WASHINGTON – Long before Bryce Harper was Bryce Harper – before the Sports Illustrated cover, before the war paint, before the clown questions, before the National League MVP award, before the drive to push the Washington Nationals to a postseason series win ended in annual bitterness – he was just a kid who loved hitting home runs. In 2004, he went to Cooperstown, New York, as an 11-year-old goliath with a too-small helmet and beat a bunch of 12-year-olds to be crowned King of Swat. Four years after that, he launched balls to the far reaches of Tropicana Field, one an estimated 502 feet, the first slice of virality in a career full of it.
For a few hours Monday night, that Bryce Harper returned. Since spring training opened, the 25-year-old Harper had vacillated between businesslike and sullen, stoic and forlorn, balancing his substandard play and the Nationals’ underachievement like someone who’d spun himself 50 times. Harper, who had stardom foisted upon him as a teenager and handled it with grace for nearly his entire adult life, spent the first half of the season before he hit free agency uncharacteristically wobbly.
Then came the Home Run Derby. Whether it was anything more than isolated splendor, icing hiding a burned cake, will reveal itself when the season continues Friday and Harper and the Nationals try to wash away 96 games of mediocrity. And yet with his dad on the mound, with his hometown crowd cheering him on, with a bandanna tied around his head and a stars-and-stripes sleeve compressing his right arm and a red-white-and-blue decal baked into his bat, Harper not only put on a show but wore the sort of smile his 11- and 15-year-old selves would’ve appreciated.
A stunning run of nine home runs in 47 seconds pushed Harper from the precipice of defeat to tie Chicago Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber with 18 home runs in the finals. And with the extra time awarded for hitting titanic blasts, Harper put away Schwarber with a 434-foot shot to center field capped by a two-handed, set-shot bat toss, a roiling right-handed fist pump and a celebration with his father and pitcher, Ron, his Nationals teammates and coaching staff, and the entirety of the capital that had seen Harper grow from kid to man and could scrapbook another memory from the journey.
“I’m a very serious player,” Harper said. “I enjoy the game, and I want to win every single game I play, and I want to do everything I can to help this team win on a daily basis and you guys see that. But off the field, that’s the kid you see out there tonight, and I was fortunate to share that with you guys and show that to the fans.”
This was the Bryce Harper the world always wanted to see and the baseball world can’t get enough of, the star in a sport sorely lacking them, the guy whose talent and marketability made the possibility of him becoming the first $500 million player not entirely laughable. The one who is likeable and cool and creates moments that sear themselves into history. The Home Run Derby is an exhibition, yes, and, sure, Ron didn’t exactly abide by the rules that called for pitchers to wait until the previous ball landed to throw the next one. This was not time for the pedantic to air their grievances. This was Harper fulfilling a mission statement uttered in 2016: make baseball fun again.
The atmosphere was ripe for it. The 43,698 at Nationals Park cared not about the uninspiring field of participants. They were there to see Bryce Harper, even after he hit .214 in the first half, after he was chided for not running out a ground ball in the week before the All-Star break. The Nationals’ ascent coincided with Harper’s arrival, and for all the October disappointments, all the frustration of great-on-paper teams crumbling come the playoffs, he is the linchpin of a franchise that has grown beloved in this city, a symbol far larger than each of his 173 career home runs.
“Let’s go, Harper!” they chanted before he vanquished Freddie Freeman in the first round, and “Let’s go, Harper!” they bellowed again as he beat Max Muncy in the semifinals, and “Let’s go, Harper!” they screamed one final time as he ascended the dugout steps and readied himself to face Schwarber, whose 18-homer barrage capped a night in which he hit 55. The Derby’s relatively new format again had been a success, keeping the crowd enraptured all night as it barreled toward Harper and four minutes of glory.
He missed on his first four swings before hammering a ball 427 feet. He took his first timeout with four home runs on the board and 2:38 on the clock. His former teammate Wilson Ramos fed him some Gatorade and wished him well. The next minute and change wasn’t much better. When he called his last timeout with 1:20 remaining, he was nine homers shy of Schwarber. Ron’s shaky pitching – “Got eight anchors in my shoulder,” he said of his surgically repaired right arm – wasn’t helping.
When he found a groove, so did Harper. The 10th homer landed 450 feet away with 49 seconds left. Then came a 438-footer, a 408-footer. And 429, 452, 444, 478, 412. With two seconds remaining, a 386-foot shot tied Schwarber. The final one, in extra time, gave Harper 19,058 feet worth of home runs on the night.
All the panic with less than a minute left washed away. Nationals ace Max Scherzer, a bundle of twitchy and nervous energy, leapt with teammate Sean Doolittle to run the trophy out to a celebrating Harper. Even if this wasn’t a Josh Hamilton performance or even one as awe-inspiring as Aaron Judge’s cornucopia of 500-foot-plus smashes from 2017, the ambiance made it feel like something more, something that could portend a change.
“Maybe the roll he got on tonight,” Doolittle said, “that confidence you get from winning something like this, the way he won it in front of the hometown fans – yeah, it’s a silly competition, but at the end of the day that can be something that really jump-starts a guy.”
Silly though it may be, it meant something to Harper, not just because he did it with his dad or in front of his devotees. At a couple points in his post-event press conference, Harper’s eyes filled with tears, and while none worked their way past the welling stage, their presence was clear. This had drawn something out of Harper that a half of underachievement couldn’t.
He tried to play it cool, just like he’d done a little while earlier, when he stared at his deficit to Schwarber with a steely confidence. Harper had noticed his mom fretting as the clock ticked, and in his head, even as others doubted, he never wavered.
“It’s like, ‘OK, guys, don’t worry. I got this,’ ” Harper said. “ ‘We’ll get this done.’ ”
He got it done, in the sort of fashion that befits a king, a viral star, a kid who once upon a time just wanted to hit home runs and as a man wrote that fairy tale with the perfect ending.
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