Booed heavily in DC, Bryce gets last laugh

April 3rd, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The boos began early. Even before most of the 35,920 fans in attendance arrived at Nationals Park on Tuesday night, with the game delayed 41 minutes by rainfall, the fans were ready to be heard. From the moment ’s name was first announced, batting third in the Phillies’ starting lineup, he was serenaded with a chorus of boos.

They booed as a tribute video played on the scoreboard highlighting Harper’s seven seasons in D.C. while he stood in the visitors' dugout, his hands in the pockets of his red Phillies jacket, as he spit sunflower seeds. They booed as Harper stepped into the on-deck circle the first time. They booed even louder as he walked into the batter’s box. They even booed between innings when Harper made the jog from the dugout out to right field, where fans in the front row wore shirts that spelled out “T-R-A-I-T-O-R.”

Yet, by the conclusion of the Nationals’ 8-2 thumping at the hands of the Phillies on Tuesday night, those boos had been all but drowned out. Not just by the sound of the 458-foot home run Harper launched into the second deck in right-center field in the eighth inning. Or by the violent bat flip that followed. It was Harper who had the last laugh in Round 1 against his former team, finishing the night 3-for-5 with a double and three RBIs as Phils fans took over Nationals Park and began chanting “M-V-P” and “We got Harper.”

“It was little bit like a playoff atmosphere,” Nats shortstop Trea Turner said. “Which is pretty cool this early in the season.”

Harper and the Nationals both attempted to treat this like just another game. One of 162. The first of 19 meetings between the two teams this season. There will be 13 more years of this, so perhaps eventually, this will feel like just another game on the schedule. But Tuesday night at Nationals Park was different. The fourth game of the season on April 2 does not normally bring out this much emotion with such visceral reactions.

Before the game, Harper was not sure how he would be welcomed. He was prepared for a mixed reaction, even hopeful he would be received well, but he was prepared to maybe hear some boos. Harper is accustomed to being booed often on the road as a visiting player, as one of the biggest and most polarizing stars in baseball, but this was different. His relationship with Nationals fans changed when he committed the apparent crime of signing a 13-year, $330 million contract with the division-rival Phillies, a contract offer more lucrative than anything the Nats ever reportedly offered him this winter.

So, Nationals fans booed Harper’s every move on Tuesday. This young fan base had not been around long enough to watch a homegrown superstar the magnitude of Harper develop before their very eyes, and then have to watch him wear a different jersey.

Well, they did cheer, too, but only when Max Scherzer fired an 85-mph changeup to strike out Harper for the first out of the top of the first inning. And then again when Scherzer threw a cutter past Harper for a strikeout to end the third inning.

“It was fun to compete against him,” Scherzer said. “The crowd was really into it, more so than I thought it was going to be. I was just kind of feeding off the atmosphere of the crowd. He’s a great hitter, and you have to make great pitches to get him out.”

Harper doubled with one out in the fifth inning against Scherzer, and when he stood at second base, he waved toward the Phils' dugout, a celebration the team has adopted to start the season.

“I feel like it’s a little different coming back here and getting booed,” Harper said. “But for me it’s exactly like going to another ballpark and facing somebody that’s lights-out electric like Max.

“I go out there and try to play my game and just understand that I have teammates in that dugout that are going to pull for me every single day. I have the city of Philadelphia behind me each and every night. If I have that then nothing else matters to me.”

There’s a portion of fans in Washington who will be irked even more by that. They cringe at every reference Harper makes to Philadelphia pop culture or history, or each interaction with the Phillies Phanatic. Some insist it would have been fine if he ended up signing elsewhere, but why did it have to be there, where each meeting with the Nats would offer a painful reminder of what could have been?

Those fans were the loudest on Tuesday night, but there is a segment of the fan base thankful for his seven seasons here. They saw Harper grow from the National League Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2012 into the NL Most Valuable Player Award winner in ’15, and with all that, he helped carry the Nationals to four division titles since ’12.

Yes, fans in D.C. had a complicated relationship with Harper when he played for the team they adored. His departure has strained that relationship even further. This was only the first meeting between Harper and his former team, but if Tuesday was any indication, the next 13 years should be fun.

“It's been that way ever since he's played baseball,” Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think he brings upon that type of response, whether it's boos or cheers or excitement, that's just how it's been for him his whole career obviously in the big leagues, but even before that."