CLEARWATER, Fla. — This was the first day of the rest of his new baseball life, and no matter how Bryce Harper just wanted to blend in Sunday with his new Philadelphia Phillies’ teammates, it was impossible.
Perhaps he missed the dress code, or just wanted to help out the photographers and TV camera crews, but he was the lone player wearing a blue warm-up instead of red. He was the only one wearing his baseball cap backward. And he was the only one getting a standing ovation from the fans who screamed his name.
The moment Harper walked onto Spectrum Field, at 9:57 Sunday morning, 11 video crews and photographers started their cameras with every step he took, capturing the historic moment.
“Where have ya’ll been,” Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen yelled out. “I haven’t seen these many people out here since the beginning. So why is everybody out here today?”
Well, when a guy who has been the most-hyped free agent in history, shows up on the first day on the job, earning $330 million, it has a way of grabbing attention.
“You see him walk in,’’ said Phillies starter Nick Pivetta, who met Harper for the first time, “and it’s like Holy [Bleep]. He’s actually here. There’s a generational player in our clubhouse.
“Just look at the buzz in here.”
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HARPER EXPECTS BOOS: But he’s convinced Philly is winning city
Who else would have had reporters watching his every move, observing him sitting alone at one end of the table for breakfast, only to be engaged in conversation five minutes later by a handful of teammates … hitting his first homer in a Phillies’ uniform at 10:33 in the fourth round of batting practice … seeing him have a lengthy chat with former Phillies legend Larry Bowa … listening to fans yell out, “Welcome Home,’’ … or being the only player to have the crowd of 100 fans giving him a standing ovation while walking off the field, and asking him to autograph everything from baseballs to Sports Illustrated cover pictures, to game programs?
Harper went into the clubhouse at 11:30, stood in the hallway for seven minutes to answer questions about the first day of his new job, said he will take his time before getting into a spring-training game and conceded it may take a while to get acclimated to his new surroundings.
How long will it take for everything to feel completely normal again?
“Probably, November,” Harper said. “It’s going to take me some time. It’s going to take my family some time.
“I’ll let you know in November how I feel.”
He couldn’t help but laugh when his wife, Kayla, told him after Saturday’s press conference that he slipped up on the final question, and said, he wants “to bring a title back to D.C.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, man,'” Harper said. “I didn’t even notice it. It’s going to take some time for sure. That’s part of it. When you grow up from 17 to 25 in an organization, and you’re trying to do everything you can to win for that organization, and bring a title somewhere, you’re going to have those slip-ups.”
Life will forever now be different for Harper. He’s the one with the bulls-eye on his back. He’s the one who will be judged on the playoff appearances championships the Phillies will win. When you’re making the most money in the game, with the longest guaranteed contract, it doesn’t matter that Harper still is the second-youngest player in the lineup. There will be no room for patience.
“He’s going to be under the microscope, we all know that,” Bowa said. “This is a city, they measure you by what you make. It’s not just Philly. It’s sports in general. If you’re the big dog, you got to take the good with the bad. It’s like LeBron James, he’s the guy. Harp’s the guy.
“It’s tough. You don’t know anybody. You don’t know the city. This is all new to him. He had one life with the Nats.
“It takes a little time to get acclimated, but he’ll come through. He’s a tough kid.”
Harper may be 26, but he has an old soul, loves to talk about the game and is almost a modern-day Bowa with his fiery approach.
“I just wish I could hit home runs like him,’’ Bowa said. “I chopped up singles. He chops up seats in the grandstands.’’
You know the kind of respect he generates when 75-year-old Charlie Manuel, the Phillies’ last World Series manager, immediately apologizes when he sees Harper.
“I told him,’’ Manuel said, “that I didn’t tell (Cole) Hamels to hit him.”
It happened May 6, 2012, when Hamels deliberately hit Harper in the back in just the eighth game of his career.
They talked. Harper laughed, and all is forgiven.
“I look at our team like we have a big four-layer chocolate cake,’’ Manuel said. “And all of a sudden we got the icing to go on top of it.”
The Phillies don’t want to put any extra burden on Harper. They realize the fans won’t be satisfied with anything less than a World Series appearance. Even Phillies owner John Middleton says he believes they now are the team to beat in the NL East.
“At the end of the day, I want to be able to go to sleep,’’ Harper said, “and know that I gave it my all and was able to bring back a title to the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization.”
And until that happens, well, those rabid fans could be clearing out their vocal cords from time-to-time. They have booed virtually every player who has worn a Phillies’ uniform but second baseman Chase Utley.
“I could sit down with him for 10 hours and tell him what it’s going to be like,” Bowa said, “but until you’ve been through it. … When things go bad, he’ll be the guy.”
Harper surely will receive the greatest, thunderous ovation when he’s introduced on opening day, but the over-under on when Harper hears his first boos from that passionate fanbase?
“Is he going to hit with the bases loaded,” Bowa said, “on opening day?”
Harper insists he has already embraced himself for the city of Brotherly Love, and if they want to boo him, really, he’s all ears.
“The one thing I know,” Harper told his agent, Scott Boras, “if I get booed, it’s going to be great. That means I did something wrong and I deserve it. I need those kinds of fans help me become a better player.”
Welcome to Philly.
“It’s going to be new, it’s going to be different,’’ said Harper. “I’m a Philadelphia Phillie now. This feels like a family already. I’m excited to be part of it.’’
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