Harper un­sure what to ex­pect in DC re­turn

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Bob Night­en­gale Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

Bob Night­en­gale: Af­ter seven years with Nats, star suits up for the en­emy

PHILADELPH­IA – Bryce Harper, with his Phillies’ bag packed, sat qui­etly in front of his locker Sun­day af­ter­noon, in­sist­ing there are no nerves, not even ap­pre­hen­sion or a tinge of anx­i­ety, but sim­ple unadul­ter­ated cu­rios­ity.

Harper has lived the past seven sum­mers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., played 474 reg­u­lar-sea­son games in the city, knows the play­ers, ex­ec­u­tives, cooks, se­cu­rity guards, park­ing lot em­ploy­ees and even some of the ven­dors, but for the first time, he is about to ven­ture into the great un­known.

He will board a train Mon­day evening with the rest of his new team­mates, take the 1-hour, 45minute trip to D.C., and, for the first time in his pro­fes­sional base­ball ca­reer, will be walk­ing the op­po­site di­rec­tion when he en­ters Na­tion­als Park and chang­ing into a dif­fer­ent uni­form.

The fans who adored him the past seven sea­sons will ei­ther cel­e­brate and rec­og­nize his glo­ri­ous con­tri­bu­tions or vo­cif­er­ously boo him, livid that he left the Na­tion­als and went to the en­emy.

The fans’ re­cep­tion, par­tic­u­larly that first at-bat as a vis­i­tor Tues­day night, will be ut­terly fas­ci­nat­ing.

“We’ll see what hap­pens,” Harper tells USA TO­DAY, “but I re­ally think it’s go­ing to be mixed. I think I’ll be cheered; I

re­ally do. But I think I’ll get booed, too. It’s part of sports, right?

“I feel like the guys who are usu­ally traded away and come back are wel­comed a lit­tle more than the guys that leave as a free agent. So I don’t know how that part will go. I re­ally have no idea what to ex­pect, but I am look­ing for­ward to it.”

His new team­mates are cu­ri­ous, too. Do the Na­tion­als pay homage to Harper be­fore his first at-bat with a video board tribute? Do the fans taunt him and bring home­made posters with $$ signs?

Alex Ro­driguez found him­self in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion nearly 20 years ago, leaving the Mariners to join the di­vi­sion ri­val Rangers on a 10-year, $252 mil­lion deal af­ter the 2000 sea­son.

“I know for me, emo­tion­ally, it was very dif­fi­cult to go back,” Ro­driguez said. “You’re es­sen­tially play­ing against your fam­ily mem­bers and a fan base that adored you for so many years.”

If it was in re­verse, ev­ery­one in the world would know the fans’ re­ac­tion in Philadelph­ia. Just ask out­fielder Jayson Werth, who left the Phillies for the Na­tion­als, and the boos he heard ev­ery time he came to town. J.D. Drew was never for­given for snub­bing the Phillies.

There are 10 buses filled with Phillies fans trav­el­ing to Wash­ing­ton, 500 of them with tick­ets in the lower level of right field, literally hav­ing Harper’s back.

“I love hu­man psychology,” Phillies man­ager Gabe Kapler said. “I love to see how peo­ple re­spond to mo­ments like that, the play­ers, the fans and the city.”

And Kapler’s ama­teur psy­chol­o­gist guess?

“A very strong stand­ing ova­tion,” he said. “My re­ac­tion is that fans un­der­stand the player’s con­tri­bu­tions, and I don’t think his con­tri­bu­tions to D.C. and to the Na­tion­als can be dis­counted.

“They are re­ally im­por­tant for the city and to the his­tory of that fran­chise.”

The Na­tion­als, who had never reached the play­offs since mov­ing back to Wash­ing­ton in 2005, won four Na­tional League East ti­tles dur­ing Harper’s stay. He was their big­gest star, a six­time All-Star and 2015 NL MVP win­ner who de­lighted the fans by win­ning last sum­mer’s Home Run Derby at Na­tion­als Park.

He’s been a Phillies em­ployee for a month, but this city has al­ready fallen deeply in love with its new ac­qui­si­tion. He slugged two home runs that trav­eled an es­ti­mated 863 feet as part of the Phillies’ eight homer, 23-run on­slaught in their first three vic­to­ries over the Braves.

It was the Phillies’ first sea­son-open­ing sweep of a divi­sional op­po­nent since 2001 while draw­ing their most fans for the first three games (130,476) since 2012. And they are the lone un­de­feated team in base­ball.

Harper has lit this fan base’s pas­sion and en­ergy, with Ci­ti­zens Bank Park sud­denly be­com­ing the place to be in this city, while Harper even raves about the city’s fine din­ing, say­ing he is 7-for-7 in restau­rant choices.

“Bryce has kind of owned the en­try to Philadelph­ia,” Kapler said. “He’s con­nected with the city. Con­nected with the fans.”

