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March 04, 2019

Angelo Cataldi: And Phillies fans' 13-year Bryce Harper love affair begins

The fascinating four-month courtship of Bryce Harper and the Phillies ended in a storybook wedding last week, promising a 13-year partnership that will be both thrilling and stormy.

For $330 million, owner John Middleton bought another era of exciting summer nights at a bustling Citizens Bank Park — but also, inevitably, a yacht-load of drama.

What made the final hours so compelling for fans was the ebb and flow of a seemingly endless process. Last Monday, the Phillies appeared certain to land the biggest free agent in our city’s history. By Thursday morning, their chances had plummeted. The West Coast — either the Dodgers or Giants — was about to win another free-agent bidding war.

When the announcement that Harper had agreed to the biggest deal in baseball history with the Phillies — the Phillies! — the fans simultaneously screamed for joy and grabbed for their cellphones to buy tickets. More than 220,000 tickets were sold in the first 72 hours after the signing. Yeah, the city was pretty happy.

And then details of the contract began to trickle out, and a bit of confusion seeped into the elation. There is no opt-out in the final agreement? Harper has a no-trade clause for all 13 years of the deal? In other words, Harper cannot escape his commitment, nor can the Phils, until 2032. For better or worse, in sickness and in health. . . .

Briefly, I became embroiled myself in the eleventh-hour media frenzy. I reported last Tuesday that the amount had risen to $330 million, but that Harper was insisting on a chance to leave after three years. The source was solid. That’s all I can say. He knew the precise amount, so he clearly had some good information.

In the end, however, Harper said he saw the opt-out as a cop-out because he wanted to commit fully to Philadelphia, a notion supported by his immediate recruitment of running back Le’Veon Bell to “the greatest city in the world.” At his news conference on Saturday, he even made an early pitch for hometown hero Mike Trout.

Wow. That was fast. Inspired by a $330-million aphrodisiac, the superstar has fallen in love with Philadelphia. And the fans are also in the first stages of a hot and heavy romance with one of the best young stars in the game.

Of course, this is an intense player and a passionate city, so the love affair is destined to hit some potholes along the way — some potholes bigger than the craters right now on the Schuylkill Expressway. Even Harper himself said at his introductory news conference that he expected some “ups and downs.” Indeed.

The first issue is one that was an ongoing theme during the negotiations: the chemistry between Harper and quirky manager Gabe Kapler. Remember, Harper has a low threshold for eccentrics. Just ask Jonathan Papelbon, who had a legendary physical confrontation with Harper in the Nationals dugout in 2015.

If Kapler rolls out his “no alarm clocks” schtick, how will Harper react? Or even worse, if the manager forgets to warm up a relief pitcher, will Harper show his disdain with some easy-to-read negative body language out in right field?

Kapler has grown into the job since those bumbling first days of his rookie season, but there’s less room for error now that Harper is here — both because the star player will have major cache in the locker room and because the signing of the top free agent in recent baseball history demands immediate success on the field.

Another concern has to be the fans, who are notorious for expecting more from the players making the most money. A .150 batting average on Mother’s Day is not going to slip past the most knowledgable fans in sports. Harper needs a fast start — something already hindered by his late arrival in spring training.

Ilya Bryzgalov never recovered from his bad beginning on the Flyers, nor did DeMarco Murray or Nnamdi Asomugha with the Eagles, nor — how’s this for irony? — current Sixers GM Elton Brand (when he was a player). Kapler himself is still trying to escape his own self-imposed purgatory from last spring. First impressions are really important here.

Harper is a remarkable talent — the Mickey Mantle of his era — but he is prone to bad streaks and even lackluster seasons, at least by his lofty standards. He will learn very quickly that this is not D.C., where many of the fans are transplants out for a casual night of partying or lobbying.

In fact, it is altogether fitting that the fans in Clearwater were the ones who informed the Phillies players and coaches that Harper was their new teammate, courtesy of social media during an exhibition game at the spring-training site. Sports fanatics here are on call 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. I know. I have dozens of them on hold at 6 a.m. every weekday morning at WIP.

For now, though, all of these issues will ride in the backseat of the Harper bandwagon, the result of a major coup for the Phillies organization and for the immediate future of sports in Philadelphia.

Still, 13 years is a long time for most cities; it is an eternity here.

So let’s be honest. If Bryce Harper is still calling Philadelphia “the greatest city in the world” in 2032, it will be an even bigger surprise than his stunning decision last week to come here.