Patrick Semansky / Associated Press
Thursday, July 4, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Hours before the Philadelphia Phillies are set to take on the Padres at Petco Park in San Diego, the visiting locker room is totally quiet. By all logic, it shouldn’t be. At this point, the big-market Phillies are in first place in the National League East, the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft is minutes away and former All-Star outfielder Jay Bruce is set to arrive for his first game since being acquired in a trade from Washington. Oh, and the Phillies signed one of this generation’s biggest superstars as a free agent over the offseason. There are a million reasons why the place should be buzzing.
Bryce Harper’s baseball career has been … eventful. The anti-establishment hero has been hearing calls to “tone it down” for more than a decade, but if his history is any indication, he won’t slow down or stop playing on the edge anytime soon.
• June 2009, The Chosen One: Harper was a rising star in baseball circles as a teen, but this Sports Illustrated cover story—published when he’s just 16—makes him a household name … and a target.
• June 2009, The Graduate: Shortly after the SI story, Harper announces an unprecedented plan: He will skip his last two years at Las Vegas High and obtain his GED. That will allow him to play one season at a junior college and enter the MLB draft a year early.
• June 2010, Early Exit: After leading his College of Southern Nevada team to the National Junior College World Series, Harper argues a third-strike call and gets thrown out of the contest. Harper, who was also ejected earlier that season, is tagged with a two-game suspension, effectively ending his college career.
• August 2010, Rookie Contract: Harper’s pre-draft maneuvering pays off as he is selected first overall by the Washington Nationals. With super-agent Scott Boras handling negotiations, Harper goes down to the wire before extracting a $9.9 million contract from the Nats minutes before the deadline to sign. It’s a record amount for a drafted position player.
• June 2011, Kiss Off: During his minor-league stint with the Class A Hagerstown Suns, Harper draws national attention for belting a home run and then blowing a kiss to the opposing pitcher while rounding the bases.
• May 2012, Human Target: Less than a month after making his MLB debut, Harper is welcomed to the big leagues by Phillies veteran Cole Hamels, who intentionally plunks the 19-year old in his first at-bat. Hamels admits after the game he did it simply to keep Harper from getting too big for his britches. Harper gets immediate revenge by advancing to third base on a hit and then stealing home.
• June 2012, Clown Question: After Harper homers in a win over the Blue Jays in Toronto, a local reporter asks him if he’ll take advantage of the lower drinking age by celebrating with a beer. Harper’s response goes viral: “That’s a clown question, bro.”
• February 2015, “Where’s My Ring?”: Whether real or perceived, opponents and critics have long accused Harper of committing baseball’s greatest sin—arrogance. He doesn’t help his cause during spring training, when he tells USA Today his reaction to the Nationals’ offseason signing of pitcher Max Scherzer: “To be able to have a guy like Scherzer come in, I just started laughing. I was like, ‘Where’s my ring?’” The comment causes an uproar among those who think Harper is prematurely crowning himself a champion.
• September 2015, Fight!: In the final week of the season, Harper is slow out of the batter’s box after popping up in a tie game. The ball falls in and Harper is only able to advance to first base, angering teammate Jonathan Papelbon. When Harper gets back to the dugout, the two exchange words and Papelbon goes for the throat—literally—putting his hands around Harper’s neck. Papelbon gets suspended for the remainder of the season by the Nationals.
• July 2018, Home Run Champ?: Harper goes on a memorable rally—hitting nine home runs in the final 50 seconds—to win the Home Run Derby at the 2018 All-Star Game in front of his home crowd in Washington, D.C. Some fans protest the victory, taking to social media to argue that Harper and his father, Ron Harper, cheated during the surge by not following a rule requiring every ball to land before the next pitch is thrown.
• February 2019, Signing Long-term: A near four-month free agency courting period that drew much criticism for its laborious nature ends when Harper signs a record-breaking 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies a couple weeks into spring training. Harper was linked to a number of teams throughout the process including the Dodgers, Giants, White Sox and Nationals, the latter of whom reportedly offered a 10-year, $300 million deal that he declined at the outset.
• March 2019, Fanatical Debut: Harper admits to being “fired up,” to play in front of Philadelphia fans for the first time and doesn’t try to hide it in an opening-season sweep of the divisional rival Atlanta Braves. The 26-year-old is as animated as ever with theatrics including choreographed celebrations with a number of teammates, Phillie Phanatic-themed cleats and repeated motioning to the Citizens Bank Park crowd.
Instead, a couple players poke around at the foosball table while a handful of team personnel gather in front of a muted television to monitor the pre-draft coverage. Another player sits at his locker, working his foot with a foam roller. The collective BPM is somewhere just north of a flat line.
That’s baseball season. The sport’s six-month, 162-game schedule demands stasis. Dynamic situations get flattened by the marathon, and what should be a noteworthy day at the park instead becomes just another random game on a Monday in June.
