The first boos, guttural and loud in a mostly empty ballpark, greeted Bryce Harper during pregame introductions 15 minutes before the rain-delayed first pitch Tuesday night, as he stood in the Nationals Park visitor’s dugout wearing another team’s uniform.
Jeers again filled the chilly air when Harper walked to the plate as the No. 3 hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning, his initial at-bat as a Nationals opponent. More came while he awaited each pitch from Washington’s Max Scherzer, negativity interrupted only by the sheer-joy roars after each strike of his eventual whiff, which concluded with a swing-and-miss at an 85 mph changeup.
A similar scenario — boos before each pitch, cheers after each strike — played out in the third, when Harper struck out again, this time on a 92 mph cutter he couldn’t touch.
He got better results later: In the fifth, he doubled to right off Scherzer, then stood on second base and waved toward the dugout in one of the Phillies’ many choreographed celebrations.
And in the sixth, Harper delivered an RBI single to left off lefty reliever Matt Grace to boost Philadelphia’s lead to 6-0, repeated that exaggerated wave and shouted, “Let’s go! Come on!” Phillies fans who made the trek down I-95 regaled him with chants of “M-V-P!” and “We got Harper!”
In the bottom half of the first inning, there was booing as Harper headed out to play right field — where fans in the front row of the bleachers wore shirts that spelled out “T-R-A-I-T-O-R” — and when he caught Adam Eaton’s fly for the first out.
Harper had said he expected a mixed reaction from spectators reacting to his departure via free agency to sign a $330 million, 13-year deal with the Phillies.
Sure sounded rather one-sided.
Hours earlier, wearing a black baseball hat with “Positive Vibes” stitched in white and an attitude to match, Harper described his arrival for his return as “definitely different” but also “normal.”
“Just coming to another stadium,” he said, “and try to do my job.”
Truthfully, of course, it’s not just ANY other stadium. That he was speaking at the unusual-for-baseball pregame news conference packed with reporters, photographers and TV cameras was testament to that.
Until last week, the Nationals were the only big league club the 26-year-old Harper had played for, an organization that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010 and brought him to the majors as a teen. Washington’s uniform was the one he wore when he won NL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, when he earned six All-Star selections in seven seasons — including last year, when he stole the show by winning the Home Run Derby in D.C.
“It’s where,” he said, “I grew up.”
But the Nationals offered him less money than the Phillies did, with millions that would be deferred for decades. So he moved on.
He posted a “Thank you” message Tuesday to Nationals fans and the city of Washington on Instagram. The only time Harper really betrayed a hint of real emotion before the game was when he choked on his words while talking about how he and his wife, Kayla, are expecting their first baby.
Otherwise, he spoke about being “excited for the next chapter” and “pumped” to be back.
“I imagine it’s got to be a little weird. A ton of emotions,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “Obviously he gave a ton to this organization. And he and Kayla gave a ton to this city. I hope people don’t forget about that. It’s been talked about for a while, too, so I’m sure there’s a ton of buildup for him.”
After Harper’s 15-minute session with reporters, he left the stadium’s interview room. Instead of turning to his left to go to the home clubhouse, he walked to his right, down a hallway leading to the visiting clubhouse.
Later, he hung out in the lunch room, chatting and laughing with Andrew McCutchen and two other Phillies.
Across the ballpark, Nationals players spoke about the prospect of facing him instead of relying on him.
“For a lot of us in here, we’ve turned the page and we’re focused on this season,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “We’ve kind of come to grips with it.”
Or as first baseman Ryan Zimmerman put it: “Honestly, it’s just another game.”
To him, maybe.
To the Nationals supporters who paid for the right to boo when the guy who wore No. 34 for so long strode to the plate wearing his new No. 3 Phillies jersey, probably not.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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