It’s re­ally no dif­fer­ent, Harper says, then what he tried to do in D.C. He has noth­ing but great mem­o­ries from his days as a Na­tional.. Hope­fully, he says, the feel­ing is mu­tual.

It’s al­most fit­ting the first pitcher he’ll face Tues­day night is old pal Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young win­ner who just hap­pens to be the nas­ti­est pitcher on the planet.

“I guess it will be weird to see Bryce since we’ve only seen him in a Nats uni­form,” Scherzer said. “But this is base­ball and we’re so used to guys chang­ing teams all the time.”

Harper says he won’t dare smile when he steps into the box, know­ing Scherzer’s se­ri­ous­ness, but will doff his cap out of re­spect. He might even bow to the fans in right field, just as he has done in the first three games this sea­son in Philadelph­ia, a tra­di­tion he plans to con­tinue the en­tire sea­son.

“I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber and cher­ish all of the scream­ing and yelling,” Harper said.

“It’ll def­i­nitely be dif­fer­ent, but it’s part of the game. It’s some­thing I have to get used to.”

It might take time for the Na­tion­als fans to get used to Harper be­ing the en­emy, too. This won’t be a love­fest like when Chase Ut­ley re­turned to Philadelph­ia last sea­son with the Dodgers, hit a home run and got a stand­ing ova­tion. This won’t be An­drew McCutchen re­turn­ing to Pitts­burgh last sea­son with the Giants and get­ting a huge tribute and ova­tions ev­ery time he stepped to the plate. And it cer­tainly won’t be any­thing like Al­bert Pu­jols’ first visit to St. Louis this sum­mer since sign­ing with the An­gels in De­cem­ber 2011.

The Phillies and Na­tion­als face each other 19 times a year in the NL East, and un­less the sched­ul­ing for­mat changes one day, Harper will be play­ing them 247 more times.

“I went through that in Texas. The first time is the hardest. It’s emo­tional,” said Ro­driguez, who spent three sea­sons with the Rangers be­fore be­ing traded to the Yan­kees.

Harper’s team­mates don’t even know what to ex­pect. Phillies vet­eran starter Jake Ar­ri­eta ex­pects a mixed re­ac­tion. Phillies re­liever Pat Neshek think he will get cheered be­fore his first at-bat and then booed the rest of the evening. First base­man Rhys Hoskins only knows it will be emo­tional for Harper.

“It’s tough, be­cause you’re talk­ing about a su­per­star who left your team,” Ar­ri­eta says, “and it’s bit­ter­sweet for a lot of fans be­cause he stayed in the di­vi­sion. But I re­ally be­lieve he should be cheered not only based on what type of player he was there but what he meant to that or­ga­ni­za­tion and that city.

“They should def­i­nitely be re­spect­ful to what he did for that or­ga­ni­za­tion and pay at least a solid tribute to him and his fam­ily.”

Said Neshek: “I re­ally think they’ll give him a stand­ing ova­tion. He did a lot for that fran­chise, turned it around. I don’t think he’ll hear any boos. He never caused any com­mo­tion, didn’t talk bad about the or­ga­ni­za­tion when he left, so I think the fans over there re­spect that.

“But by the end of the sum­mer, no­body will even care any­more. And next year, he’ll be just an­other player.”

The Na­tion­als cer­tainly didn’t en­vi­sion Harper join­ing the en­emy for the next 13 years. They tried to keep him at the out­set of free agency, of­fer­ing him a 10-year, $300 mil­lion con­tract in the fi­nal home game last sea­son. Harper flatly re­jected it. And the Na­tion­als moved on. They spoke with Harper just be­fore Christ­mas, say­ing that of­fer was no longer on the ta­ble, and never en­gaged again.

There will be those who un­der­stand why he departed, and oth­ers who will be­lieve he’s greedy, but if the Na­tion­als wind up win­ning the di­vi­sion, the sting will quickly dis­ap­pear.

Harper is just ready for the frenzy to end, when he can just talk base­ball again, be him­self, and not have a group of re­porters crowd­ing his locker be­fore and af­ter each game.

“I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to the crazi­ness dy­ing down,” he said. “The first three days here, it’s been me­dia crazi­ness. The two days in Wash­ing­ton will be me­dia crazi­ness.

“Af­ter that, it should calm down. “I can only hope.”

Harper rolled his eyes and grinned. Nah, maybe not.

BILL STRE­ICHER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

BILL STRE­ICHER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper played seven sea­sons with the ri­val Na­tion­als.

BILL STRE­ICHER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Bryce Harper cel­e­brates with Phillies team­mate Rhys Hoskins af­ter hit­ting a home run Sun­day against the Braves. Harper re­turns to his for­mer home field, Na­tion­als Park, on Tues­day.

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