The name itself carries so much weight in this town, the same way the names Alex Ovechkin or Sean Taylor create a tickle of pride in the throat.
All that has changed now. Harper has now transformed from Washingon’s well-coiffed hero to loathed villain with the stroke of a pen on a very expensive piece of paper.
Jerry Seinfeld has this great bit about being a sports fan. “Loyalty to any one sports team is hard to justify,” Seinfeld says. “Because the players are always changing. You’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt. They hate him now.”
Not that I mind. After all, I’m a fan of the shirt Harper now wears.
In Phillies fans, Harper’s addition to the lineup germinates hope, a bright flower blooming in the otherwise fallow landscape of Philadelphia baseball that has plagued the city for a decade.
For fans of the Washington Nationals, the name Bryce Harper now slashes open a wound that will only continue to fester for the next 13 years.
While most fans can stomach sending the occasional franchise star off to do battle for another squad by turning their backs on him like a shunned Amishman, in DC, Harper will be impossible to escape. Never mind the indelible marks he’s left on the city — the countless pets and children named in his honor, the recently-dedicated Bryce Harper Little League Field in Takoma — what’s going to sting the most is that Nats fans will have to see that smug little shit and his hundred-dollar haircut violate the sanctity of their baseball diamond 19 times a year for over a decade.
Admittedly, I was a vocal Harper hater. I despised the way his helmet would always fall off when he tried to stretch a single into a double so everyone could see his flowing locks. I loathed his patriotic bandanna and the bullshit pageantry of last year’s Home Run Derby, the results of which still seem a little too convenient for my liking. I threw his slumping batting average in the face of every Nats fan who dared talk shit on my aimless Phillies and their abysmal play.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited, especially about the potential for added drama. No longer are Phils-Nats series just another handful of division matchups in a 162-game season. Now it’s personal. And I love personal.
Because at the end of the day, I am a Philadelphia sports fan. I proudly belong to a tribe that once threw snowballs at Santa Claus; that once cheered when Michael Irvin went down with a career-ending neck injury; that once required Philadelphia police to grease light poles with Crisco. I am the guy who hated Gritty until I found out YOU hated Gritty and now I love Gritty because fuck you.
There are few things Philly fans love more than a fat, juicy rivalry, and with Bryce now gracing the billboards of Citizens Bank Park, you’d best believe they’re going to do everything in their power to incite one with their white-collar neighbors down I-95.
What’s still left to be seen, though, is how Nationals fans will react to Philly’s call for combat. Most Washington sports fans follow their teams with an ambivalence akin to the passion I feel for professional bowling. The playful jabs I thrusted at my friends about Harper’s signing were met with indifferent shrugs or a mumbled response about the potential of teen phenom Juan Soto. Despite living in the DC area for almost as long as I lived in Philly, I still can’t wrap my head around the subdued lack of emotion District residents have for their teams.
My DC friends say I just don’t get it.
“DC sports is a complicated thing to understand,” said my friend Duane. “Baseball games in DC are just something to do with your friends who like to drink beer and have a good time, and [they] give you a reason to wear the Nats shirt you have in your closet. We’re just not invested in the team enough to enjoy a good rivalry.”
So is Bryce donning Phillies red enough to spark a much-desired feud between the two cities?
“I doubt it,” said my friend Brian, a fervent Nats fan. “Harper was popular with young fans/casual fans, but I think most hardcore fans viewed him as a short timer.”
This isn’t the first time Philly has tried to manufacture bad blood with Nats fans. For the first five years after the team moved into town from Montreal, Philly fans invaded in droves, dubbing Nats Park “CBP South.” During their hot streak in the late-aughts, it wasn’t uncommon to see more capital Ps in the stands than curly Ws.
But then the Nats drafted Harper and adopted a young, hip “Natitude,” while the Phils slid into irrelevance under the follies of busts like Dominic Brown and Jonathan Papelbon.
Perhaps now, with promise shining on both rosters, the stars would finally align for a passionate clash between two worthy adversaries. No one hoped for a grudge match more than me, which is why I circled April 2 on the calendar in bright red. Because on April 2 at 7:05, the once-beloved Bryce Harper would have to step onto the field at Nationals Park and bear the weight of his betrayal.
Things are pretty quiet on the Waterfront three hours before the first pitch. Businessmen and women crowd the sidewalks in suits and skirts, collars upturned and umbrellas unfolded against a light but unrelenting April rain. At The Bullpen, the outdoor sports bar across from the park that does its best to simulate a traditional tailgate environment, a few fans huddle in modified shipping containers sipping $9 tall boys of Miller Lite. They seem to be oblivious that they’re in mixed company; fans in Nats and Phillies gear mingling together, chatting and laughing. The main topic of conversation is not baseball, but inter-office politics.
And then I see him.
