CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Bryce Harper walked out of the Phillies clubhouse Sunday morning -- his red hat backward, his strut cool -- with a bat in his right hand and a glove in his left.
This, Harper hoped after spending the last eight years of his life in Washington, was the first day of the rest of his career. But his new colors, he admitted, will take some time to get used to.
Past the throngs of cameras that snapped each of Harper’s moves waited two seasoned baseball men who can help Harper better than most as he gets acquainted his new team. No one in Clearwater has worn a Phillies uniform longer than Charlie Manuel and Larry Bowa.
Bowa, armed with a fungo bat, shouted from the outfield as Harper stepped onto the grass. Manuel leaned on the batting cage, the place he seems most comfortable, and waited for a close-up at Harper’s swing.
For the last seven seasons, the two lifers watched from the other side as Harper terrorized their Phillies. Manuel was in the dugout in 2012 when a 19-year-old Harper responded to a plunking from Cole Hamels by stealing home. Bowa, so old-school that he never talked to Harper until he joined the Phillies, just hated watching him come up to bat.
Now the former thorn was on their side. And it was easy to imagine how Manuel and Bowa felt when they saw Harper walk Sunday onto the field wearing their colors.
“I was telling someone yesterday, I looked at our team like we had a big four-layer chocolate cake,” Manuel said. “And all of a sudden we have the icing to go on top of it. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”
Harper stood in the outfield as other hitters took batting practice and chatted with Bowa. The conversation, Bowa said, kept steering back to baseball. Harper told Bowa that he would have loved to play for a fiery manager like him. Bowa said he would have loved to manage a player like Harper, who Bowa said would have made his job easier. Perhaps he would have made the playoffs, Bowa cracked.
Bowa called the team’s $330 million superstar “a baseball rat.” The biggest statement, Bowa said, was when Harper told him he would be OK if he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts if the team won because the batter behind him had three hits and three RBIs. Winning, Bowa said, is all Harper cares about.
“He reminds me a little bit of Derek Jeter, except he has a lot more power than Jeet,” Bowa said. “But those guys want to hit when the game is on the line, and they can deal with it if they don’t get a hit. The next night they want to hit with the game on the line. Some guys they shy away from that. I don’t think this guy ever does, just like Jeter. They’re just made for those situations and more than not they come through.”
When Harper went to the cage, Manuel watched from behind as former Phillies infielder Charlie Hayes fired batting-practice fastballs. Manuel, the hitting enthusiast, admired the timing of Harper’s swing and the contact he made.
Manuel watched Harper pepper line drives to the outfield and send a few home runs over the right-field wall. It was easy to dream what Harper could do at home in South Philly. Manuel was reminded of what he once asked a young Jim Thome: How many do you want to hit?
“If he can stay relaxed and focused and love the game like he does right now, there’s no telling how many he can hit,” Manuel said.
A day before they watched Harper work out, Bowa and Manuel met him before his introductory news conference. The two walked across the ballpark to greet Harper as he waited in the visiting clubhouse with his family.
“I told him I didn’t tell Hamels to hit him,” Manuel said. “That was the first thing I told him. I said ‘Look Harp, I didn’t tell Hamels to hit you.’”
» FROM MAY 2012: Harper to Phillies fans: ‘Boo me’
The three could laugh as Harper was on their side now. He was no longer menacing the baseball lifers. And on Sunday, they all wore the same colors.
“It’s good to be able to put a voice to the face and be able to talk to those guys and see the old school style of the game come through a little bit,” Harper said. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to pick their brains a little bit.”
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