Harper, Phillies must make sure city is right fit

Superstar free agent should reach out to Hall of Famer Thome

December 18th, 2018

$300 million. $400 million. When you're talking about a baseball player's contract, what's the difference?
$100 million (duh).
If you're part of 99.9999 percent of the world, the answer is: There is no difference! You can't count that high and you can't spend that much in a lifetime. (Unless you're my kids, they could figure out a way.)
At the ripe old age of 26, is days, weeks or months from signing, perhaps, the richest free-agent contract in baseball history. If the Phillies are a real possibility -- as has been reported widely -- a couple of words to both Harper and the team:
Be careful.
Let me explain.
This is a team searching for an identity, relevance and a championship. For the kind of money that Harper is looking for, his new team will need more than home runs, an eye popping OPS, and cool eye black. Much more.
If I'm signing his paychecks, I need Harper kissing babies, shaking hands and signing autographs before games. Charity appearances and winter fan festivals are a must. Connecting with the paying customers has to happen. Harper is arguably the most recognizable player in Major League Baseball. If he signs with Philly, he will be more than the face of the franchise. He will carry the burden of being the face of an entire sports-obsessed city where babies will be named Bryce if they win big.
Beware: That same fan base can turn on you fast if you don't live up to the superstar label both on and off the field. Don't believe me? Google Donovan McNabb or Allen Iverson.
What does being the face of a franchise or city mean, anyway? From what I've observed and learned in the decades I've been around pro sports is that there's no exact answer. What I do know from covering the Phillies for five seasons is that there is no fan base more emotionally attached to their teams than the folks in Philadelphia.
The guys on the 'losing' World Series team a quarter-century ago are still royalty. Why? They were authentic. They were nuts. They are Philadelphia the way Rocky is Philadelphia.
If Harper ends up with the Phillies, he will be idolized by kids and adults alike. He'll have a cheesesteak named after him. But Harper will be watched every second of the day. His words, moods, actions and inactions will create hours of content for sports talk radio shows. Some will pounce on him every chance they get.
Then there's his performance. Have a poor game: "Harper is so overpaid it's an embarrassment." Hit a game-winning double: "He's better than Mike Schmidt!" And on and on and on.
I'm not suggesting that signing in Los Angeles or New York would be a cake walk. Of course it wouldn't be. The attention and expectations will be immense. But Harper won't be alone as the only true star in his prime who is on a Hall of Fame track.
I'm aware that on the Nationals he was the face of the team. But it's apples and oranges. In D.C., he was surrounded by All-Stars and veterans, and as a group they were expected to win every year. That talented group couldn't figure out how to win a single postseason series, but Harper didn't take the blame. In Philadelphia, at least in the short term, he could become the fall guy.
This is where I give Harper advice (I'm sure he'll be thrilled by that). The most important phone call he can make before deciding if Philadelphia is the right fit is to Hall of Famer Jim Thome. Yup. I'm serious. When Thome left Cleveland and signed in Philly before the 2003 season, he immediately became the face of an under-.500 team that featured a few stars on the rise in Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Before playing a single game, Thome was gold.
I distinctly remember him touring the construction site of Citizens Bank Park and shaking hands with the construction workers. That was a great way to ingratiate himself to the locals. He showed genuine emotion at his introductory press conference. Talking about his wife and time in Cleveland produced tears in this larger-than-life figure (and future Hall of Famer). That day and every day, Thome was available. He was honest. He cared. Thome was an instant leader who treated the clubbies with the same respect he did the team owners. Thome never reached the postseason in Philadelphia, but what he did was pave the way for postseason play while turning down the stress level in a snarky and intimidating clubhouse. The entire tenor of the team changed. The fans appreciated his authenticity.
Thome and Harper have very different personalities, and the team is not in the same position with the cast they featured in the early 2000s. And while it might be considered unfair to expect Harper to morph into a gentle giant, it is entirely reasonable for Harper to understand the Philadelphia sports culture. It would also be wise for the Phillies to know exactly what his tolerance and patience is for the relentless and constant coverage before committing to a long-term relationship.