Two blocks away, walking toward the stadium with a bow-legged swagger, is a clown, his oversized shoes occupying the width of the sidewalk. As he gets closer, I see the front of his primary-colored shirt reads HARPER in block letters. In his hand is a sign that bears only two words:
The clutch of fans in The Bullpen crowd against the rail to watch the clown pass, the Nats fans raising their beers and cheering encouragement while Phillies fans turn their backs toward the sidewalk and point at the Harper name plates on their jerseys with exaggerated thumbs like pro wrestlers. The clown rocks his sign back and forth and continues up the street and into the park.
Over the course of the evening, I see hundreds of Harper jerseys, most of which are on the backs of keyed-up Phillies fans. There are plenty of #34 jerseys too, though all but one are defaced in one way or another. The more rudimentary modifications feature large Xs drawn through name and numbers, but most fans tape over Harper’s name and Sharpie in a creative epithet. During my five hours at the park, I see: Voldemort; Snake; Judas; Benedict Arnold. One gangly fan blowing smoke clouds with a vape pen has a piece of cardboard safety pinned to his shoulders that reads “who Cares? F*ck outta here!!!” Another fan wears a fresh, custom made jersey with an embroidered name plate reading “Phuck Harper.”
Naturally, Phillies fans are a little more overt. On the other side of the stadium, a local NBC sports crew has a tent and cameras set up where they’re broadcasting the pre-game show. The three commentators huddle together discussing the Nats’ post-Harper lineup into their microphones.
Behind them, two drunk Philly fans pelt them with obscenities.
“Fuck the Nats!” one yells.
“Scherzer is a pussy!” exclaims the other.
The pair depart laughing and slapping each other on the back after the large man running the camera crosses his arms and glares at them.
Harper told reporters in interviews leading up to the game he expected to hear a mix of cheers and boos when he stepped onto the field he had called his home for the last seven years. He got it partially right.
The jeers start from the very first pitch of the game and continue in a sustained crescendo through Segura’s at bat. When Harper walks into the box, the whole stadium stands. A row of fans in right field pull off their jackets and reveal white t-shirts that spell TRAITOR. The place goes BANANAS.
I have to say, I’m impressed. I’ve been to a handful of DC sporting events since moving here, and I’ve never seen such a fervent display of passion. You get used to boos in Philly — those fans will give you hell in a preseason game — but here, it feels out of place.
Harper gets in an 0-2 hole and Nats fans turn up the volume. “If I was Scherzer, I’d hit him,” says a fan next to me. “Drop the deuce on him now, he won’t see it coming!” yells a man older than my father.
Harper goes down swinging and the boos morph to cheers. Phillies fans sink into their seats a bit, tightening their facial expressions to eat a little crow. I can’t hold onto my journalistic integrity any longer and turn to a stone-faced Phillies fan and his 10-year-old son behind me. “That’s cool,” I say. “That’s one out. Hoskins is up next. He’s pretty good I think, isn’t he?”
The dad smiles.
His son, wearing a youth-sized Franco jersey and green Carson Wentz drawstring backpack looks up at me. “Are you a Philly fan?”
I don’t even have to answer. “Yeah,” Dad says, “he is.”
Things get a little rowdier as the Phils begin to take command of the game. During Harper’s third at bat in the fifth inning, Philly fans find their voices and can be heard over the boos, stealing the rhythmic “lets go Nats” chant between pitches and changing it to “let’s go Bryce.”
Harper rips an RBI double to right field and gives the dugout an exaggerated wave from 2nd base. It’s the confidence boost Phils fans need to initiate their takeover.
In the bathroom line, a Nats fan and Phillies fan exchange barbs. The Phils fan tosses his trump card early.
Phillies Fan: Who won the World Series in ’08 again? I forget.
Nats Fan: I have no idea. That was so long ago.
PF: The Phillies I think. Yeah, that’s right. The Phillies won the World Series.
NF: Congrats, bro. You won a championship 11 years ago. The Nats make the playoffs every other frickin’ year.
PF: And choke in the first round like the pussies they are.
By the 6th, with a 6-0 lead, the contingent of Philly fans in right field fully assert their dominance. Harper’s RBI single draws “MVP, MVP” chants. Three TRAITOR t-shirt boys have left, their comrades sadly spelling T_A__OR.
A fight erupts in the family picnic area and a few fans get tossed. An usher wades into section 142 and tries to get Phils fans to settle down. He’s peppered with strings of curses and middle fingers and finally throws his hands up and walks away. My toes are numb from the chilly night, but seeing this display of Philly fandom, my heart is warm.
In the end, I leave after I see what I came for. Bryce Harper, the smarmy little prick I talked shit on for the last seven years, smashes a MONSTER home run into the second deck of right field, flips his bat at the Nats dugout like a Greaser flicking a cigarette at a cluster of Socs, and takes his trip around the bases. The Phillies contingent, now fully in control of the stadium, chant: “We got Harper, we got Harper.”
The tens of thousands of Nats fans who rained boos on Bryce in the first inning don’t hear this chant. They’re already all at home in bed.