What I’m Hearing: Bob Nightengale was in attendance for Bryce Harper’s introductory press conference for the Philadelphia Phillies. He says it was made clear what the expectations are for this year and beyond.
CLEARWATER, Fla. — The fans were lined up outside the ticket gates Saturday morning, five hours before game time to see Bryce Harper. They packed every nook and crevice of Spectrum Field, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the grass berm, with a sellout crowd of 10,276 screaming his name every time they caught a glimpse of him.
The Philadelphia Phillies, from veterans to rookies, kept talking all morning about a buzz they’ve never felt before in spring training. Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney flew into town for the event. Phillies owner John Middleton was picking up baseballs after batting practice rounds. Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins came in to speak to the team, grabbed the microphone before the game and screamed: “Yeaaaaah, baby!
Oh, it was a Harper’s Bazaar spectacle, missing only boxing promoter Don King and Rocky, with Harper walking to the plate in the first inning to the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” theme song.
“I thought it’d be fun for spring training,’’ Harper said. He plans to introduce a new walk-up song for the regular season.
The crowd went bonkers, standing and cheering all game, stopping only after he walked for the second time.
“Weren’t these the same fans just booing you a couple of years ago?’’ Harper laughed, recalling a conversation with one of the Phillies’ staffers. “It was awesome … The ovation they gave me, I was very humbled, very blessed. It just shows you how great a fanbase Philly really is. When you put Phillies across your chest, it really means something to these people.’’
They certainly had Harper’s back, vehemently booing the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff for walking Harper in his first two at-bats. The Jays even employed a four-outfielder shift when the count reached two strikes.
It was a first, said Harper. And hopefully, he said, the last.
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“I’ve never seen that. Intense,” he said.
Does he envision more teams going to such an extreme?
“Man, I hope not. I don’t know. If they’re going to play ball like that … definitely different, for sure.’’
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Otherwise, it was a glorious 83-degree debut for Harper, who was used only as a DH and is scheduled to play right field on Monday. Only a week ago, he was officially signing his record 13-year, $330 million contract, with a news conference atop the first-base Phillies dugout. Now, he has morphed into the reincarnation of Mike Schmidt.
“Pretty awesome,’’ Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “Pretty electric atmosphere. He looked like Bryce Harper as we saw him in a Nationals uniform.
“He looks much better in a Phillies uniform.’’
Harper not only is a richer man since joining the Phillies, but so are the Phillies. They have sold 340,000 seats since Harper joined the team, including 2,000 season tickets, and launched Harper commercials during telecasts in Philadelphia. Harper’s jerseys are being sold at a record rate, selling more in the first 24 hours than any jersey ever sold in sports history. They can’t even keep the jersey in their team store at Citizens Bank Park, with their initial merchandise inventory already gone.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that it would be as extraordinary as it is,” Phillies owner John Middleton told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve got to tell you, when you think of major moments in Phillies history, bringing in someone from the outside — getting Pete Rose in ’79, trading for Cliff Lee in ’09, Doc (Halladay) in 2010, re-signing Cliff in ’11 — this is even bigger than that.
“All of those other moves were made when the Phillies were really good. But this has created a buzz about a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. Fans are looking at this like, ‘You’re credible now.’ We have that credibility we didn’t have a year ago. They believe in us now.
“And with Bryce not having an out clause, and a full no-trade clause, the fans sense a major commitment. This guy really wants to be here.”
And oh, does Philly ever love its stars, particularly those who play with emotion, whether it’s Bobby Clarke in hockey, Julius Erving or Allen Iverson in basketball or Dawkins in football.
“It’s one of the things that draws people to him,’’ said Dawkins. “He plays with emotion. Some people don’t like it. It’s one of those things in baseball you’re not supposed to do. But Bryce challenges that. Really, he’s the Reggie Jackson of four decades ago. You can love him. You can hate him. But man, you sure aren’t going to ignore him.”
Speaking of Reggie…
“He draws attention,’’ Reggie Jackson told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s part of his arrogance, his self-assuredness, his cockiness. He’s got that big swing, all of the moves, the hair, everything. All of that stuff that draws attention.’’
Harper certainly tried to put on a show, taking a massive cut but missing on the first pitch he saw from Blue Jays starter Matt Shoemaker, but hey — he’ll have plenty of opportunities for homers when they count in the regular season.
“I got excited a little bit,’’ Harper said, laughing.
Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta, who started Saturday, said he could hardly believe this was a spring-training game.
“Everybody was rowdy at the pregame,’’ Arrieta said. “And screaming at me. It’s going to be a good summer.’’
Now all the Phillies have to do is play the kind of baseball they envision, led by the man they’re paying all of that money, in hopes of the ultimate prize.
“I’m just looking forward to being part of something bigger than myself and anybody in this clubhouse,” Harper said. “I’m just going to go out there and be Bryce and play the game that I love.’’
And, just maybe, hit against teams utilizing only three outfielders.
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale