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The emotional hangover of signing the face of baseball

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MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

How’s everybody doing? A lot has been happening lately, and we haven’t really had a check-in.

Bryce Harper showed up in Clearwater dragging a whole load of baggage behind him. Not his own, certainly, but that of the entire metropolitan area from whence he came. There’s been tears, there’s been attempted jersey burnings, there’s been unflattering media coverage, there’s been revisionist history, there’s been assurances that he’ll be booed to death on opening day. This is, of course, ridiculous; the only player who was ever booed to death was Paul Lo Duca, and that was because he didn’t follow “booing fan” threat protocol by waving his arms and making himself bigger than the fans who were booing him.

But if Harper was aware of the trail of emotional destruction he had left in his wake, you couldn’t tell from the way he was belly laughing while wearing the Phillies logo on his head and body for some reason because he is on the team. It’s an outrageous concept and whether or not we, as fans who had already coiled barbed wire around the barrels of wiffle bats to drive him out of town for taking too long to get here, deserve him, is probably debatable. Nevertheless, he’s here, and no amount of complaining can drive him away, which is surprising, given the influence Phillies fans apparently had on the decision to bring him here, according to John Middleton.

This is obviously a lie, but Middleton is fine with harvesting some further endearment from the locals, knowing the sort of good will he has at the moment isn’t going to last forever. By the time year eight of 13 rolls around, we’ll be pounding on the tall, wooden doors of his compound, demanding the agelessness serum he promised us. According to Jayson Werth, it will hardly be even that long before Harper himself is booed. before Werth already did his part in all of this, advocating how fun winning in Philadelphia is to Harper when it mattered most, but now he’s got to balance the scales again, as he is wont to do, reminding us that our affection and our resentment are mere playthings to him, and he can summon either of them whenever he chooses with a single block quote.

Middleton, however, is ready to be beloved. He didn’t just pay $330 million for the face of baseball; he was buying a city’s admiration. He’s going to get it, and he isn’t going to be subtle about wanting it.

Middleton made the “stupid money” quote to get a reaction, and now he wants to reap the benefits. It’s fine. But it’s a dangerous amount of power to allow the Philadelphia sports mob to believe it wields. The only way this city keeps from devouring itself is by knowing deep down that behind all the complaining, cursing, posturing, and wiffle ball bat covered in barbed wire-brandishing, none of this really matters. Inserting the idea into our heads that by voting in an online poll, we are somehow changing the course of team history is enough for every jabroni in cargo shorts to consider themselves a part-owner; to believe that what they’re shouting into your ear hole in the bathroom at CBP matters.

It also plays into the idea that Philadelphia would not have stood for Manny Machado’s lack of hustle, as though this city where I’ve seen countless people surrender to slight inconveniences is special because of the way we appreciate hustle. “Hustle” is just a word that can mean anything from “running quickly” to “a general competitive scrappiness” to “I don’t like his face, but ‘hustle’ is the word I’ll use to describe why I don’t like him, because I know I can say that in public.” But here, Middleton is throwing it around so that you can partake in some of the credit of the Harper signing—and so can you, and you, and even you!

If it had been Machado who had signed the with the Phillies, Middleton would be on the radio citing a different online poll, talking about how he knew deep down that Bryce Harper just didn’t have a haircut that would jive with the Philly faithful, and that’s why he was relentless in his pursuit of the other guy.

One assumes we’ll still be getting credit when the Phillies sign Mike Trout in 2021, thought that doesn’t seem like credit you want right now. After decades of Trout being an Eagles season ticket holder, dressing in Sixers cosplay, and saying “we” when referring to the Phillies that one time, the Angels are finally emerging from their Anaheim hidey-hole to complain that hey, the Phillies can’t just have Trout because they’re a team that gets whatever they want now.

Harper has... immediately become a part of that process, moving from casual winking to full-on acts of tampering, shouted into a microphone. It’s way more endearing than when columnists talk about Trout like he’s their grown-up son who went away to college and fight in wars, and that the Angels chose now to start having a problem with all of this, just because it’s technically a formal definition of tampering (but not really) and not merely some casual, other-coastal fandom, is hilarious.

The best way for the Angels to keep Trout isn’t to fine Bryce Harper until he stops seducing their star, but to give him a ton of money to never leave them. Baseball is really a very healthy sport, everyone, and don’t waste any brain cells thinking otherwise.

It’s probably best, though, if for now, we just consider and celebrate the Phillies that are right in front us. There’s a pretty talented group out there, the likes of which we’ve never seen, and for the first time in what feels like forever but what is really more like a couple of months, we’re talking about the present instead of the future. The here and now is a fun place to be a fan.

But I hope you enjoyed the winter, because despite the approach of daylight saving time, the next long, cold slog has already begun.