Phillies' Bryce Harper has earned lofty perch as perfect Philadelphia athlete

The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper celebrates an inside-the-park homer against the Washington Nationals on July 27, 2021. (Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

A few minutes before 3 p.m. Friday, Bryce Harper will step onto the grass at Citizens Bank Park.

Maybe he'll wear his neon-green cleats with the googly Phillie Phanatic eyeballs and green fuzz. Maybe he'll go with a Liberty Bell theme. Or with "JAWN" stitched in block letters around the laces. Or with Will Smith decking Rocky.

Whatever the case, the reigning National League MVP will play to his surrogate city. Then, moments before the first pitch, the gesture of gratitude. He will face the fans in the right-field bleachers, doff his hat, raise both arms over his head, bend at the waist, and bow theatrically, as though he just performed all five acts of Macbeth.

It's what Harper does.

"He's a showman," Mike Schmidt said.

Is there any question that Harper puts on a show? Nightly. For six months. And in perhaps the toughest sports town in America. Carson Wentz got himself traded out of Philadelphia. Ben Simmons withered here. But if there was a playbook for the city's highly paid star athletes, Harper pretty much keeps running the "Philly Special" over and over.

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper prepares for an at-bat during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Among best players in baseball: It helps that he's among the best players in the majors. Since he signed a 13-year, $330 million megadeal in 2019 — three years later, it remains the largest contract by overall value in free-agent history — Harper is second in walks (248), tied for third in on-base percentage (.402), fourth in OPS (.958), fifth in OPS+ (151), tied for sixth in home runs (83), eighth in doubles (87), ninth in slugging (.556), and tied for 10th in RBIs (231). He has 12.8 wins above replacement, a $102 million value according to Fangraphs' WAR-to-dollars formula.

Short of dragging the Phillies into the postseason, he has done it all.

But Harper won over the masses in other ways. It's his style of play (all-out) and the way he speaks after games (candid, accountable). It's the Phanatic-themed fashion from head (bandanna) to toe (custom cleats) and his lobbying of the front office, which carries considerable weight ("Sign J.T." Realmuto). He also plays nearly every day, starting 350 of 382 games with the Phillies.

And he's going to be here a while, so he takes an interest in the farm system. Two years ago, while MLB was shut down by the pandemic, he FaceTimed each of the Phillies' 2020 draft picks to welcome them to the organization.

"I've just always gone to the field and tried to play as hard as I can," said Harper, seated at his locker before a recent spring training game. "I do that every day. And I don't think going in and trying to play a different way or not being Bryce is what [the fans] want. They want authentic. They want you to tell the truth. They want you to be true to who you are. I respect that and I love that."

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper gestures to spectators in the stands during the eighth inning of the team's baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Phillies fans are tough, and he's OK with that: But Harper also knows that it's reciprocal. Phillies fans won't soft-pedal it when they're upset. If he strikes out with the bases loaded on opening day against the Oakland Athletics, it won't matter that he was crowned MVP last year.

Harper is fine with that, according to people who know him best. He isn't hyper-senstitive, a critical trait to survive in Philadelphia. Actually, he finds the whole thing to be refreshing.

"In the world of Bryce Harper, ever since he was a child, from 8 years old on, a lot of people are always congratulating him for who he is as an extraordinary baseball player," agent Scott Boras said. "Bryce appreciates honesty, directness. He doesn't like it sugarcoated. The fans of Philadelphia are very direct people in their appraisal of players. I don't think Bryce minds that. When you play well, they're your greatest fans, and when you don't, they're going to let you know it."

It's not like Phillies fans haven't expressed dissatisfaction with Harper.

He got booed at times in 2019, notably after misplaying a ball in right field and striking out in the eighth inning of a late April loss to the Detroit Tigers. Asked then for his reaction to the boo birds, Harper said, "I'd do the same thing."

"Philly gets a bad rap for a lot of stuff that people think they are," Harper said last week. "They're not. They're just a fan base that really cares. They spent their hard-earned dollar to come and watch you play, and they want the best out of you each night. If you're 0-for-4 and you punch out with a guy on third base to lose a ballgame, they're going to let you know.

