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April 02, 2019

What they're saying: How will Nats fans treat Bryce Harper in his return to Washington?

Reunions are always awkward. Especially when your ex is going to be there. 

Now, imagine he/she is there with your rival, because that's what it's going to be like for Nationals fans on Tuesday night when Bryce Harper will return to his former home in Washington, D.C. For Harper, it will be his first time back since signing a 13-year, $330 million deal that will make him a member of the division rival Phillies for the rest of his career. 

And the reaction from Nationals fans is, well, going to be interesting. 

Harper was the face of that franchise for seven seasons before moving on the Phillies, won an MVP for them, and was generally loved by the fan base. But that was then, and based on all the defaced Harper jerseys spotted around Nationals Park on Opening Day, it seems fans have moved on to the third stage of grief, anger, something that could be on full display Tuesday night when Harper and the undefeated Phillies come to town.

As a Philadelphian, it's hard to blame another fan base for booing an opposing player, even if that player used to play for your team. Just look at what Phillies fans did to Jayson Werth for years after he did the opposite move, going from Philly to Washington as a free agent. But Jayson Werth was never to the Phillies what Bryce Harper was to the Nationals. Booing Harper in Washington would be more akin to Phillies fans booing Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins or Ryan Howard, assuming they'd left as free agents rather than being traded (and minus the World Series title, of course).

So, maybe it isn't the same thing.

Still, booing Harper is their prerogative. But if part of their anger is because Harper never publicly thanked the fan base, they lost that argument on Tuesday morning, when Harper took to Instagram to do just that ahead of his return to Washington.

View this post on Instagram

If you would have told me 5 years ago I would be walking into Nationals Park as an opposing player, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. Five years later, I’m doing just that. I remember the first day I walked into Nats Park. My first base hit. My first home run. And, of course, my first standing ovation. Nationals fans delivered that first ovation. The things that I will miss most are the relationships I gained on a personal level with so many of the Nationals staff and workers around the ballpark. Every day I walked in, I got a smile or shared a laugh with you. I especially want to thank The Lerner Family and Mike Rizzo for the unwavering support they showed me during my tenure in DC. The city of DC was home. Filomena’s, The Silver Diner, The Italian store, and countless other places helped make it feel like home. You, Nationals fans, made me one of your own for the entire time I was a part of the Nationals organization. I’m so blessed to have been able to play for a fan base that cared so much about our team each and every night. You will always hold a special place in my heart no matter what. I look forward to continuing Harpers Heroes with LLS in the DMV as well as making sure the legacy fields bearing my name are the best youth fields in town! When I run on the field tonight I am sure to hear some boos, but I will always remember the cheers and the screams that are still with me right now, as I start my new chapter. So for that, DC, THANK YOU.

A post shared by Bryce Harper (@bryceharper3) on

That, however, is likely not enough for them to move on, especially given the glowing ways in which Harper has talked about his new organization and new home city of Philadelphia.

Phillies fans, on the other hand, are prepared to have Harper's back, literally. Nearly 500 Philly fans are taking part in a bus trip down to D.C. for the game. And their seats will be right behind Harper in the right field bleachers. 

But with the Phillies on the road for the first time this season, Harper's first appearance will be when he steps to the plate in the top of the first inning. So, what will the reaction be from Nationals fans when that happens shortly after 7 p.m. on Tuesday night? That's the common theme in today's Phillies edition of What They're Saying...

To boo or not to boo?

Bob Nightengale | USA TODAY

As it turns out, not even Harper knows what reaction to expect, but at least he understands why they might not show him the love. After all, he did the thing that no other person in a normal 9-to-5 job has ever done — take a position at a different place for more money...

The fans who adored him the past seven seasons will either celebrate and recognize his glorious contributions or vociferously boo him, livid that he left the Nationals and went to the enemy.

The fans’ reception, particularly that first at-bat as a visitor Tuesday night, will be utterly fascinating.

“We’ll see what happens,’’ Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, “but I really think it’s going to be mixed. I think I’ll be cheered; I really do. But I think I’ll get booed, too. It’s part of sports, right?

“I feel like the guys who are usually traded away and come back are welcomed a little more than the guys that leave as a free agent. So I don’t know how that part will go. I really have no idea what to expect, but I am looking forward to it.’’

His new teammates are curious, too. Do the Nationals pay homage to Harper before his first at-bat with a video board tribute? Do the fans taunt him and bring homemade posters with $$ signs?  []

So hard to say goodbye

Justin Klugh | The Good Phight

As we previously mentioned, Harper waited until the day of his return to acknowledge Nationals fans. That could have something to do with their inability to move past their anger.

His first time back after leaving would, you’d think, be an emotional, nostalgic affair. But as Harper’s return has approached, Nationals fans have handled themselves exactly like you’d expect from, well, Phillies fans, if reputations are to be believed: Harper has been labeled anything from too nice to survive in savage Philadelphia to too self-centered to be about anything but himself. He couldn’t carry them past the first round of the playoffs. He went 0-for-5 sometimes.

Perhaps one part of this that’s been fueling the vitriol—other than Harper’s very full, very tight embrace of his new home in every conceivable way—is that Harper had, until this morning, yet to say a formal farewell to Washington.

