game was cut short, so too was his tenure with the Nats, in the eyes of many fans.
Bryce Harper’s first career game came in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium on April 28, 2012. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI.
His first career home game came on May 1, 2012, against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He went 0-for-3.
His potential final home game as a Washington Nationals came Wednesday against the Miami Marlins. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in a rain-shortened 9-3 win, and the game ended with him due up first next inning.
Always so close to getting over the hump, but never quite there.
In the six-and-a-half years between April 2012 and September 2018, Harper has wowed fans with towering home runs, rocket throws to the plate, aggressive baserunning, mature-beyond-his-years quotes, and a flair for the dramatic.
Baseball was played in Washington, D.C. in 2005, but it wasn’t truly back until the team Harper joined the team and gave fans something real to root for.
For many teams in their final home game of a lost season, fans are apathetic and subdued. The season is over, and hopes were dashed long enough ago that most baseball fans of teams out of contention have reached the acceptance stage. This isn’t most teams, however, and this wasn’t most home finales.
It’s hard to remember a time when fans thought about the Nationals without Harper in the picture.
He’s been one of the faces of D.C. sports for half a decade, and even the mere chance that he could be leaving the area this offseason is enough to change the energy at Nationals Park. Of course, there’s more than just a “mere chance” that he heads to greener pastures in 2019. Depending on who you ask, the odds of him staying range from 0 percent to 100, but the truth is the only one who knows for sure is Bryce himself.
He’s said the right things in the months leading up to his now-imminent free agency. He’s mentioned repeatedly how much he loves wearing the curly W, how he’s grown up in D.C., and how he’d love to stick around.
One quote he’s gotten wrong, however, came just prior to the start of the home finale.
When asked about how he’ll reflect on playing maybe his final game in front of these fans, Harper said he would “treat it like any other game.”
Frankly, that isn’t possible.
It’s not just another game for him, nor for the fans who have given their money, time, energy, fandom, blood, sweat and tears over the last several seasons. For them, this was never going to be just another game. The future is unknown, and D.C. fans (prior to the Capitals’ stunning Stanley Cup run) have been fully trained in the art of heartbreak.
They know to expect the worst.
For these fans, who came out to the ballpark Wednesday for the first, second, or 81st time this season, this was a culmination. A chance to offer their appreciation and love to their city’s greatest star not named Alex Ovechkin.
The fans certainly took advantage of the opportunity. Harper was showered all afternoon, both from the thunderstorms and from standing ovations prior to each at-bat.
The stadium was half-full, maybe a little less, but the fans in attendance worked overtime to make one last hometown pitch to Harper before he tests the market. If their enthusiasm and adoration counts for anything in Harper’s mind, it’ll be difficult to say "sayonara" after Wednesday show of support.
If you take a poll of fans around the stadium, it’s hard to find a consensus favorite Harper moment. For some, it was the day he was drafted in 2010. Harper was the most-hyped draft prospect in recent memory, challenged for that title by only Stephen Strasburg the year prior. That day represented hope and change from an organization that desperately needed it. For others, it was the day he made his debut, for similar reasons.
There were plenty of other noteworthy candidates between his debut and the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, but his performance in front of these very same fans at the Home Run Derby this season is maybe his most legendary moment for local fans.
Aided, of course, by his glorious USA/D.C.-themed headband and cleats. It’s a moment that won’t soon be forgotten and easily stands out as the highlight of the 2018 Nats season.
As longtime fans remember, Harper’s 2012 season was historic, as he put together one of the greatest teenage seasons in decades.
It’s fitting, then, that he shared Wednesday’s lineup with the other highlight of the 2018 Nats season: Juan Soto, who himself is putting together a teenage season that rivals (and probably surpasses) Harper’s.
In what may be Harper’s final game, it wasn’t he who needed to provide the theatrics. Instead, the next generation of stars carried his torch with aplomb.
Soto, the 19-year old rookie phenomenon got on base twice as he often does. 21-year old Victor Robles sparked the offense from atop the order, notching four hits including a three-run bomb. Trea Turner was his usual dynamic self.
If Harper does leave, he’s certainly leaving the outfield in capable hands. Just because the franchise can survive his potential departure, however, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want him back.
He is, after all, just now entering his prime, and he already trails only Ryan Ziimmerman on the Nats career WAR leaderboard since the team returned to Washington.
We’re talking about the hitter with the highest ceiling in baseball, who put forth the greatest single offensive season since peak-Bonds. We’re talking about a player who single-handedly adds several thousand fans to each game’s attendance. We’re talking about a player who can turn even the most “glass half-empty” fan into a “glass half-full” one.
Harper’s performance at the plate Wednesday wasn’t anything to write home about, but that’s not what he’ll remember when he looks back on the game. He and the fans will remember getting to cheer for a superstar who wore their team’s jersey. They’ll remember the highs and lows (mostly highs) that Harper provided over the last several years. They’ll remember what it meant to stand up and cheer their hearts out every time he came to the plate. And they’ll remember what he meant to the city, and how he, along with Ryan Zimmerman, truly brought baseball back to the nation’s capital.
The home finale was both a thank you and a pitch to stay. It was fun and easy to show love for the man who changed the way D.C. fans watched baseball. After this weekend, when the season is over, the hard part will begin.
The wait is almost on.
And regardless of how the wait ends, fans will always have the memories Harper gave them, including the potential goodbye.
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