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We need to talk about Bryce Harper...

Culture and Leadership: What impact will he have?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As the start of the regular season finally approaches, Bryce Harper is getting ready to embark on his second season with the Phillies. Like few athletes before him, despite only being here for a short amount of time (so far), Bryce was accepted into the hearts and homes of Philly fans very quickly and easily. His love for Philadelphia – and Philly’s love for him – has been no secret. But where does the relationship go from here, and what will Bryce continue to bring to the table for the next decade?

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Bryce over the past year, it’s that he’s a student of the game. He truly loves the sport of baseball. He’s always learning and always working to get better.

Unlike most players, he also has an enlightened perspective of where he will fit into the game for the next eleven years. Because of that, instead of just worrying about the here-and-now, he has shown that he’s interested in ensuring that the Phillies contend long-term. It’s an understandable position, considering he’ll be in the red and white pinstripes until the end of the 2031 season. Having a competitive roster that will contend for the World Series in 2029 is just as important as making the 2020 playoffs. With no trades and no opt-outs in his contract, Bryce is just as invested in this franchise as the franchise is invested in him.

When the Phillies signed him for twelve years and $330 million, we knew we were getting an exceptional piece to our on-field product. But in the time since, we’ve learned that this team has gotten so much more than what we originally thought. For the first time in a long time, this club has a true leader.

In hindsight, it’s amazing it’s taken this long to really see how he’s taken this long-term leadership role to heart. We should have seen it the first day he joined the team in Spring Training last March, when he spent three innings talking to fellow first-overall draft pick Mickey Moniak. Moniak, who hadn’t even reached Double-A at the time, is perhaps the prospect that needs the most guidance in the organization. His potential to become an impactful player at the Major League level is dwindling. But if anyone knows how to navigate the challenges and pressures of being a former first-overall pick and can help Moniak turn himself around, it’s Bryce.

For those of us who missed Bryce’s ascent into his leadership role then, we’ve had plenty of chances to recognize it since. We should have seen it in the way he reacted to the Phillies drafting Bryson Stott in the 2019 draft, immediately welcoming him to the organization with open arms. We should have seen it when he publicly argued against trading for Kris Bryant, his close friend and one of the best third basemen in the league, in defense of keeping both Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard in the system. We should have seen it in the way he casually name-drops Double- and Triple-A players in interviews when discussing the future of the team.

We’ve continued to see Bryce’s emerging leadership more recently as well, specifically right after the 2020 MLB draft. All four of the team’s draft picks (Mick Abel, Casey Martin, Carson Ragsdale and Baron Radcliff) received personal calls from the team’s superstar welcoming them to the organization. Bryce was ready and excited to talk to each and every one of them about the Phillies and had clearly done his homework on each player before making the call.

He’s also taken the initiative to make sure guys like Howard and Bohm are comfortable in the clubhouse during summer camp and are transitioning to Major League ball successfully.

Beyond the prospects, Bryce has been one of the most vocal supporters of signing All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove catcher JT Realmuto to a contract extension. He knows that this team is better both now and in the long run with the best catcher in baseball behind the plate, and he isn’t afraid to make his stance clear.

Whether intentional or not, the reality is that Bryce Harper is single-handedly shaping the culture of the Philadelphia Phillies organization not just at the Major League level, but across all levels and with all prospects. Culture is such an important component to the success of a professional sports team, one that’s often overlooked in favor of individual talent. A team’s culture can dictate its success, not just in the present but also into the future.

Take, for example, the New York Mets’ decision to not allow the St. Lucie Mets to use the newly renovated clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, the home of the Mets’ Spring Training facilities. According to the Mets, the decision to ban the minor league team (whose players already don’t make a living wage) from using facilities that otherwise will remain unused for nine months out of the year is to remind them of “the status they’re working to earn.”

St. Lucie, the organization’s Advanced-A affiliate, was home to eight of the franchise’s top 30 prospects for at least part of the 2019 season. And with a ton of their top organizational prospects set to reach the Advanced-A level in the near future, the message the organization is sending to them is clear: You don’t matter to them at all until you make it to the top.

I don’t mean to pick on the Mets too much, but what kind of message is that to send to the future of your franchise? What kind of culture does that create? To make your young players feel unwanted, unappreciated, and valueless doesn’t seem like a great strategy for long-term success. Now juxtapose that with the way Bryce Harper has made the Phillies’ prospects, draft picks and even his teammates feel respected, worthy and welcome.

Which players are more likely to want to re-sign with their organization once they become free agents: The ones that are told they don’t matter until they make the majors, or the ones that have the franchise’s superstar interested and invested in them? Which of those prospects will feel comfortable in their minor league journey and will be more likely to reach their full developmental potential? It’s extremely difficult for individual players to succeed in a toxic environment, and because of that it’s difficult for teams as a whole to succeed long-term when they have created a negative and unwelcoming culture.

In a decade, when players like Bohm, Howard, Stott, Abel, and Radcliff are the veteran core of the franchise, they’ll remember how they felt when they were prospects. They’ll remember one of the league’s biggest names taking a personal interest in them, their draft, their development, and their transition from amateur to Minor Leaguer to Major League baseball player. They’ll remember how everyone was made to feel important—from the best catcher in baseball to those who were on the cusp of being MLB regulars themselves to those who were struggling in Single-A. Hopefully, they’ll be inclined to pass that care and attention along to the new generation of prospects, continuing the positive culture that Bryce is now creating.

That’s what differentiates a good leader from a truly exceptional one. It’s not about the on-field performance or the time spent in the weight room. Rather, it’s about the culture the leader instills in the organization around them. When the Phillies signed Bryce last spring, Philadelphia had an idea of the impact he would have on the field. But hidden under all the home runs, outfield assists, and RBIs was the value of adding a superstar on the field who is also an exceptional clubhouse leader off it.