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Bryce Harper Mania seizes Philadelphia as Nationals fans try to move on

April 1, 2019

In Philadelphia, Bryce Harper merchandise is hot from official MLB jerseys to “The Bryce Is Right” t-shirts stores can’t keep the stuff in stock.

In Washington, fans are using Harper jerseys in an informal contest to see who can come up with the most creative way to deface a baseball uniform from spray-painting a big “X” across the shirt to carefully cutting a rectangle across the back shoulders to remove the now-offending name.

While the City of Brotherly Love showers affection on Harper, the nation’s capital is trying to get over the one that got away. Now, baseball’s most polarizing star will make his first trip back to the District Tuesday and Wednesday for a two-game set against his old team, in front of the fans he left behind.

“I guess it will be weird to see Bryce because we’ve only seen him in a Nats uniform,” said ace Max Scherzer, who will get the start Tuesday for the Nationals. “For us players, it doesn’t really faze us too much to see guys in new uniforms. As for the fans, that’s the fans. They’ll do what they feel appropriate.”

The Phillies landed Harper on a then-record $330 million, 13-year contract in late February. Harper hasn’t disappointed his new city so far, hitting two home runs in the Phillies’ season-opening series.

As he did in Washington, Harper quickly became the face of his new franchise, fueling ticket sales and sparking a local boom in merchandise.

If its got Harpers face or name on it, its selling, according to Shibe Vintage Sports in Center City, Philadelphia from the t-shirt featuring Harper swinging the bat backed by an outline of the citys skyline to the prayer candles bearing his image.

Shibe co-owner Brian Michael, a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, said Harper arrived in town at a unique time, shortly after the Philadelphia Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl win delivered “a shot in the arm in terms of sports.”

“So landing Bryce with those expectations (after) the Eagles’ Super Bowl really ramps it up for the Phillies as well,” Mr. Michael said. “The whole Sixers’ process, going through that for fans, it was that waiting. It’s worth the wait, is pretty much what it means ... With all that kind of coming together at the same time, I think the expectations are definitely World Series or bust for the Phillies and Bryce Harper.”

Harper spent his first two home games taking a bow in right field to the cheering crowd. After he smacked his first home run of the season on Saturday, the 26-year-old received “MVP” chants.

“People love to embrace superstars here in Philly,” Mr. Michael said. “Of course, as long as they’re doing well.”

The Phillies are an early favorite in the National League, thanks not only to Harper but also fellow acquisitions J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura. Sports Illustrated predicted they would win the World Series.

But the Harper bump was better measured at the box office. The Phillies said they sold 100,000 tickets the day the Harper news first broke, and after five days the number reached 275,000

The Phillies’ official team store at Citizens Bank Park had to stitch so many Harper jerseys for fans that they briefly ran out of letter Rs last month. Aramark, the apparel company that manages the team store, said in a statement that the Phillies were receiving new shipments of products “on a near-daily basis,” from jerseys and T-shirts to hats and even toddler apparel.

At Nationals Park, it’s been another story. Harper’s departure sparked a mixed reaction ranging from ambivalence to anger.

Several fans debuted some custom alterations to their Washington Harper jerseys on opening day, and more of that could be coming Tuesday and Wednesday. One theme was to tape over Harper’s name with another player’s surname, like Soto or Rendon.

Another fan created a unique nameplate: “He Who Must Not Be Named.”

After a four-month wait for Harper to sign, many Washington fans felt his exit was inevitable given the money involved and Washington’s reluctance to go past $300 million. Teenager Cole Fortner, who taped “Soto” over his Harper jersey, said he still has respect for Harper, but added he was surprised he left.

“He hurt our city, man,” Fortner said. “I loved him. But I’m just moving on to Juan Soto. He’s a great player, so he’s going to take his spot and lead us.”

Fortner, though, said he has no plans to boo Harper moving forward. After Sunday’s win over the New York Mets, the Nationals were asked about what kind of reception they think Harper will receive upon his return.

“Yeah, hopefully a happy one,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I haven’t talked to him since he signed, so hopefully the fans go crazy for him because he did a lot for us here and he had a good career here.”

“He did a lot for this city and a lot for this organization,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “I know there’s people that they wanted him back. Fans wanted him back. He was such a big part of this team and this city, so I don’t know. It’s going to make for a very fun atmosphere.”