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BC-BBN--Bryce Is Back,1st Ld-Writethru

April 2, 2019
AP Sports Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Wearing a black baseball hat with “Positive Vibes” stitched in white and an attitude to match, Bryce Harper showed up at Nationals Park as an opponent for the first time Tuesday with his new club, the Philadelphia Phillies.

“It was definitely different. But it felt good. Felt normal,” Harper said of his arrival for the game against the Washington Nationals. “Just coming to another stadium and try to do my job.”

Truthfully, of course, it’s not just ANY other stadium. That he was speaking at the unusual-for-baseball pregame news conference packed with reporters, photographers and TV cameras was testament to that.

Until last week, the Nationals were the only big league club the 26-year-old Harper had played for, an organization that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010 and brought him to the majors as a teen. Washington’s uniform was the one he wore when he won NL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, when he earned six All-Star selections in seven seasons — including last year, when he stole the show by winning the Home Run Derby in D.C.

“It’s where,” he said, “I grew up.”

But the Nationals offered him less money than the Phillies did, with millions that would be deferred for decades. So he moved on.

He who posted a “Thank you” message Tuesday to Nationals fans and the city of Washington on Instagram, mentioning a few local restaurants, general manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family that owns the team. It made no reference to any of his former managers or teammates, but he did mention some during his session with the media.

Still, the only time Harper really betrayed a hint of real emotion Tuesday was when he choked on his words after being asked about the announcement that he and his wife, Kayla, are expecting their first baby.

Otherwise, he talked about being “excited for the next chapter” and “pumped” to be back.

So leave it to others to discuss how he might be feeling about this return to his old haunt for Game 4 of his $330 million, 13-year contract with the Phillies.

“Especially because it’s so early, I imagine it’s got to be a little weird. A ton of emotions. Obviously he gave a ton to this organization. And he and Kayla gave a ton to this city. I hope people don’t forget about that. It’s been talked about for a while, too, so I’m sure there’s a ton of buildup for him,” Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “Knowing him the little bit that I do so far, I know he’ll be excited once the first pitch is thrown and we kind of just get to play some baseball.”

After Harper’s 15-minute session with reporters concluded, he left the stadium’s interview room. Instead of turning to his left to go to the home clubhouse, he walked to his right, down a hallway filled with photos of current and former Nationals players, to enter the visiting clubhouse.

Later, he hung out in the lunch room, leaning on a table, chatting and laughing with Andrew McCutchen and two other Phillies teammates.

At the other end of the ballpark, where Harper used to be before games, Nationals players spoke about the prospect of facing him instead of relying on him.

“For a lot of us in here, we’ve turned the page and we’re focused on this season,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “We’ve kind of come to grips with it.”

Or as first baseman Ryan Zimmerman put it: “Honestly, it’s just another game.”

To him, maybe.

To the fans who took the bus ride down I-95 from Philadelphia, perhaps not so much.

And to the Nationals supporters who paid for the right to boo or cheer when the guy who wore No. 34 for so long strode to the plate wearing his new No. 3 jersey to face Max Scherzer in the first inning Tuesday, probably not, either.

Harper said he expected to hear a mixed reaction.

“Any time you leave somewhere,” Harper said, “you think about coming back.”

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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