"And trust me, I'm walking back to the dugout doing the same thing to myself."

Playing to the crowd: Admit it: You weren't sure how Harper would fare in Philadelphia.

"I thought it would be very interesting," said Schmidt, nothing less than the greatest Phillie of 'em all. "I thought it would take a special effort to melt into the city of Philadelphia and become the face of the franchise. It takes a unique personality, which Bryce surely has."

Schmidt, 72, won three NL MVP awards and 10 Gold Gloves, and bashed 548 home runs. He was named MVP of the 1980 World Series and got elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, in 1995.

And even he had a rocky relationship with Phillies fans.

Some viewed Schmidt as aloof and disconnected. Schmidt, in turn, told a Canadian reporter in 1985 that Phillies fans were a "mob scene" and "beyond help" and said he would be appreciated more if he played elsewhere. When the Phillies returned to Veterans Stadium, No. 20 famously donned a wig and sunglasses to shield himself from the frothing fans.

A different age: It's different now, according to Schmidt. In the social media age, athletes are able to have more direct contact with fans. They can also promote themselves apart from their team or even their sport. To wit: Harper's camp capitalized on his second MVP award with an "MV3″ marketing campaign.

When Schmidt played, that would have been considered taboo in baseball circles, where individuality was often confused with selfishness.

"Branding wasn't even a term when I played," Schmidt said by phone. "I wish it had been, though I'm not so sure how I would've handled it, personally. Bryce and his team have done a fantastic job of marketing, branding Bryce. Right away, he attached himself to the Phillie Phanatic with the shoes, hats. Bryce's team has had a way of joining Bryce to whatever that item might be. They've done a fantastic job of putting him out in front of Philadelphia in the proper way.

"He's got a lot of things he does that ingratiates him to the fans. He's taken that stadium by storm."

Billed as a future superstar as a teen: Harper has been billed as a superstar since he was a teenager and Sports Illustrated hailed him as the " Chosen One." At age 16, he was already a brand unto himself. He faced scrutiny and pressure to be great even before he was drafted first overall in 2010 by the Washington Nationals.

Even the most demanding fan base wasn't going to spook him.

"There are a lot of very statured players in sport that are great at what they do but not outward in their desire to do it," Boras said. "What Bryce carries is a visible manifest on his sleeve, the style of play that he has where there's that Harper-ish grit to it. I think that absolutely plays the strings of what the Philadelphia fans want."

Adopted, not homegrown: Unlike Wentz and Simmons, who were drafted out of college by the Eagles and 76ers, respectively, Harper came to the Phillies as a fully formed superstar.

To Schmidt, it might have made things easier that Harper's roots were elsewhere because fans here didn't witness the growing pains.

"At some point in the middle of my career, had I been a free agent and been picked up by another team after I already had success as a player, I would have a much easier time melting into that team and that town," Schmidt said. "Because they would have been so excited to have me come in and be on their team out of respect that they had for me before. Can you imagine me going to, say, St. Louis or San Diego? My perception is that would've been a lot easier than spending my entire career in Philadelphia.

"But I think Bryce, because of his handling of coming to this city and the player that he was before he got here, Bryce has set himself up to not really have the predicament that I had."

Rose comparison: Schmidt compares Harper's popularity here to that of Pete Rose, a star when the Phillies signed him as a free agent after the 1978 season. The fans fell hard for Rose's hustle and attitude, and weren't as familiar with the warts that are difficult to unsee when you watch a player grow up before your eyes.

Philadelphia knew all about Wentz's and Simmons' warts. But Harper said it doesn't surprise him when athletes struggle here. Because although he has assimilated to the city and its people, he understands it isn't for everyone.

"I have no idea what anybody's going through," Harper said. "I know what I go through at my house and in this clubhouse. But if a guy is going through something we don't know, it could affect them differently. I just go out there, play my game, and just be Bryce. And I think the fans like that."

As much as they like just about anyone.