As Bryce Harper plays out his final homestand of the 2018 season, and as everyone ponders the potential end of his career in Washington, one aspect of his journey to this point as a member of the Nationals stands out above all when considering what Harper and those who have watched him over the years have experienced.
Though all the hair flips, towering homers and viral quotes come to mind, Harper's tenure in D.C. may most be defined and appreciated by his faults.
That's not to harp on the negative when there have been so many positives. It's to take a moment to appreciate all the steps it took for Harper to reach this point as a player and as a man, and how those in Washington watched him day after day throughout that process.
See, if Harper does leave Washington and joins another team, maybe even a really good team, that club will receive a player who is just about a finished product. He has reached his prime and is fully-formed, having cut his teeth for seven MLB seasons. That franchise and those fans would see a completely different chapter in Harper's career and, arguably, only get to know him so well, no matter how long he plays for them.
That's because Washington Nationals fans have seen Harper grow up and learn many lessons the hard way, ever since he showed up to Nationals Park in 2010, flanked by Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras and was handed a No. 34 jersey by Ryan Zimmerman. Harper was just 17 and that day wore a black suit with a black shirt and a pink tie, the combination perhaps his first regrettable move as a pro.
With the Nats, Harper had to learn not to run into walls, to not play through certain injuries, to keep his cool with umpires. He learned through public admonishment to hit the cutoff man and to hustle to first base. He realized the power of his words and his responsibility as a face of baseball.
There were mistakes and Nats fans, for the most part, loved him for them. He was the chosen one, the guy who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old, the No. 1 pick and the second-coming of Mickey Mantle. But he is human with flaws like the rest of us and a lot of it didn't come easy to him like most expected.
The comparisons between Harper and Mike Trout, his closest superstar contemporary, often highlighted the perceived shortcomings in Harper's game and personality. Trout never creates controversy with his words, while Harper can with remarkable ease. Trout did not draw the ire of older players and baseball lifers like Harper did in his early days.
Right or wrong, and most of the time it was uncalled for, Harper was constantly derided by people around baseball in his first few MLB seasons. But Washington fans were always there to defend him, knowing that if you watched him every night then you too would know those small transgressions - if they can even be called transgressions - do not represent the player or the man Harper actually is.
Washington fans were the first in Major League Baseball to realize Harper had the character and humility to match his transcendent on-field talents. He loves the game of baseball and, almost all of the time, plays it as hard as anyone. Harper has been criticized for playing the game too hard about as often as he has for taking off plays.
Take a step back and Harper's tenure in Washington so far has been a clear success, even matched with the expectations bestowed upon him as a teenager. He has won the National League MVP award, won an all-time classic Home Run Derby, made six All-Star teams and the Nats have won four division titles. He has helped usher in a new generation of D.C. baseball fans. The only way to top all of that would be a deep playoff run or a championship, but no one should have expected one player to make that sort of difference, given the dynamics of baseball.
Harper isn't perfect, but he is a lot closer to it than he was when he first debuted with the Nationals in 2012. The process of him getting to this point, even if it does ultimately mark the end of his tenure, should be appreciated by Nationals fans and Harper himself. No matter how much money he makes and where he plays next season, that chapter of his career is over and Washington fans should feel grateful they were there for the entire ride.
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