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April 03, 2019

Paul Hagen: Nationals fans' bark is worse than their bite as Bryce Harper returns

And with a home run and three RBI in his team's 8-2 win, the Phillies outfielder got the last laugh

Craig from Alexandria has been a huge Bryce Harper fan ever since the Nationals made the him the first overall pick in the country, through six All-Star appearances, the National League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards and last year’s hometown Home Run Derby Crown.

Naturally, Craig was at Nationals Park Tuesday night, wearing his white No. 34 jersey. It was Harper’s first time back since signing that massive 13-year, $330 million free agent contract with the Phillies in February. Craig wanted to show how he felt.

“He’s Benedict Arnold,” he said, turning and pointing to the back of his shirt where he’d covered the original name plate with B. ARNOLD in large black letters.

(For anybody who was perusing box scores during history class, Arnold was the American military general during the Revolutionary War who became an infamous traitor by defecting to the British side.)

So, yeah, Harper was booed loudly when the lineups were announced, even though the Nats inserted a short thanks-for-the-memories video clip into the presentation. Booed again when he stepped to the plate. Booed when he made plays on routine fly balls hit his way. Booed with enough ferocity that it overwhelmed the cheers from the thousands and thousands of Phillies fans who made the trip down I-95 South.

Harper’s response was perfect. After striking out swinging in his first two at bats, he doubled in the fifth, had an RBI single in the sixth and a two-run homer in the eighth as the Phillies rolled to an 8-2 win to remain undefeated. After the double he waved to the dugout, one of the Phillies new customs, a nod to the video game FortNite, which elicited more boos. After the homer he helicoptered his bat, but by then what was left of the crowd couldn’t muster much response.

“It was pretty cool,” he said. “It was an emotional day. Coming back here where you spent seven years of your career. You just try to go about it the right way and play your game and not worry about your surroundings. For me, I was just trying to soak it all in and enjoy the day.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I heard the boos. I just remembered that there were (thousands) of people back in Philadelphia that were screaming and yelling at the TVs. I respect them so much. I understand the game. I understand the fan-player interactions. So knowing they were back home screaming at me through the TV and also the huge section (of Phillies fan) in right field really fired me up. Knowing this place was filled with Phillies fans as well.”

That predictable booing and Harper’s big offensive evening doesn’t tell the whole story, though.

Think of how Citizens Bank would have responded if the situations had been reversed. Think of Jayson Werth and Scott Rolen when they came back to town for the first time. Think of J.D. Drew when he declined to sign after the Phillies drafted him in the first round and the reception he got when he showed up a few years later as a member of the Cardinals.

Think of red faces and veins popping. Think of boos that made stadium’s concrete girders vibrate. Think of hell hath no fury like a Phillies fan scorned. Think of the kind of passion that can only be created when over a century of baseball anticipation and disappointment, incredible highs and gut-wrenching lows are spiked with 1964 and then allowed to marinate for decades.

It wasn’t like that. Not even close.

Not to dabble in stereotypes, but Phillies fans would be furious. Phillies fans would be outraged. Phillies fans would feel betrayed. Phillies fans would make their displeasure unmistakable.

If a totally non-scientific poll of the crowd taken during a pregame stroll around the concourse Tuesday night is any indication, Nationals fans were more miffed. Disappointed. Maybe a tad peeved.

That, at least, was the consensus after talking to nearly a dozen customers who made their unhappiness with Harper outwardly obvious. Jesse from Virginia, who had X-ed over Harper number with duct tape. Dannel from D.C. who obscured Harper’s name with a piece of tape on which he’d scrawled “Money-seeking FRAUD.”

Adam from Arlington bought tickets in right field to be able to boo Harper at close range. He taped a picture captioned “THAT’S A CLOWN CONTRACT, BRO” to the front of his jersey. A family from Churchton — Brian Sr. and Jr. and Erin — carried signs.

Almost every one mentioned the same thing. It wasn’t so much the money. It wasn’t so much the feeling of abandonment. It was where Harper ended up, with the hated Phillies, that rankled them most. And, even then, they ultimately shrugged it off.

“Ever since he got here I heard he was going to leave and go to the Yankees,” Jesse said. “So he didn’t go to the Yankees. I’m happy about that. But a division rival? That’s the worst part. I wish him the best. Just not against us.”

Or Dannel: “Out of all the teams he could have gone to? Philadelphia? That’s what hurt the most. Not that he left, but the fact he went to Philadelphia. The fact that he went to a division rival.

But he doesn’t hate Harper, he insisted. “I just won’t focus on him. If our paths cross again, do what you’ve got to do. But I won’t pay attention,” he said.

The family from Churchton agreed that they all believed he wasn’t worth the money that was lavished on him. “But, honestly, we don’t wish him any ill. We really don’t. It’s all fun and games,” Erin added. And so it went.

Even Craig, almost wistfully, said he only wished Harper had signed anywhere but with the Phillies. “If he had, I’d still love him to death. And this is only one time. Next year, you never know. Even after tonight the heartache may wear off,” he admitted.

Harper, for his part, said before the game that he had no hard feelings toward the Nationals. “It’s baseball. I think I’ll get some boos. It’s part of the game,” he said. “I wish all these guys success.”

(Another point of contrast: Before playing his first game in Philadelphia, as a teen sensation in 2012, he said he hoped he wouldn’t have any batteries thrown at him. He didn’t find it necessary to make the same wish Tuesday night. But we digress.)

But the time his base hit capped a four-run rally that put the game away in the sixth, the mocking chants of the Phillies fans began drowning out the boos.


“We Got Har-per!”

When he returned to right field in the bottom of the inning, he greeted the bleacher fans with a fist pump.

But that was all right with Margaret from Manassas, who had a bedazzled DRAMA Q on the back of her No. 34 jersey. “We just need one strikeout,” she said before the game. “The third batter. And then I think every Nationals fan will have closure. We’re forgiving. One strikeout, a standing O for Scherzer and then we’ll leave, because it’s cold.”

Can you imagine a Phillies fan saying that, even when the announced temperature was 45 degrees after a 41-minute rain delay?

Didn’t think so.