By: Madi Wiernusz, George Mason University Student
After being a free-agent for five months, 26-year-old Major League Baseball (MLB) player – and former Washington Nationals outfielder – Bryce Harper signed a 13-year $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. As two teams that have long fought in the National League (N.L.) East division, the Phillies and Nationals are rival organizations, so this move came as shock – and Nationals fans have strong opinions on the matter.
Deep down, fans knew the trade was bound to happen, even though the Nationals started the trade rumors with their 10-year $300 million offer in Sept. 2018.
As the duration of Harper’s free agency was filled with trade talks, the process was merely an emotional rollercoaster for Nationals fans. Harper never officially dismissed the Nationals’ offer until later in his free agency, so up until then, there was a glimmer of hope that the star would return home.
Rumors were plastered all over social media, newspapers and blogs in the baseball world. For example, people tweeted saying that Harper is confirmed to play with this certain team according to an ‘unnamed source’. Without a source, there’s no credibility, but eager baseball fans seemingly accepted any news. As an outsider, it took a lot of fact-checking and source confirming to weed out the facts from some of the lies, or rumors, especially ones from unaccredited sources.
Coming Home: Bats and Boos
When Harper dismissed signing with the Nationals, there was a lot of speculation about the reaction of Nationals fans. Will there be hatred? Anger? Happiness? Disgust?
The reactions went every which way throughout spring training up until and through the start of the season. On opening day at Nationals Park, for example, fans visually expressed their anger with Harper by defaming his jerseys.
Even with all of this disgust, another question remains: how will Nationals fans treat Bryce Harper, their former superstar, whenever he plays in Washington, D.C.?
The Phillies and Nationals are scheduled to play 18 total games during the 2019 season with 10 of those games being played in Washington, D.C.
Jake Mintz, a reporter for Cut4 by MLB.com, launched an unofficial poll in a Mar. 1 article titled “Hey National fans, will you boo Bryce Harper when he comes back to D.C.?”. Unofficially, 56% of the 2,152 participants vowed to boo Harper when he returns to Washington, D.C. on April 2 for a two-game series between the Phillies and Nationals.
On the morning of April 2, hours before officially making a return to Nationals Park, Harper posted a lengthy message on Instagram thanking his D.C. fan base. At the end of the post, he acknowledged their disappointment in him and noted his stance on what he believes will be their reaction:
“When I run on the field tonight I am sure to hear some boos, but I will always remember the cheers and the screams that are still with me right now, as I start my new chapter. So for that, DC, THANK YOU.” -Bryce Harper
Harper’s prediction was right.
On April 2, fans “welcomed” Harper back with many boos, defamed jerseys and insulting signs, such as one deeming him a “traitor”. When he was introduced in the starting lineup, whenever he was announced to bat and whenever he went out to play right field, fans booed and shouted at him.
Harper struck out in his first two at-bats, which garnered cheers from the Nationals fans. However, he quieted those fans after his next three at-bats because he hit back-to-back doubles followed by a home run. His production at the plate increased the boos, but quickly, those boos were drowned out by cheers and chants of “We got Harper” and “MVP” from a great amount of visiting Phillies fans.
Phillies fans – both at the game and back home – lifted Harper’s spirits from the beginning and helped him forget about his disgruntled former fan base.
“[During my first at-bat,] I heard the boos but kind of just remembered that I have 45,000 people in the city of Philadelphia and more that were screaming and yelling at their TV cheering,” said Harper during a postgame interview on April 2. “I respect [the fans] so much and I understand the player and the fan interaction.”
During the game on April 3, Harper was again greeted by boos, but Harper had more momentum as the Phillies were coming off of an 8-2 win the night before. Despite that, though, the Phillies went on to lose 9-8 to the Nationals. The win brought some joy to Nationals fans as it not only was the Phillies’ first loss, but the Nationals defeated their former teammate turned foe, Harper.
This short but emotional series revealed a lot about the dynamic between Harper and the Nationals fans moving forward. With a lot of baseball left to play between the two clubs, the fans are guaranteed to see more of Harper, and that will continue to bring up a lot of emotions.
Free Agency: Striking Out with the Nats
Ending the 2018 season with a .249 batting average, 34 homeruns and 100 runs-batted-in (RBIs), Harper proved to be a key player for the Nationals. He garnered much support from the fan base as he made appearances in six consecutive all-star games and the 2018 homerun derby, which he won in front of his then home crowd in Washington, D.C.
Harper is notorious for putting on a show, so paired with his baseball skills, he had high appeal to other MLB clubs.
The Nationals offered Harper a deal in an attempt to keep the star in Washington. But, it didn’t deter other teams from joining the trade conversation.
Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale), a sports beat reporter for USA TODAY, followed Harper’s journey throughout free agency. He reported the Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and various “mystery teams” all having some sort of trade talk with Harper.
In Jan. 2019, Nightengale reportedly saw the Phillies as the “clear-cut favorite” to win the star. In Feb. 2019, however, upon further negotiations, Nightengale noted that the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants were now serious contenders, thus knocking the Phillies out of the favorites position.
Nonetheless, though, Harper accepted the third-highest, most lucrative contract for a North American sports athlete in history from the Philadelphia Phillies on Feb. 28, 2019.
For Nationals fans, the big question remains: now what?
Even though it seems like the best coping method, the booing and hysterics will not bring Harper back to the Nationals.
So, the fan base needs to at least try to move on.
Moving On: A Field of Dreams
Harper played a vital role with the Nationals as he helped lead the team to four N.L. East crowns over the last seven seasons. His baseball skills and energy brought a lot of spunk to the Washington Nationals – but he wasn’t the only one.
There’s an incredible amount of talent that remains on the current roster. Max Scherzer, runner-up for the 2018 Cy Young Award for pitching. Ryan Zimmerman, two-time all-star. Juan Soto, runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2018. These players are not only extremely talented but they also have a long history with the Washington Nationals.
They’re still here, and they’re still hungry for another title.
For now, those fans can express their angry and feelings of betrayal. But, baseball is a mental game, which means the players feed off the reactions of their fans. If Nationals fans move on, cheer on and hype up their current players instead of criticizing a lost player, their spirits could help lead the team to another championship game.