And then, without warning, there’s Bryce Harper. The aforementioned superstar bounces into the clubhouse three hours before first pitch, straps on a pair of cleats, grabs a bat and nearly sprints to the field for batting practice. On his way out of the locker room, he turns to the small group of assembled media and winks.
Harper is a living, breathing juxtaposition. In a sport that demands equilibrium and has celebrated the even-keeled for centuries, Harper is still fighting against the status quo. Eight years into his big-league career, he maintains the youthful verve that became his trademark back in his teenage “wild child” days at Las Vegas High and the College of Southern Nevada.
“One of the things Bryce brings to the table every night is a level of enthusiasm and joy playing the game, and that rubs off on his teammates,” Philadelphia manager Gabe Kapler says.
How much longer can Harper keep it up? He has been bucking the system for half his life now. As a teen, Harper famously earned his GED two years early in order to enroll in junior college and circumvent the minimum-age requirement for the MLB draft. And there was nothing more offensive to the baseball establishment than his playing style, which has always featured bat flips, hair flips, decorative eye black, trash talk and everything else the sport has spent its entire existence tamping down.
Harper won the battle. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft and blazed his way to the big leagues less than two years later, joining the Washington Nationals at the age of 19. He was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Most Valuable Player in 2015. And when he finally became a free agent after the 2018 season, Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with Philadelphia, which momentarily made him the highest-paid athlete in American sports history.
That was the first act of Harper’s career, and it ended with a decisive victory. And now, on a dreary night in San Diego, the second act is already underway.
The Padres announce an attendance of 21,614, but there can’t be more than 10,000 people in the stands for the opener of the three-game series. The atmosphere in the stadium matches the listless vibe in the locker rooms.
Harper goes hitless in his first three at-bats, popping up twice and grounding out to second base. It’s been a trying campaign for Harper, who is on pace to post the lowest batting average, most strikeouts and second-lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of his career.
There’s little doubt his numbers will bounce back and stabilize; that’s how the long baseball season works. The more interesting question concerns Harper’s spirit. Now that he has made it, how long can he sustain the fire? After eight years in the big leagues, how many more June games against the Padres can Harper power through at his breakneck pace?
Through the first half of the 2019 season, Harper has continued to attack all obstacles with his head-first style.
“He has played very hard,” says Larry Bowa, a former manager and baseball lifer who now serves as a front office adviser for the Phillies. “He’s played good defense. Before the season’s over he’s going to have his 35, 40 home runs and drive in his 100. I just like the way he plays the game. The intensity level, the way he approaches it. He’s had streaks where he hasn’t gotten any hits, but he’s played defense, [and] he’s run the bases exceptionally well.”
In his final at-bat of the series opener against the Padres, Harper takes a called third strike to end the eighth inning, essentially sealing an 8-2 loss for Philadelphia. In the past it might have led to an exchange of words with the umpire, or a flinging of the bat, or a frustrated spiking of his batting helmet. On this night, Harper lays his bat in the dirt, removes his batting gloves and walks to his position in right field. He concedes. The scene is decidedly blasé.
Harper will be 39 years old in the final season of his mega-contract. After racing through the previous decade with an intensity that few in baseball history could have matched, it seems inevitable that Harper will have to throttle down at some point, if only to avoid burning out.
Bowa acknowledges that maintaining peak energy for another decade-plus won’t be easy, but he’s also not sure Harper can play any other way.
“It’s hard to do for 162 games,” Bowa says. “He signed a 13-year deal, and I think the way he plays the game now is how he’s going to play the game 10 or 12 years from now. Obviously, when you get older you might lose a little speed, you might lose a little bit of arm strength, but I think he’s going to play the game. We’ve played 45, 50 games this season, and he’s played hard every single night. He banged his knee one night and no one thought he was going to play the next day—and he comes in he plays the next day. You sign a long-term contract, you can say, ‘I don’t need to play.’ He wants to play. He wants to play every single inning of every game.”
Harper doesn’t address the media after the loss in San Diego. The next day, he cracks a couple of hits in a 9-6 win, and he wraps the series with another two-hit performance in a 7-5 victory. The Phillies leave town in first place and with exactly 100 more games on the schedule.
The past 13 years of Harper’s baseball life have been spent fighting the establishment. Now, with the one of the biggest guaranteed contracts in sports history, he is the establishment.
Halfway through the first year of that commitment, Harper is still grinding, still doing it his way.
Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta, 33, has been in the big leagues for 10 years and professional baseball for 13. He has been a top prospect and made the All-Star team and signed mega-contracts of his own. He has also observed and experienced how a career’s worth of 162-game seasons can sap a player’s vitality. He believes Harper is made to last.
“Bryce brings a lot of excitement, a lot of energy to every team he’s played with, and now to our team,” Arrieta says. “He’s an exciting player. I think that energy and that playing style is who he is. You can lead that way, and he does.
“I don’t want him to change. I don’t think he’s going to.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.