‘It’s his time’: Bryce Harper is building his legacy
By Tyler Kepner
Many years from now, on a summer day at the base of a rolling hillside in Cooperstown, New York, they will remember this moment. It will play on the screen beside a stage full of baseball royalty, where Bryce Harper will sit in the first row, ready for his speech. Maybe he will scan the crowd for old pals from the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies, the team he carried to the World Series with a home run for the ages.
Legacies are built on hits like Sunday’s, at Citizens Bank Park, when Harper lifted the Phillies to the National League pennant with a blast worthy of notation on a Hall of Fame plaque. In the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NL championship series, Harper lashed a line drive over the left-center field fence, a go-ahead, two-run laser that propelled the Phillies past the San Diego Padres 4-3 before 45,485 drenched and delirious fans who never saw this coming.
The Phillies may not be the best team in the NL — they were the last to claim a spot in the expanded postseason field — but they are the champions of it for just the eighth time in their 140-year history.
“We never doubted who we are or our identity as a team,” Harper said. “A guy gets hurt, we’re going. Manager gets fired, we’re going. So on a team level, I think we’re right where we need to be.”
Harper was the MVP of the series, hitting .400 with two home runs, and when Nick Castellanos caught the final out — a soft fly to right by Padres catcher Austin Nola off surprise closer Ranger Suárez — he knew what to do with the ball. He gave it to Harper.
“It’s his time,” Castellanos said. “I know it, I think everybody knows it. I wanted to make sure that he enjoys it and it’s something that he can hold onto.”
Harper can also hold on to the memory, and the satisfaction, of leading his team to the sport’s grandest stage just four years into his 13-year, $330 million contract. The deal was a testament to Harper’s extraordinary talent, of course, but also to his commitment to Philadelphia. There is no opt-out clause, no escape hatch to skip town for even more riches.
Harper was fully invested, then, in a city whose fans demand one thing above all: for the athletes to care as much as they do. In return for your loyalty, they give their own brand of fanaticism.
“Unless you’re wearing Phillie red or you’re a Phillie, they don’t like you — and I love that,” Harper said after Game 5. “I love every emotion that they have. I did it as an opposing player for a long time, and I wanted that. I wanted that emotion from the fans. They just want you to work hard. They want you to play hard. They want you to be who you are, no excuses.”
Harper caught the ceremonial first pitch Sunday from Jayson Werth, the right fielder for the Phillies’ last championship team, in 2008. Two years later, when he left for the Washington Nationals as a free agent, Werth became the enemy. But he never forgot the feeling of winning in Philadelphia, and told Harper there was nothing like it.
On a trip to Philadelphia in 2017, Werth’s last season, he made a prediction to Harper: “You’re going to be a Philadelphia Phillie, dude.” Harper thought that sounded right, because he loved the hitting conditions. In time, he appreciated what Werth really meant.
“I loved walking in as an opposing player knowing that I was going to get absolutely blasted by these fans,” Harper said. “It made me want to come here and play because I knew how much they cared. I knew how much they love their players and how much passion and how much drive they all have.”
If it seemed to be an unlikely union, that was only because folks have often misread Harper. An amateur prodigy from Las Vegas and the first overall draft pick by Washington in 2010, Harper’s anointed status and feisty playing style irritated some people, including a prominent Phillie.
On the first pitch he ever threw to Harper, in 2012, left-hander Cole Hamels purposely drilled him in the back with a fastball. Hamels had a pedigree: he was the MVP for the Phillies in the 2008 NLCS and World Series, and wanted to introduce Harper, then just 19, to the salty, hard-edge world of the majors.
Undaunted, Harper smacked a single and a double off Hamels later in the game. He went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, just as everyone expected, and would later win an MVP for Washington — another fulfillment of a destiny. He helped the Nationals to four division titles in seven seasons, but they never escaped the first round.
On the day he signed with the Phillies, in 2019, Harper slipped and said he was eager to “bring a title back to D.C.” The Nationals did win a championship that year, but they did it without him. Meanwhile, the Phillies stalled: across Harper’s first three seasons, they lost two more games than they won.
Harper never complained and never looked back. He has a better batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.394) and slugging percentage (.546) with the Phillies than he did with the Nationals, and won another MVP, in 2021. Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long, who also coached Harper in Washington, said Harper had grown along the way.
“It was this year — it was putting a team in front of yourself, which is hard to do, I get it,” Long said. “But he’s such a team guy, and he is really and truly doing it for this organization and his teammates. He wants it for them as much as he wants it for himself. And that’s where he’s turned the corner.”
In the eighth inning Sunday, after a leadoff single by J.T. Realmuto, Harper fouled the first pitch from Robert Suarez. After a ball, he fouled three more. Nola patted the dirt with his glove: He wanted a change-up in the dirt, baiting Harper to chase a bad pitch. Harper resisted. Ball two.
Before the at-bat, Harper had told Long: “Let’s give them something to remember.” When he saw Harper take the change-up, Long said he knew Harper would make good on that promise. The next pitch was a 99 mph sinker on the outside corner, and Harper unloaded.
“He took that swing — pandemonium,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said.