Keep feeding Bryce Harper your boos, they're only making him stronger
For a full decade now, Bryce Harper has been baseball's chosen one -- from appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated while he was still in high school to being drafted No. 1 overall by the Nationals to winning a Rookie of the Year Award in 2012 and the NL MVP three years later. His free agency was a cultural event, one that ended with him signing the richest free-agent contract in the history of the game to join the Phillies.
There's something inherently at odds, then, between Philadelphia -- a city that fashions itself as a blue-collar town that values grit over all else in its heroes -- and Harper -- one of the most celebrated and naturally gifted baseball players of all time. The Nats had only been in Washington for a few years when Harper arrived, and he was the team's first true superstar -- he would've been beloved there for as long as he wanted. Yet, he chose to make Philly his home for the next 13 years knowing full well its reputation for booing its star players as heartily -- if not more so -- as the scrubs.
But what if that tension is what makes the match perfect? What if Bryce didn't choose the Phillies despite the roller coaster that was sure to come, but because of it? Because at this point it really seems like booing Harper only makes him stronger.
When he returned to D.C. in just the second week of the regular season, he encountered outright hostility. There weren't just boos -- but fans altered their old Harper shirseys and even lined the right-field seats to declare him a traitor. So, naturally, Harper concluded his first game back with a towering home run and an even more towering flip of the bat.
The atmosphere in the nation's capital didn't just enhance the moment, it virtually made the moment possible. That chilly April evening was the first sign of what has become abundantly clear: Bryce -- like any true and pure villain -- is fueled by the hostility he meets at every step of his journey.
He responded to chants that he was overrated -- a sentiment that has followed him ever since that Sports Illustrated cover -- by literally smashing a baseball out of a ballpark.
oVeRrAtEd 🔊 pic.twitter.com/GRiIru07oK— Cut4 (@Cut4) August 10, 2019
Every great player faces boos and heckling on the road. But it's only in Philadelphia that Harper can face that same level of vocal scrutiny in his home ballpark. From baseball analysts to fans, we've spent months wondering how long Bryce could take the boos from his own fans. Could he possibly withstand 13 years of it?
While everyone's been blathering on, he's turned the argument on its head. It's not about how long can he take what Philly fans ditch out. It's about how long baseball can contain a Harper fueled by the constant threat of hostility.
During a May slump, Harper faced boos every time he stepped to the plate. What happened? Well, he took his defense to another level.
Just days later -- after digesting more boos as fuel -- Harper hit a baseball so far that you knew there had to be some spiritual forces at work.
Bryce OVER the batter's eye. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/b3Lluj0neQ— MLB (@MLB) May 18, 2019
Even as Harper has put together a bit of a hot streak of late, the mercurial nature of Philadelphia fans still manifests itself. They even appear in response to nothing at all, as a smattering of boos litter Citizens Bank Park every night during player introductions.
Knowing now that boos make Harper stronger, the events of Thursday night come across as predictable if not quite inevitable.
In four trips to the plate prior to the ninth inning, Harper was hit by a pitch, struck out twice and grounded out. As a result of his 0-for-3 showing and a lackluster performance from the rest of the Phillies' offense, he was not in South Philly's good graces.
That was not good news for the Cubs.
The lesson here is clear: Harper and Philly are a perfect match. He's always been a streaky hitter, even during his best seasons. And Philadelphia has never been a fan base renowned for its patience during stretches of under-performance.
Just as Popeye gains his strength from an unappealing substance like spinach, Harper derives no small part of his strength from boos, both on the road and at home. The only real question, then, is whether the rest of baseball can survive Harper being fed a strict diet of boos for 13 years.
Eric Chesterton is a writer for MLB.com. He is an appreciator of the stolen base, the bunt against the shift and nearly every unconventional uniform design. He eagerly awaits Jamie Moyer's inevitable comeback.