People think it’s so hard to be beloved around here, but it’s not. You have a few options: Become a world champion, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, or choose us over anyone. We’re a simple people requiring one or more of those things, as well as endless praising of us for the rest of your life, and you’re in. “You’ll never pay for a beer in this town again,” we say, although you most certainly will, as anyone swearing that is more likely to break down how you could improve your latest on-field performance than to actually pick up a round after running into you in public.
But there’s no need or reason to psychoanalyze the collective emotion of all these people. To read our current mood, just check in with the ticket or jersey supply. People are never happier than when they’re not spending money on bad baseball around here. So you could say expectations are (and opening day ticket prices) high.
Let’s just say after so much deserved and undeserved and mostly deserved bad-mouthing throughout the course of history, it’s nice to get a little love from someone who either understands us perfectly or has been told exactly what to say and do by a team of public relations specialists and social media savants, which is just as good.
It’s like receiving compliments, flattery, or positive attention from a star athlete undoes all the ill will wished upon us by hordes of opposing peons; it’s like every Santa or battery joke never happened. Every blessing out of Bryce Harper’s mouth wipes the slate clean. Bryce Harper has brought us more than superstardom and unbelievable hair. He’s brought us vindication.
Either that, or he’s playing us like an absolute fiddle, which again, is fine. If he’s pretending, we still get to feel good about the lie for 13 years.
It was September 2016 when Harper first said he “enjoyed” playing here, igniting an explosion of love that was off-putting to everyone involved. There are other places, but he said he liked it here. Do I really need to explain how distinct and singular such a statement is? I didn’t think so. Did a large part of our population turn against him for a few weeks this winter because he didn’t agree to come here fast enough? Absolutely. But our weak wills prevailed, as his signing almost immediately turned our confused, violent outrage into intense, equally confused love.
Finding out that the only reason Harper took so long to sign here was because he wanted to be sure he was going somewhere in which he could lay down roots, have a life, help recruit talent, and build his legacy—it also may have taken a bit because he was making the biggest decision of his professional life with a countless number of moving parts involved—was also head-noddingly gratifying. Other people can say that it was the hundreds of millions of dollars that made the Phillies so tempting to Harper, and not Philadelphia itself, and they would be right. But he also had to want to be here—or at least want to be here more than he wanted to be in heavily-taxed California—because it’s unavoidable that he would be here at some point with a contract like the one he signed. What’s he going to do, hold his breath for 13 years?
Then he got here, and immediately began recruiting Mike Trout, a process that likely began when he was asking the Angels star how great it would be to play here. Trout is, of course, the pretend son of every grown man in the Delaware Valley, and since it was first revealed that he was both the best player in baseball and also From Here, and Grew Up Rooting for the Phillies, they’ve all been staring longingly out their kitchen windows, awaiting his fabled return.
It won’t be for a little while, but Harper has made the Trout signing a bigger piece of reality than it should be by saying that he was going to be encouraging Trout to come to Philadelphia, and then, when scolded for doing so by Major League Baseball, said he wouldn’t stop doing that. Any Harper skeptics remaining at that point were quietly exiled as Harper endeared himself to every fan in every measurable demographic.
That’s not to gloss over the press conference in which he said the wrong city’s name, sure, but it was obvious by the time fans had bought out Spectrum Field for one of the most heavily attended spring training games of all time that they were opening their hearts to forgive him. Or that they hadn’t even realized he’d had made the slip-up because the fact that he had signed here eclipsed everything that wasn’t good news. Also, his walk-up song was the theme from Fresh Prince of Bel Air, so obviously that dominated the news cycle for part of an afternoon.
It wasn’t long after that that the question of what number he would wear came up, with the grumbling crank squadron saying that choosing to wear his number, 34, would be a slap in the legacy of Roy Halladay, who also wore that number as a member of the Phillies. In the end, it was Harper’s choice: Choose to wear the number he’d worn for eight years as a member of the Nationals, willfully and gleefully insulting a legend of the game, or somehow find a different number to wear. Against all odds, Harper chose to wear the number 3, saying about the number 34, “I thought Roy Halladay should be the last to wear it,” turning the pupils of even the most hardened Respect the Game-types into hearts across Eastern PA.
And now, he’s inherited Chase Utley’s role in this trope as well, becoming the target of Rob McElhenney’s childlike awe for a new generation.
Harper is eager to prove that he “gets it” in every way that other beloved Phillies have. Either he’s really happy to be here, or his Philadelphia on-boarding team is of the highest quality. Perhaps a welcome wagon rolled up to his house with some Philadelphia staples— a basket of Amoroso rolls and a bike with both wheels stolen locked to a sign post—and offered to break down the entirety of Philadelphia’s neediness, and he took them up on it.
Bryce Harper is reading Philadelphia like a book. It’s a short book, full of history and curse words and stained with mustard and tears, but he has shown an immediate proficiency in understanding what it takes to make it happy. It’s wise to take advantage of any inside information he has now, while the good will flows like homemade wine from a Fishtown basement party, instead of later, when he sits out a game with a sore ankle and gets jabbed by the dull skewers of our local sports radio scene. I’m sure his team of professionals coaching him through the transition to his new home know that as well as we do. But early on, every move he’s made has been hilariously accurate in how to get Philadelphia to love him:
- Become an elite athlete in your chosen sport
- Tell us how wonderful it is to be here
- Engage with the intellectual properties we prefer
Either he’s too good, or we’re too easy. In both cases, it does no one any good to look too closely. Just lean into the love.