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It’s been about 24 hours since the Bryce Harper trade to the Phillies was announced, and I still can’t get my head around one aspect of his career here in Washington.
Understand that I loved watching him grow up with the Nationals, and I will really miss him no longer being with the organization. But when you start applying the “great” tag to any athlete, you usually can think quickly of a signature play or two that reminds you of that greatness.
You can certainly do it with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. Think of John Riggins and the Redskins, and it’s going to be 70 Chip in the Super Bowl. Michael Jordan and the Bulls? It’s him, tongue handing out, doing some incredibly acrobatic shot driving to the basket.
But with Bryce, when I scan my brain for such moments, I struggle. Lest you want to argue he’s not that great yet, don’t bother. By virtue of the contract alone, that says the league judges him at such stratospheric highs. It will pay $330 million over a time period that starts today and ends when a kid who is in third grade will finish their senior year of college. Wasn’t that many years ago franchises themselves weren’t worth that much.
So in trying to remember such signs of greatness, my mind first went toward walkoff home runs. Bryce certainly hit some mammoth shots during his time here in the most powerful city in the world, but when I think of great walkoffs for the Nationals, he’s not even in the top 3 of my personal memory bank.
No. 1 is and will always be Jayson Werth with the walkoff in Game 4 of the 2012 playoffs. It was so good, I still keep a recording of Charlie Slowes’ call of that home run on my phone. If it’s a bad day, hearing Charlie screaming “Swing and a long drive…deep left field…going, going…gone goodbye!” still makes for a happy couple of minutes.
No. 2 is Ryan Zimmerman hitting the walkoff homer against the Braves in the first game played at the new stadium on an incredibly cold night. And No. 3, for personal reasons, is Ryan hitting a walkoff home run against the Yankees at RFK on Father’s Day. I had the honor of sitting next to a Yankees fan who ran his mouth the entire game about how great the Yanks were, and New York led the entire game. That didn’t change until Zimmerman won the day and shut up the Gotham gasbag.
About the closest I got to recalling such a moment was when Harper got hit by a pitch by Cole Hamels and ended up stealing home in the same game. It was a “take that” moment that showed the young man was going to come into the majors as a lion, not a lamb.
But there weren’t many more standout moments like that. Don’t get me wrong, he hit a lot of home runs and caused me to get back to my seat every time I could when he was at bat. He had the potential to do anything from strike out to hit one out on the concourse every time he came to bat.
But in now looking back, the things he did that were most memorable didn’t actually coincide with a dramatic, in the moment, winning play.
I asked people on Twitter to help fill in the gaps, and many named the same things I thought of. There was the home run derby when the All Star game was at Nats Park last year. Fun to watch, exciting for the Harper family, great for the Nats and DC to be in the spotlight. But did it really matter? It’s like an NFL player listing one of his signature moments happening in an exhibition game.
There were the moments of drama – getting in a fight with Hunter Strickland after being hit by a pitch in San Francisco; being in a fight and being choked by his teammate Jonathan Papelbon; replying to a reporter by saying “that’s a clown question, bro”, and several highly animated performances in the midst of being ejected by the home plate umpire.
All memorable events. But none really advanced the cause of winning.
He hit home runs in bushels, as there were two he hit on his first opening day at Nats Park that sent everyone home happy. He hit a big home run against the Cubs in the playoffs that tied the game in 2017, and he hit several in the playoff series with San Francisco that kept the series close.
But in the end, the Nats lost both series. In all his time here the Nats didn’t win a single playoff series. That’s not necessarily on Harper, as there were other aspects of the game – moves by the manager, bad performances by relievers, etc. – that were just as much to blame as anything.
But to have been here as long as Harper, and to have been in demand so much that someone is willing to pay you $330 million for 13 years…I’d think the memories that first bubble to the top don’t involve fights, hair flips, or winning an exhibition home run derby trophy.
Off the field, I’ll miss him. He is immensely talented, unpredictable, and somehow always newsworthy. Very few players provoke the “what’s he up to now?” vibe Harper has provided in DC for a long period of time.
But when I try to think of the unique, signature things he did on the field, it gives me pause.
It leads me to ask: if I had to struggle that much to figure out such trademark moments, how much will I - or the Nationals – really miss him?