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April 01, 2019

Angelo Cataldi: Is this a different Bryce Harper, or did we have him wrong all these years?

Harper had a reputation for being a ‘sullen hero’ in Washington, but the Phillies star outfielder has been picture perfect so far

Opinion Phillies
Carroll - Bryce Harper Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Bryce Harper shakes hands with Phillies owner John Middleton as he enters the dugout just before the start of the Phillies Home Opener, Thursday, March 28, 2019.

Until Bryce Harper destroyed a baseball early Saturday evening at Citizens Bank Park, sending it screaming into the second deck at Citizens Bank Park – 465 feet from home plate – nothing he had done for his first four weeks as a Phillie matched our expectations. Absolutely nothing.

When he played in Washington, Harper presented himself as an aloof, self-involved, fan-unfriendly superstar with an aura of stifling superiority. He was the baseball prodigy, the MVP at 23, the kid who sneered at veteran players and scoffed at baseball traditions.

Even after seven seasons in D.C., no one there lamented the vacuum he was creating off the field. Oh, Harper can play baseball; his swagger is well earned. But no tears were shed among Nationals fans over what they would be losing beyond his in-game contributions. As far as Phillies fans could tell, he left no bond there at all.

Well, what he has done in his brief time here is astonishing, and all of it good. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive transition to a new city than Harper has made in Philadelphia.

From that first news conference on the top of the dugout in Clearwater to his green shoes honoring the Phanatic on opening day, Harper has been the embodiment of passion and humility. Already, he has connected with his new teammates in a way not normally expected of superstars.

The best example of this is his obsession with handshakes, an assignment he took on from his very first days as a Phillie. Already, he has a meticulously-choreographed, individually-unique greeting with just about every teammate. His most elaborate was his handshake with Rhys Hoskins after the home run on Saturday, highlighted by a missed-high five, a locking of arms, a patting of backs, and then a formal business grip.

As far as Phillies fans can remember, the only team interaction Harper ever had in D.C. was the time Jonathan Papelbon tried to strangle him after a dispute in the dugout. There was no choreography involved in that memorable exchange, rest assured.

So how did this happen? Is this a different Bryce Harper than the sullen hero in Washington, or did we have him wrong all these years?

After a thorough investigation, I believe this is a brand-new Harper, improved by his new surroundings, a new start, and – of course – $330 million guaranteed dollars over the next 13 years.

The best sports-radio host in Washington, by far, is Chad Dukes of The Fan, and here’s what he said after the Phillies signed Harper: “The (fans) are so done with him. . . . It’s funny because we have so many Philadelphia people trying to celebrate the fact that they signed Harper away, and most Nationals fans are happy. They’re saying: ‘Good riddance.’”

On my WIP show Monday morning, Dukes said many Nationals fans are surprised – maybe even shocked – by the determination Harper has shown to connect with his new city. The radio talker could recall no time when Harper made the same effort in D.C.

Whatever the young star is doing, it’s working better than anyone could have imagined. So far, Harper’s presence has filled practically every seat for all three games, has made his No. 3 Phillies jersey the biggest seller in baseball, has re-energized a city’s love for baseball, and has done it all with a sense of joy that is creating new fans, and new hope, every day.

And then there was that first homer, a majestic blast that uncorked a deafening cheer reminiscent of the glory run of nearly a decade ago. People will talk about that blast all week, they will buy more tickets and jerseys and – above all – they will invest even further in the hype that arrived with Harper four weeks ago.

Phillies owner John Middleton made a lot of good investments in building his $3-billion cigar company. Bryce Harper may be his best one yet.