What I’m Hearing: Bob Nightengale was in attendance for Bryce Harper’s introductory press conference for the Philadelphia Phillies. He says it was made clear what the expectations are for this year and beyond.
CLEARWATER, Fla. — The fans were lined up outside the ticket gates Saturday morning five hours before game-time to see Bryce Harper. They packed every nook and crevice of Spectrum Field, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the grass berm, with a sellout crowd of 10,276 screaming his name every time they got a glimpse of him.
The Philadelphia Phillies, from the veterans to the rookies, kept talking all morning about a buzz they’ve never felt before in spring training. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney flew into town for the event. Phillies owner John Middleton was picking up baseballs after rounds of batting practice. Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins came in to speak to the team, grabbed the microphone before the game, and screamed: “Yeaaaaah, baby!”
Oh, it was a Harper’s Bazaar spectacle, missing only boxing promoter Don King and Rocky, with Harper walking up to the plate in the first inning to the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song.
“I thought it’d be fun for spring training,’’ Harper said, who plans to introduce a new one for the regular season. “I don’t know if I’m going to do it during the regular season.’’
The crowd went bonkers, standing and cheering all game, which stopped only after he walked for the second time.
“Weren’t these the same fans just booing you a couple of years ago?’’ Harper laughed, recalling a conversation with one of the Phillies’ staffers. “It was awesome. …The ovation they gave me, I was very humbled, very blessed. It just shows you how great a fanbase Philly really is. When you put Phillies across your chest it really means something to these people.’’
They certainly had Harper’s back, vehemently booing the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff for walking Harper in both plate appearances, and even employed a four-outfielder shift when the count reached two strikes.
It was a first, said Harper.
And hopefully, he said, a last.
“I’ve never seen that,’’ Harper said. “Intense.’’
Does he envision more teams going to such an extreme?
“Man, I hope not,’’ he said. “I don’t know. If they’re going to play ball like that ….definitely different for sure.’’
Otherwise, it was a glorious 83-degree debut for Harper, who was used as a DH, and is scheduled to play right field on Monday. Only a week ago was officially signing his record 13-year, $330 million contract, with a press conference atop of the first-base Phillies dugout, and now was the reincarnation of Mike Schmidt.
The Phillies have already sold 340,000 seats since Harper joined the team, including 2,000 season-tickets, and began showing commercial highlights of Harper during their TV telecast back home. Harper’s jerseys are being sold at a record rate, selling more in the first 24 hours than any jersey ever sold in sports history. They can’t even keep the jersey in their team store at Citizens Bank Park, with their initial merchandise inventory already gone. The Phillies’ social media account on Twitter was the most popular team in all of baseball last week, soaring 600% more than the next-closest team, the Chicago Cubs, according to The Athletic.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted,’’ Middleton told USA TODAY Sports, “that it would be as extraordinary as it is. I’ve got to tell you, when you think of major moments in Phillies’ history bringing in someone from the outside — getting Pete Rose in ’79, trading for Cliff Lee in ’09, Doc (Halladay) in 2010, re-signing Cliff in 11 — this is even bigger than that.
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“All of those other moves were made when the Phillies were really good. But this has created a buzz about a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. Fans are looking at this like, ‘You’re credible now.’ We have that credibility we didn’t have a year ago. They believe in us now.
“And with Bryce not having an out-clause, and a full no-trade clause, the fans sense a major commitment. This guy really wants to be here. He intends to be here. It’s not a thing where he says, ‘If it’s not working, I’m leaving.’ He’s going to be here until he retires. It’s like a marriage, ‘To death do us part.’
“That really resonates with the fanbase.’’
And, oh, does Philly ever love their stars, particularly those who play with emotion, whether it’s Bobby Clarke in hockey, Julius Erving or Allen Iverson in basketball, or Dawkins in football.
“It’s one of the things that draws people to him,’’ said Dawkins. “He plays with emotion. Some people don’t like it. It’s one of those things in baseball you’re not supposed to do. But Bryce challenges that.’’
Really, he’s the Reggie Jackson of four decades ago. You can love him. You can hate him. But, man, you sure aren’t going to ignore him.
“He draws attention,’’ Reggie Jackson told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s part of his arrogance, his self-assuredness, his cockiness. He’s got that big swing, all of the moves, the hair, everything. All of that stuff that draw attention.’’
Harper certainly tried to put on a show, taking a massive cut but missing on the first pitch he saw from Blue Jays starter Matt Shoemaker, but, hey, he’ll have plenty of opportunities for homers when they count in the regular season.
“I got excited a little bit,’’ Harper said, laughing.
Middleton is hardly guaranteeing a World Series title, or even the NL East title, but says, “we didn’t do all of these moves to have a respectable showing. We made these moves with the intent of making the playoffs and to be serious contenders.’’
Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta, who started Saturday, said he could hardly believe this was a spring-training game.
“Everybody was rowdy at the pre-game,’’ Arrieta said. “And screaming at me. It’s going to be a good summer.’’
Well, except for those teammates who were hoping to beat the crowd home each game. Those days, Phillies veteran reliever Pat Neshek said, are over.
“I was driving out of here around the second inning a couple of games ago, and I couldn’t even get out. I actually had to go a different way because there were lines of cars going both directions.”
Now, all the Phillies have to do is play the kind of baseball they envision, led by the man they’re paying all of that money in hopes of the ultimate prize.
“I’m just looking forward to being part of something bigger than myself,’’ Harper said, “and anybody in this clubhouse. I’m just going to go out there, and be Bryce, and play the game that I love.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale