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NLCS: Philadelphia Embraces Bryce Harper as Leader of Phillies

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PHILADELPHIA — The Class A South Atlantic League is a historical gem of minor league baseball and an incubator for a lot of great players, though rarely a focus of the baseball world. But within the spring of 2011, it was the middle of the prospect universe.

It was where scouts and hard-core fans could see Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, a pair of teenage sensations, play against one another as professionals — Harper for the Hagerstown Suns, Machado for the Delmarva Shorebirds, in a showcase of Maryland teams.

“It was electric,” recalled Anton Dahbura, who was a minority owner of the Suns and known for shagging balls in batting practice with the players. “Those two guys, that they had a lot attention on them, and it really had a buzz. It was a temporary but magical time.”

Harper, then 18, was the No. 1 pick by the Washington Nationals within the 2010 draft. Machado, also 18 on the time, was chosen two picks later, by the Baltimore Orioles. Their careers have since run a parallel course. Each made their major league debuts in 2012, each were free agents after the 2018 season and each signed huge contracts with latest teams.

Their friendly rivalry continues Tuesday with Harper’s Philadelphia Phillies taking over Machado’s Padres in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series in San Diego.

For Harper, it is very sweet. When the Phillies upset the Atlanta Braves within the division series, he was making it past the divisional round of the playoffs for the primary time. In seven years at Washington, Harper played in 4 division series but never advanced. When asked Saturday the way it felt to interrupt through, Harper, now in his fourth yr in Philadelphia, fused his own joy with that of his current team.

“As a corporation, right?” he said. “We haven’t been here for a very long time.”

Harper’s ability to attach with the Phillies and their fans has been so flawless that it might be used as a road map for future free agents. Philadelphia is a city known for riding its athletes once they don’t perform well. For some players, it could be overwhelming. But Harper’s success on the sector — he was the N.L.’s most beneficial player in 2021 and his on-base plus slugging percentage is higher in Philadelphia (.940) than it was in Washington (.900) — combined along with his passion for the sport and for taking part in in Philadelphia helped forge a bond between him and the town.

“No excuses, good or bad, they don’t care,” Harper said of the Philly fans. “They simply want you to maintain doing it. I really like that mind-set. My dad used to say the identical thing after I was growing up: ‘It don’t matter. Next day, next day, next day, keep going, keep going, enjoy it.’ And that’s how the town is.”

The last time the Phillies were within the playoffs, in 2011, there have been no Bryce Harper Phillies jerseys. But on the team’s two playoff games last week, Harper shirts were in every single place on the stadium and chants of “M.V.P.” recognized his past and current work, including the 2 home runs, three doubles and five runs batted in throughout the four-game series against Atlanta.

“He’s very astute and aware of what the town is about and what makes it tick,” said Rubén Amaro Jr., a former Phillies general manager who grew up in Philadelphia. “It’s a blue-collar city with individuals who have great passion for his or her teams and their athletes. They need accountability, effort and commitment, and Bryce has given them that.”

The commitment began the day Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract, just days after Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million cope with the Padres. But Machado’s deal accommodates an opt-out clause that permits him to depart San Diego after next season, if he chooses. Harper’s doesn’t, and that necessary detail didn’t go unnoticed in Philadelphia.

“One of the necessary things to any fan here’s a player’s loyalty to the town,” Amaro said. “When you’ve got someone who says by words and actions that they wish to be in Philadelphia long run and so they embrace it, Philadelphia fans love that.”

Harper’s savvy was evident in other ways. In his Phillies debut in 2019, he wore shiny green Phillie Phanatic cleats, a tribute to the team’s lovable mascot, and he still sometimes wears a Phanatic headband and batting gloves. A longtime Dallas Cowboys football fan, he renounced that team in 2020 and publicly adopted the Philadelphia Eagles.

He showed similar investment in Washington, at the same time as far back as his short time in Hagerstown, Md.

“He was great about signing autographs and spending time with the fans,” Dahbura, the previous minority owner, said. “He was the just one people lined as much as see. I remember one time sheepishly asking if he would come out of the clubhouse to fulfill some friends of mine. He not only did it, he actually frolicked with them for some time.”

Harper, who signed a five-year, $9.9 million deal after he was drafted in 2010, immediately became the Nationals’ prized fielding prospect. Dahbura remembers the special attention paid to him by the coaching staff and executives who filtered through to envision on him. On one in every of the primary days of spring training as a professional, Harper made all of them gasp in horror when he scaled a 10-foot chain link fence to retrieve an errant baseball.

“It was just a daily fence, with the barbs at the highest,” Dahbura said. “He was just that variety of kid, so enthusiastic, and he just loved to play and get after it. It looks as if he’s still sort of the identical guy.”

It’s what Amaro calls fidgeting with your hair on fire, with real passion and emotion. Harper embodies it, and teammates say it’s authentic.

“You guys hear him talk, you see the actions on the sector,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “It’s real. If he goes 0-for-4 it doesn’t matter to him if the team wins. That’s something that every one the blokes can hang on to, and what you wish within the clubhouse, especially this time of yr.”

On Saturday, because the Phillies celebrated their victory over the Braves, the players hugged each other on the infield diamond, smiled for cameras and donned their commemorative shirts. Harper, who turned 30 the subsequent day, was in the course of all of it, and amid the euphoria, he began tapping teammates on the shoulder and gesturing outward, toward the stands, which were still filled with delirious fans.

Following Harper’s lead, the players took off their caps and started waving to the fans in every corner of the stadium, a straightforward gesture, but one appreciated by the fans, who cheered even louder.

“I feel I’m hand in hand with them,” Harper said. “When you should be in a city, when you should be a consider a city, that’s all they wish to see. They simply want you to play hard. That’s it.”

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