April 01, 2019
The late-March chill permeated every section of Citizens Bank Park Sunday night, as a strong breeze blew over a small sea of open blue seats. From an outsider’s perspective, it was a little hard to comprehend.
Weren’t the Philadelphia Phillies the hottest team in Major League Baseball? Didn’t they just sign one of the best players in the league? Weren’t the Phillies about to open ESPN’s 2019 Sunday Night Baseball national telecast, the first time they would be on the weekly ESPN broadcast since 2013?
Then, where was everyone?
With the magnet that Bryce Harper has become, it was rather easy to figure out. Many fans, whether or not they were seated in the right field sections of 103, 104, 105 and 106, had gathered in the right field stands just to bask in Harper’s glow before the national TV broadcast.
All eyes are constantly on Harper. They watch him take off his hat to run his hands through his hair. They follow him everywhere when he's positioned in the field. And, at the plate, they wait for Harper’s bombs to drop in their laps, sitting in their right field porch. When Harper steps into the box, it's as if time stops — you can hear a pin drop between pitches — and then ... a roar.
And fans are coming from all over to make sure that they get a glimpse of Philadelphia’s newest superstar.
Tarik Feick, 17, and his girlfriend, Isabella Lorusso, 16, made the trek from Reading to make sure they secured a place in right field — right now, the best seat on baseball. They’re both students at Hamburg Area High School, about a 15-minutes’ drive from Reading.
Dale Cummings, 35, was being treated for his birthday by his fiancé, Karen Nepsha, 43, a lifelong New York Mets’ fan, which didn’t stop them from making the trip from Jackson, N.J.
Then there was Tom Marker, an 18-year-old freshman from Mays Landing, N.J., who wanted to treat his father and sister to the game. Marker, a freshman at the University of Bridgeport, was sporting something unique — Harper's No. 34 Washington Nationals jersey.
“That’s how Bryce has done on the entry to Philadelphia, he’s connected with people,” Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler said before the Phillies third game against the visiting Atlanta Braves on Sunday night. “He’s connected with people in the ball park, connected with his teammates, connected with the coaching staff, connected with the city, connected with the fans.
“He knew that yesterday after that home run (in game No. 2 vs. Atlanta on Saturday) was the perfect opportunity to further establish that relationship. He did a great job with that.”
Kapler pointed out the Phillies are in a partnership with the city, and it’s something that Harper embraces.
The fans have certainly embraced Harper in the short time he’s been a Phillie.
“I've always like Bryce Harper and as soon as they signed him, I wanted to get here as soon as possible,” said Feick, who was willing to make the three-hour round trip from Reading to Citizens Bank Park and back. “This is our first game seeing Harper.
“It’s crazy. It’s awesome being here and seeing these players up close. They’re bigger than expected. It’s definitely better seeing this in person.”
For Lorusso, the whole experience was a first. She was never in Citizens Bank Park before.
Cummings is a lifer. Originally from Levittown, he’s lived in Jackson, N.J., about 90 minutes round trip from Philadelphia, for the last three years.
“We tried to get Opening Day tickets, and once they signed Bryce Harper, those tickets went fast,” said Cummings, who was seated in Section 105, Row 2, Seats 9 and 10. “This is exciting. I can’t even put it into words. This is going to be an exciting year. It’s surprising a little how quickly the city has taken him in. We’ve seen in the past how people have come in and how they were treated. Fans here booed, booed and booed him when he was with the Nationals.
“But we’ve seen the last couple of games how he was treated, I kind of expected him to get booed a little in the season opener. But he came back and hit that homer on Saturday and you’re going to see a lot more people coming to the stadium now.”
Seated to his right was his fiancé, Karen Nepsha, who tries to make it a point to go Mets-Phillies games. But getting to Citizens Bank Park is easier to reach than the Mets’ Citi Field. Bryce Harper or no Bryce Harper, Cummings isn’t about to convert his future wife into a Phillies’ fan.
“Nope,” she said with a laugh, “it’s not going to happen. Notice I’m wearing all black.”
And finally, Marker, wearing his Harper Nats’ jersey, had grown up a Harper fan, modeling his lefty swing while playing at Cedar Creek High School to Harper’s cut.
A few people suggested Marker keep his Harper Nats’ jersey since there’s no point in buying the new one if you have the old one.
“This is like a dream come true for me, who’s always been a Harper fan,” Marker said. “I actually surprised my father and sister with the seats. No one here’s given me any grief over the Nats’ Harper jersey, and that’s because it’s him.
“If it was someone else, I don’t know.”
Harper himself is getting used to his new surroundings. Being taken in by one of the more hardcore fanbases has made his transition easy. He hasn’t received a bad restaurant recommendation yet, and he says the outpouring is motivating to work hard and play hard.
“A very strong standing ovation,” Kapler said, after being asked what the reaction will be by Nationals’ fans upon the return of Harper in a Phillies’ uniform when he arrives on Tuesday.
“My reaction is fans understand player’s contributions. I don’t think his contributions to the Nationals can be discounted. They’re really important to the city and the history of that franchise.”
It’s been a brief stay in Philadelphia, but they love Bryce Harper in the right field stands at Citizens Bank Park — the best seats in baseball.
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