BC-BBN--Bryce Is Back,2nd Ld-Writethru
WASHINGTON (AP) — The first boos, guttural and loud in a mostly empty ballpark, greeted Bryce Harper during pregame introductions 15 minutes before the first pitch Tuesday night, as he stood in the Nationals Park visitor’s dugout wearing another team’s uniform.
The next round of jeering filled the chilly air while Harper’s new Philadelphia Phillies teammate Andrew McCutchen stepped into the batter’s box to begin the game.
More such noise would follow, of course, when Harper walked to the plate for his first at-bat as a Nationals opponent. And when he awaited each pitch from Washington’s Max Scherzer, negativity interrupted only by the sheer-joy roars after each strike of his eventual whiff, which concluded with a swing-and-miss at an 85 mph changeup.
In the bottom half of the first inning, there was booing as Harper headed out to play right field — where fans in the front row of the bleachers wore shirts that spelled out “T-R-A-I-T-O-R” — and when he caught Adam Eaton’s fly for the first out.
Harper had said he expected a mixed reaction from spectators reacting to his departure via free agency to sign a $330 million, 13-year deal with the Phillies.
Sure sounded rather one-sided.
Hours earlier, wearing a black baseball hat with “Positive Vibes” stitched in white and an attitude to match, Harper described his arrival for his return as “definitely different” but also “normal.”
“Just coming to another stadium,” he said, “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.
“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 before the game. “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 McCutchen and two other Phillies.
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 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, probably not.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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