CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper mentioned everything but the record $330 million when asked about his decision to sign with the Phillies during Saturday’s introductory news conference.
Seated atop a dugout roof at Spectrum Field, his new team’s spring training home, Harper spoke at length about the “family” vibe around the Phillies’ organization, the allure of the city and how he’ll never again have to be bothered with speculation about his future.
Harper also talked about wanting to ride a boat down Broad Street in a championship parade — duckboats are Boston’s thing — and slipped at one point by saying that he wanted to bring a title back to D.C., the city he previously called home for seven years.
At least Harper had the Phillies’ jersey on, sporting his new No. 3, which he presumably will be wearing for the next 13 years, thanks to a contract that provides rock-solid certainty for his on-field career as well as the financial security for generations of Harpers.
When a question about the money did come up, Harper flashed some of the same competitive fire that has made him one of the game’s brightest stars, with a box-office pop that matches his power at the plate.
“I think baseball’s worth about $11.5 billion,” Harper said of the sport’s annual revenue. “So I think some of that should go back to the players as well.”
Agent Scott Boras, positioned beside his client, cracked a smile. When Harper continued talking about $16 beers that used to cost 25 cents, Phillies owner John Middleton laughed, maybe a bit uncomfortably.
Harper always seemed to be destined for this day, from the time he strafed the Vegas desert as a 14-year-old and Boras marveled at his freakish teenage forearms.
Back then, Harper was a Yankees fan and dreamed of wearing pinstripes. Even Saturday, as he was being welcomed to the Phillies, it remained somewhat surprising that Harper didn’t end up in the Bronx.
“It was really never a thought,” Boras said Saturday, “because we knew going in, because of the situation with the Yankees, only certain homes were going to be looked at.”
That was Boras’ way of saying Harper didn’t appear on the Yankees’ shopping list in the offseason, although the agent did joke about getting his hopes up when Hal Steinbrenner called — only to find out it was about something else.
Once Harper shrugged off a $300 million offer to stay with the Nationals, it was clear he and Boras were going for the record. And the Phillies, who had the guts to hit his number, revealed themselves to be an awakened giant in the NL East.
By the time Middleton had his second meeting with Boras about Harper, the Phillies already had acquired catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Jean Segura and outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a former NL MVP. They also had extended ace Aaron Nola and signed David Robertson.
So when Middleton walked into the Harper negotiations, the first thing he told Boras was to spare him the binder research about his client’s alternate revenue streams. The Phillies’ owner had a singular purpose when it came to Harper.
“I said, ‘Scott, I’m not interested in talking about marketing dollars, tickets sold, billboards, concessions,’ ” Middleton said Saturday. “There’s only one reason I’m talking to you. And that’s because I believe this guy can help us win. That’s all I care about. I said, I’ve made enough in my life. I don’t need to make more. My franchise value has risen dramatically over the last 25 years. I don’t need it to rise more. If it does, fine. I’m here to win, and I think your guy can help me win.”
Harper will benefit from playing his home games at Citizens Bank Park, where he’s hit 14 home runs in 50 games — more than any other opposing stadium — with a career .930 OPS. The Phillies also will have a perennial 30-homer, 100-RBI threat in their lineup for the next 13 years and presumably the payroll flexibility to keep building around him.
As Harper pointed out, his contract has an average annual value of $25.38 million — surprisingly low for a player of his caliber — and that should allow the Phillies to keep spending on the next batch of free agents for years to come. Don’t expect Middleton to put the checkbook away, either. It sounds as though he’s just warming up.
“What we do know in Philadelphia, if we put a winning team on the field, they’re going to pack the house,” Middleton said, rattling off the beloved names from the 2008 title club. “If you put a winning product on the field, they’re behind you 1,000 percent. That’s all I care about. And frankly, all I really care about is getting that trophy.”
The Harper bump, even before he swings a bat, is real. The Phillies sold 220,000 tickets in the first 48 hours after word of Harper’s deal leaked at about 3 p.m. Thursday. That number should escalate quickly as Opening Day draws closer, but Harper was surprisingly conservative with his own predictions about what the Phillies can accomplish with him.
“The thing about the East is that it’s a juggernaut,” Harper said. “I’m not going to say we’re going to come in this year and win a World Series, or win the division, or anything like that. Of course we all want that to happen. That’s your goal when you walk into spring training. That’s the goal of the fans, that’s the goal of everybody. But good things take time as well. I think this organization can be very successful for a long time, but it’s going to take some time.”
Spoken like someone with a 13-year contract. But the Philly fans aren’t known for their patience, and if Harper stumbles early, he’ll hear about it.
Not that the possibility seems to faze Harper, who suggested that his Phillies tenure might not always include seasons that end in late October and that he occasionally might play below a $330 million level.
“I’m not going to tell you I’m going to win the MVP every single year,” he said. “Is that my goal? Absolutely. I want to do that every single year. But there’s going to be down years, there’s going to be good years, there’s going to be years that are just OK.”
On Saturday, it was all about the Philly love for Harper. He took the dugout stage to a high-five from the Phanatic, who raised Harper’s arm so they could strike a Rocky pose as dozens of fans cheered.
But Harper is no underdog, and neither are the Phillies, probably for a long time.