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March 09, 2019

Paul Hagen: Bryce Harper already a force on the diamond, and at the box office

CLEARWATER, Fla. – With all due respect to NFL Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins and Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney and former Phillies first base great Ryan Howard, all on hand at Spectrum Field for Saturday’s otherwise routine exhibition scrum against the Blue Jays, that’s not why the asking price for a single premium ticket was being offered for $140 on StubHub moments before Jake Arrieta’s first pitch.

This was Bryce Harper Day, even though it wasn’t listed that way on the official promotional schedule, the first Grapefruit League appearance in a Phillies uniform for the electric 26-year-old who just 10 days earlier signed a 13-year, $330 million free agent contract.

That’s why the blue seats and Frenchy’s Tiki Bar were full and fans milled around the concourses and covered the grass on the outfield berms like a human tarp.

That’s why, as owner John Middleton bounded up an aisle from field level a fan reached out, shook his hand and said, “Thanks again, sir.”

That’s why the Phanatic helped set the tone during his pregame hijinks by wearing a red-white-and-blue headband around a small explosion of dark, thick (and synthetic) hair while pantomiming a Harperesque bat flip.

Middleton, of course, is banking on this record deal paying off, which can take different forms.

The ultimate return on investment would be multiple World Series trophies.

Then there are financial considerations. The Phillies reportedly sold 100,000 tickets the day after the news of Harper’s signing broke. A very conservative estimate would be that the Phillies realize about $125 in gross revenue for every ticket sold once parking, concessions, etc. are taken into account. So even though some of those seats would eventually have been sold, that represents an instant windfall of at least $12.5 million.

Saturday’s sellout of 10,276 for a game that otherwise might have been expected to draw several thousand fewer represented yet another small offset to the team’s big bucks commitment

Underpinning all of the above, and the most immediate dividend, is increased excitement. And while there are no advanced analytics to measure this, it’s a real thing. The Phillies were in contention for more than half the season in 2018, but there was neither a real sense or tangible evidence that they’d recaptured the imagination of the city and region after years wandering the baseball wilderness.

Signing outfielder Andrew McCutchen while trading for catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura were all solid steps toward improving the club while also adding sizzle. But it was the arrival of Harper that brought it all to a boil.

He may not be the best player in baseball, although he’s surely on the short list. What he brings in addition to talent, though, is a magnetic passion and attitude. 

“He plays with emotion,” Dawkins, who was part of the video the Phillies produced to help recruit Harper, told reporters in the dugout before the game. “Some people don’t like it. It’s one of those things in baseball you’re not supposed to do. But Bryce challenges that.”

Phillies jerseys with his new No. 3 dotted the ballpark. He received a smattering of applause just for running his pregame sprints in shallow left field. There was a roar of approval when his name was announced in the starting lineup, batting third. And he got a standing ovation when he stepped up to the plate to face Toronto starter Matt Shoemaker in the bottom of the first with one out and Segura on first.

“It was awesome,” he said of the reaction. “It was funny because (somebody) goes, ‘Weren’t these people just booing you a couple years ago?’ But, no, it was great. The ovation they gave me, I’m very humbled and very blessed to be out there playing in front of a fan base like that.”

He swung through the first pitch – he later admitted that if he got something he thought he could drive he wanted to take a rip at it – then worked a walk. Hard to say whether all that took something out of Shoemaker, but Rhys Hoskins followed with his first home run of the spring, a titanic shot to left.

His second and final plate appearance of the day was nearly identical to the first. With two outs and nobody on in the fourth he fouled off the first pitch then walked on four straight pitches. Good-natured boos directed toward Shoemaker turned to cheers for Harper as Adam Haseley trotted out of the dugout to run for him.

After the prolonged drama about where and when he would sign, the simple act of playing baseball was both a rebirth and an act of faith. 

“It was just fun to be out there with the guys,” he said. “Get some dirt on my cleats and get in the batter’s box again and compete. It’s something I love to do.

“To be out there with everybody, my teammates, that’s what it’s all about. It puts everything behind me. Now I can just go out there and be Bryce and play the game I love. It’s nice to just get back out here and be part of a team, part of an organization.”

He was the designated hitter in his debut. The Blue Jays employed a four-outfielder defense against him. Pretty soon he’ll make his first start in right field, maybe as soon as Monday against the Rays. The process will continue. Because of who he is, because of what he has come to represent, each step will be closely scrutinized.

And for the Phillies, that’s a good thing. In professional sports, there’s little worse than being ignored. With Harper around, that’s probably not going to happen for a long, long time.