By Matthew Jacobson
Often when I write for this site, I do my best not to mince words. This season, by the standards set by just about everyone, from national media to local media, to the coaching staff and players, and to the fans, has been a disaster. The Nationals sit 5.5 games back of the first place Philadelphia Phillies (who are doing all they can to acquire Manny Machado from the Orioles), their star players (save Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer) have all fallen below what we expected of them come the beginning of the season. There have been calls to fire the manager, trade star players, and even sell at the deadline, a concept that would have been considered unheard of at the beginning of this season.
But last night, none of that mattered. Last night, for possibly the last time, Bryce Harper shined on the national stage, repping himself, his team, and his city.
Harper, who made a few enemies by showing up to the Stanley Cup Finals in DC wearing Vegas Golden Knight gear (Bryce was born and raised in Sin City), more than made up for it last night. Harper was introduced to raucous applause in front of his home fans, and himself was decked out with an American flag arm sleeve and a DC flag headband. Personally, I think he looked ridiculous, but at the same time, it was awesome to see him embrace a city that during the past 6 years has embraced him as one of our own.
Harper’s first-round opponent was Freddie Freeman, a man who has made a living torturing the Nats on the baseball diamond, and the fans let him have it. For all the crap that DC fans have had to put up with during the extensive “loser generation,” these past few months have shown just what a championship can do. Freeman joked about getting booed, but the crowd wasn’t joking. They were behind their hometown hero, and it helped. Harper continuously egged the crowd on during each of his three matchups, and afterward sang their praises, saying how much of a boost they gave him.
The ballpark was electric last night on a national stage, and often I found myself getting emotional, thinking about how this could be the last time Harper puts on this type of show for his home fans in DC. Harper has done his best not to discuss publicly his upcoming unrestricted free agency, but with the Nationals struggling as much as they are, it’s difficult not to think about the future. Harper, who plays the game with incredible passion and vigor (much to the chagrin “baseball purists”), likely wants to end up in a place where he can win. Before this season, we all felt that the Nationals were that place, and despite a closing window, DC has proven itself to be a great town for baseball, and last night’s festivities served to reinforce that notion.
Harper defeated Freeman, Max Muncy, and Kyle Schwarber, en route to a home run derby victory at Nationals Park. I could go into more detail about how he won, including an epic final-round showdown with Schwarber that would’ve been worth the price of admission alone, but I feel like this sort of topical analysis doesn’t show just how significant this moment was for DC baseball fans.
Harper more than likely won’t be a National after this year, which is just the unfortunate reality of sports these days. The Islanders saw it with John Tavares. The Oakland Athletics have seen it time and time again with big stars whom they could not afford to pay. Hell, Johnny Damon left the Red Sox a year after ending the curse to sign with the Yankees. Players have the right to make their money, and Bryce Harper is no different. The Nationals likely have to play .600 baseball just to have a shot at the postseason.
Looking back on this year a few years from now, what will likely be Harper’s last with the team that drafted and developed him, may be unpleasant. At the very least, we’ll have last night to look back on fondly.