On the Phillies off-day on Monday, the good news just kept coming: Bryce Harper and his wife, Kayla, announced on social media that they are expecting their first child. Anyone who has been through that process knows the secrecy and delicacy with which that news is typically handled, and to trumpet it now, in the wake of the Phillies’ thunderous opening sweep of the Braves, added to the joy flowing through the city.
But tonight, it’s back to work in Washington, where the narrative takes a bitter turn. Harper will—as you must know unless you’ve only recently arrived on this planet and immediately begun reading baseball web sites (welcome; the Phillies are good and always have been)—face his former team, the Nationals, for the first time since signing a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies late in the off-season.
The frustration and sadness of Nationals fans is easily understandable, especially now since we know, courtesy of a well-timed Washington Post story, that Harper had originally wanted and planned to return to the Nationals in 2019. And why wouldn’t he? It was his home, it was familiar, it was where he was comfortable. It was crazy to think the Nationals, the team that drafted, developed, celebrated, and rallied around him, in a city where he made baseball relevant, would give him a lowball offer covered in “IOU” post-its. But, here we are; when Harper homered against the Braves this past weekend, he did it in red pinstripes—not with a Walgreen’s logo on his hat.
The easy parallel to draw in this situation for Phillies fans is Jayson Werth’s post-2010 departure, when a huge, beloved contributor to the Phillies’ success left under his own volition to get a huge payday with a division rival. Did some Phillies fans react boorishly, stupidly, and unforgivably, fortifying of the fan stereotype that we have denied? Yes they did. But even now, the comparison isn’t quite accurate.
First of all, Werth was part of a team that won the World Series before he left in free agency; the World Series being an event that takes place after the first round of the playoffs. Secondly, Werth was a key part of the Phillies lineup, emerging from a cast-off to a bonafide star, but he never had the celebrity of a Bryce Harper—no one watched him from his college days, to the moment he was drafted, through his career in the minors. He was never the face of the sport or on the cover of a video game. The loss of Harper should hurt Washington, and understandably so. Which is why a lot of this posturing from the team’s supporters has felt like the actions of a scorned fanbase, desperate to hide its wounds: There’s no way they aren’t hurting.
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?”
Fortunately, Nationals fans got more than a wave. They got an Instagram post. It’s a good move, even if it does seem like an afterthought.
Tonight, when Max Scherzer probably strikes Harper out at least once, Nationals Park will explode with the cheers of all 30 of their fans. It will be quite an emotional moment, but when it’s over, the Phillies will still have started the season 3-0, thanks in part to two Harper home runs and a revamped lineup that has thrived with him at the center of it.
When Werth came back to Philadelphia for the first time, fans grappled with their emotions. Some were dead set on treating their former outfielder like a traitor. Some were upset it would be anything but a tearful reunion. As the clock ticked down to first pitch, the press could only guess our intentions and wondered just how this pack of rabid sports fans would behave.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to keep being the good guys when you’re doing your best impression of the bad guys. After their fearsome rise to the top of the division in 2012, after #Natitude, after trying to keep Phillies fans out of their stadium, after losing their star player in free agency, Nationals fans have suffered the cruelest fate of all: They have become us. And now they must find a way to live on knowing that when the time came to be different from us, they chose to be the same. Only quieter.