The city of Philadelphia has worked diligently for decades to perfect its reputation as perhaps the toughest sports town in the United States.
Philly loves hard and hates even harder and if you are a pro athlete in the city, even as great as former Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, you understand your popularity comes with an expiration date only the fans renew or enforce.
Remember, Philadelphia fans, dejected Eagles fans, once booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus. Ho, ho, no!
So it’s with the utmost interest we will be watching this season as Bryce Harper attempts to ingratiate himself with Phillies fans. They will have 330 million reasons to cheer him and just as many to boo him.
Harper literally started out on the right feet on Thursday when the regular season began at Citizens Bank Park against the Atlanta Braves. He accessorized the cherry red accents on his uniform with lime green shoes in honor of the beloved Philly Phanatic, the long-time, lamebrained mascot of the team. Very nice move.
When Harper ran out to right field for the first time, the fans in the bleachers gave him the conquering hero treatment, rising to their feet in applause, some bowing at the waist in we-are-not-worthy fashion. Very classy gesture.
Still, let’s be clear about something we believe wasn’t brought up enough during the free agent courting of Harper in the offseason. The dude is good player, but he hit .249 last season and he’s been known to strike out and loaf his way around the bases when he’s not feeling the vibe.
Before the season began, former Phillies outfield Jayson Werth was asked by The Athletic how long it might take for the fans to turn against Harper.
“It could be his first game,” Werth said. “Oh, you think that’s out of the realm of possibility? It’s not going to take long. I can promise you that.”
So let’s turn our attention to the fourth inning on Thursday when Harper came to the plate with teammate Jean Segura on third base. Harper did not drive Segura home. In fact, he struck out.
The energy in the stadium flat-lined. Fans collapsed back into their seats, waves of beer crashing over the tops of their cups. Mighty Brycey had struck out.
When Harper signed that contract in this city he put himself into one of the toughest environments an athlete can be in. Philadelphia is not the Midwest where athletes are usually treated to unconditional love. It is not the west coast where the laid back hardly notice whose coming or going.
Philadelphia is New York with Cheez-Whiz on top. It has the patience of a hungry lion on the Serengeti. It’s fans walk the beat hoping you try to double-park.
If Harper puts up the slash line he did in Washington last season (.249/.393/.496) he better do it with earplugs. Like it or not, the weight of reviving a franchise that has played sub-.500 ball six straight seasons is not the shoulders of Segura, Rhys Hoskins, Andrew McCutchen or Aaron Nola. It’s all on No. 3. And Bryce Harper ain’t no Babe Ruth.
“I feel joy in what my teammates do,” Harper said.
On opening day, it was Hoskins and McCutchen who led the way to a 10-4 win with homers. Hoskins hit a grand slam. And Phillies fans basically roared their way through the beautiful afternoon with delight.
Harper? He grounded out in the first. He struck out in the fourth. He struck out in the fifth. He was intentionally walked in the seventh. He got booed. It wasn’t deafening, but you could hear it. He will have no margin for error.
“No one player has to carry this team,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said after the game. “Bryce doesn’t have to come out and hit two home runs every night.”
Word came out on Thursday that Harper’s No. 3 Phillies jersey is now the top-selling uniform top in Major League Baseball, finally outpacing Aaron Judge’s No. 99 with the Yankees. In fact, it set some record for the most sold in one 24-hour period. The nation is psyched for Harper. We know because it has him on its back.
“I did a little bit, notice,” Hoskins told Yahoo Sports about the booing. “Wherever he goes, there’s going to be people that see him as the villain. It’s kind of what he’s had to deal with his whole career because of how much success he’s had and kind of the way that he plays, with his hair on fire. I think he embraces that. I think he knows the type of passion that Phillies fans have.”
Over the next 13 years, longer than most marriages will last, Harper will be front and center in Philadelphia on a journey that either will land hm in the Hall of Fame or designate him as the biggest bust in the city’s sports history.
There will be, there can not be, any middle ground. All or nothing at all.
“I mean, today, I felt weird,” third baseman Maikel Franco said. “I looked around. Everything was loud. I saw a lot of people. It was a huge difference for me. I’ve been here, this is going to be my fifth year, and I never saw the crowd going crazy like that today. You know what I’m saying? It’s crazy. But it’s a beautiful thing.”