Enough time had passed that it seemed like it might have been a purposeful omission by Harper. But if he doesn’t see his time in Washington as anything but the prologue to his more successful career in Philadelphia... hey, that’s his perspective. I would disagree with it, personally. A reasonable person might suggest something like, “Hey now; he did spend seven years there after being drafted by the franchise. Maybe a wave out the window while he drives away is warranted?”  []

Following the leaders

Rob Tornoe |

Perhaps part of the reason Nationals fans seem so set on booing Harper in his return is because that's the direction they're getting from the media, both locally and nationally. 

In some cases, like that of the local news station that had its anchors swinging at and punching a piñata made to look like Harper, it almost seemed like they were advocating violence.

Despite having spent seven seasons with the Nationals, it appears unlikely Harper will receive a warm welcome from fans in the nation’s capital. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser — a longtime D.C. resident — said he’d be among those booing Harper upon his return to Nationals Park. So will NBC Sports Washington personalities Julie Donaldson and Travis Thomas.

FOX 5 Good Day DC anchors hung a Harper piñata in their studio Tuesday morning and took turns swinging away at it with a broomstick... and their fists.

Former Phillies and Nationals outfielder Jason Werth — who was booed when he returned to Citizens Bank Park in 2011 — told my colleague Bob Brookover he expected some fans to still be upset over Harper’s decision to leave town.

“I don’t expect it to be the same as when I went back to Philly,” Werth said. "I think they’ll be a little bit of everything.”  []

Having second thoughts

Erin Dunne | NBC Sports Philadelphia

It wasn't just media members stirring the Bryce Harper pot. It was also Washington's mayor, Muriel Bowser, who had a change of heart after posting a photo of Harper superimposed on the most famous traitor in American history. 

That's ... a bit much. 

In a since-deleted tweet, Mayor Bowser posted a photo on her Twitter page that depicted Harper as the Revolutionary war traitor, Benedict Arnold. 

For a very brief history lesson, Arnold was famous for switching sides during the Revolutionary War after allegedly not receiving the recognition he thought he deserved for the American side. It appears that Mayor Bowser is deeming Harper a traitor by editing the image to reflect Arnold’s likeness. 

The photo even has “Benedict” crossed out with “Bryce” written in instead. 


It's no wonder the fans are so angry. 

Bryce Bonilla?

Mike Axisa | CBS Sports

Perhaps the Nationals are directing their anger in the wrong direction. At one point this offseason, Bryce Harper was convinced he was returning to Washington. Then, they made him an offer right out of the Mets playbook, offering Harper a Bobby Bonilla-esque contract that would defer his payments for the next 53 years. FIFTY. THREE.

That meant Harper would be getting paid until he's 79 years old. By that time, his unborn son will presumably already be long retired from his playing career and his grandson will likely be still be manning right field for the Phillies. 

In all seriousness, it looks like the Nationals really screwed this one up. 

Tuesday night Harper will return to Washington D.C. as an opponent for the first time in his career. Fans in the Philadelphia market can stream the game via fuboTV (Try for free). Will the Nationals faithful shower him with boos or cheers? Likely a mix of both, initially. Eventually it'll be straight boos, especially if he continues hitting a home run every other game or so.

According to Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, there was a point over the winter in which Harper expected to remain with the Nationals. He and his wife, Kayla, visited team owner Ted Lerner in Florida right before Christmas and Harper left the meeting fired up. From Svrluga:

"I'm sitting there like, 'I'm gonna be a National. I'm gonna be a National,'" he said. "'They're going to make me an offer this week. We're going to build off of that, and it's gonna happen.' I told Kayla, 'Be ready to go back.' I flat-out told her. I was psyched. I was like, 'Be ready to go back, because if we can, we're going back.' I was pumped."  

The Nationals made Harper a 10-year offer worth $300 million at the end of last season. The offer was heavy on deferrals. Another offer followed the meeting in Florida, though, according to Svrluga, it was a 12-year deal worth $250 million. Less money, more years, and that offer included deferrals through 2072. 2072!

As you might imagine, the second offer discouraged Harper.  []

Not so mad Max

Jesse Dougherty | The Washington Post

Oh, yeah. There's also going to be a game played tonight between two of the teams expected to compete for the National League Pennant this season. And it should be a good one...

When Harper agreed to a deal with the Phillies, back on Feb. 28, Max Scherzer offered a simple prediction from spring training in Florida: “It’ll be fun.”

Scherzer, the Nationals’ ace, was referring to playing against Harper so often (and, more specifically, facing him as a hitter). That will be the matchup for Harper’s first plate appearance back in Nationals Park. Scherzer knows it is only the first of many meetings between the two. But the three-time Cy Young Award winner is known for his competitiveness, so it’s hard to imagine there’s not, at the least, a little more juice for this one.

Harper has two tape-measure home runs in his first three games of the season, and he has otherwise collected a double and four walks in 13 plate appearances. Scherzer struck out 12 against the New York Mets on Opening Day and is set to start four of Washington’s first 13 games. Now they will clash as pillars of competing clubs.  []

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