Bryce Harper believes he can bring more value than just his on-field performance to the Philadelphia Phillies.
No, we’re not talking about how he can help the team sell prodigious amounts of T-shirts. He’s already succeeded at that.
(Here’s a fun fact you can wow others with at the bar or during your next social media spat: The 30 teams in Major League Baseball split the licensing revenue from T-shirts, jerseys, caps, etc. evenly. If you buy Phillies merchandise from the team store, the team makes whatever margin there is from retailing. But if you buy online or from say Target, the Washington Nationals and New York Mets make as much as the Phillies.)
And he will sell some tickets.
But what he really wants to sell is the experience of playing on the Bryce Harper Phillies.
He said he agreed to a $330 million contract for 13 years with no opt-outs because he wants to show other players he’s all in — and for the long haul.
After signing, Harper quickly began trying his hand at recruiting, saying he planned on making a call to Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels when he becomes a free agent.
This sent shock waves through the baseball world. So far no one seems to be able to find that it breaks any rules, but this just isn’t done.
Six degrees of Bryce Harper
Harper is well-connected in the baseball world.
We will start with his reported BFF Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs. They both grew up in Las Vegas, which is something of a hot bed for baseball talent.
There is Trout. He and Harper were teammates in the Arizona Fall League.
Then there is Zach Davies. Davies is an OK starter for the Brewers and is unlikely to be a free-agent prize. I bring him up for another reason.
Davies grew up in Arizona. He has never been a professional teammate of Harper’s.
But they have a connection. They were teammates on the McDowell Mountain Yankees, a Scottsdale-based team that Harper played for as a 12- and 13-year-old.
I happen to know this because I saw Harper play with the McDowell Mountain Yankees once in a 13u tournament.
As a youngster Harper would regularly fly to play with some team somewhere for a weekend.
Another team he played for was the Southern California Red Wings. I don’t know of anyone from that team who made the majors. But I know, for instance, that the Red Wings and Harper played against Delino DeShields Jr. and Trevor Kieboom, who is the older brother of Nationals prospect Carter Kieboom, in a tournament.
So who knows how many MLB players’ paths — or the paths of brothers or friends of major leaguers — Harper crossed as a pre-teen and teen.
The sports world at large found out about Harper when he was 16, and Sports Illustrated touted him as the baseball equivalent of LeBron James.
But Harper was already a rock star in the world of travel baseball teams.
He was the talk of all these tournaments, in part because of his ability, but largely because of the circumstances. He was sometimes called “Rent-a-Kid.”
The roster for these teams are flexible, and the players change from event to event.
Still, players were not regularly flying in from another city to join a team for a weekend. This sent shock waves through the travel-ball world. No one seemed to be able to find that it broke any rules, but this just wasn’t done.
So imagine, you are a 13-year-old kid. You fly off to play for a weekend with a bunch of guys you don’t know very well. All the parents on other teams are whispering, talking, and occasionally shouting about how you shouldn’t be playing on this team.
It takes a special personality to thrive in that environment. Harper had it.
As one of his coaches later told me, “Whatever team he was on always won the tournament.”
The growth of these teams
Travel-ball teams are nothing new. Johnny Bench, for an example, played on one as a kid.
But by the mid-2000s they had become prevalent enough to become controversial.
Little League began to complain about the evils of year-round baseball, even as more of its affiliated leagues began offering fall ball.
For some reason, many believe that if you play on one of these travel teams you can never play any other sports. John Smoltz weighs in on this all the time. It is not really true, but that doesn’t matter.
One legitimate complaint about these teams is they have led to an increase in pitchers’ arm injuries.
But love these teams or hate them, a lot of current major leaguers played on travel-ball teams and grew up with Harper as the ultimate alpha dog.
The comparison to LeBron
This makes baseball a little bit like basketball, where many of the players grew up together playing in AAU tournaments.
Which brings me back to James.
I thought SI’s comparison between James and Harper was … strained.
First of all, if you saw James play as a 13-year-old for 10 minutes, you would know he was destined for greatness. That is how basketball works.
Baseball is not the same. In the game I saw Harper play, he hit a triple and a sacrifice fly. The team scored like 20 runs. He wasn’t even the best hitter on his team that game. To appreciate Harper or any young prospect, you need to see them over time.
By the time James was a senior in high school, he was a can’t-miss pick. Within a couple years of going to the NBA straight from high school, he was already one of the top players in the league. By the time he was Harper’s current age, 26, James was in the conversation as the Greatest of All Time.
There is no such thing as a can’t-miss pick in baseball. Even when Harper was drafted, a lot of people had questions about his swing with its excessive lower-body motion. He cleaned it up. If he didn’t make adjustments, he wouldn’t have made it to the big leagues.
Harper is not in the Greatest of All Time conversation. He is not even the best of this era. That is Trout.
Robbie Stratakos made a case on this site that Harper was possibly not the best player in this free-agent class.
Respect of peers
But here is where Harper and James are alike: they have the admiration of many of their peers.
Harper looks to be in good position to orchestrate some personnel moves, similar to the way James and other NBA stars have done.
I think Harper’s network of relationships will work in his favor. But it goes beyond that.
Take catcher J.T. Realmuto. They haven’t been teammates until now, but for more than a year they’ve been talking about how they want to play on the same team.
Realmuto told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the basis of their mutual admiration was how Realmuto needled Harper at the plate.
“For a guy with that pedigree and that type of ballplayer to think of me as his favorite player is awesome,’’ Realmuto said of Harper.
While Harper is no GOAT, he has chops as a star player. And he has a big personality. Trout is a better player, but I can’t see him pushing another player to come to his team.
Just as a magnet attracts, it also repels.
Harper has rubbed plenty of people the wrong way.
Tom Verducci, who penned the SI cover story on Harper in 2009, wrote an article before the 2015 season: Why is it so easy to dislike Bryce Harper?
That was a piece about public perception.
But his teammates have found him wearing as well. Relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon called out Harper for failing to run out a pop fly in a loss late in the 2015 season. Harper responded: “You gotta be kidding?”
Papelbon tried to grab Harper by the throat.
Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote after Harper signed with the Phillies that Harper’s sometime lax approach to fundamentals made it “hard to demand total alertness from the other 24.”
When Boswell ran his theory by a Nationals veteran, the player said: “Write it.”
Even Jayson Werth, who in his time as Harper’s Nationals teammate played the role of older brother to the young star and professes great affection for him, told The Athletic that their relationship was largely “him doing (stupid stuff), and me rubbing his nose in it.”
Harper’s big salary may also be a drag when it comes to recruiting players. Figures from CBS Sports show that he will make $30 million this season, $26 million per season from 2020-2028, and $22 million per season from 2029-2031.
Can the Phillies accommodate Harper and a big salary for Trout, Bryant, or some other big-time star in, or near, his prime?
And then again if anyone has watched the Los Angeles Lakers this season, they might not be too sold on using the model of star-as-shadow GM. But James’ involvement with personnel moves played a role in his teams making it to the NBA Finals for eight straight seasons.
No matter how this turns out, it will be interesting to watch.