CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper had his suit, custom-made on the Las Vegas Strip, ready last March after agreeing to terms days earlier with the Phillies and finally ending what seemed like a never-ending winter.
Harper’s free agency bled into spring training, and camps opened in Florida and Arizona with him at home. It became lonely, Harper said. But finally, it was over.
Harper boarded John Middleton’s private jet in Vegas after earning the richest contract in American sports history, tucked his suit into a garment bag, and prepared for a new life with a new team.
His 13-year, $330 million contract would be announced a day later — just three weeks from opening day — at a news conference atop the Phillies’ spring-training dugout. And Harper planned to look the part in a dashing blue suit with red accents. For an added touch, Phillies logos were sewn on the inside of the jacket.
There would be no denying that the Phillies had signed a superstar.
Then the news conference — the one to officially finish Harper’s offseason — arrived, and Harper’s suit was still on Middleton’s jet after it had departed Clearwater.
“The plane was in New Jersey, and I was like, ‘Oh crap. What am I going to wear?’ ” Harper said. “Instead, I wore a polo and some slacks. I was kind of super under-dressed and felt terrible about it. I felt horrible.”
Perhaps it was fitting that Harper’s offseason ended with his custom suit on a plane a thousand miles away, a final layer of stress to an offseason defined by unknowns. He did not know what team he would play for over the next decade or so of his career. He was unsure when he would actually be able to report to spring training. And he wondered to what city he would be moving.
His wife, Kayla, also was pregnant with the couple’s first child. The Harpers had to research hospitals, neighborhoods, and schools as they determined where they would raise their family. A forgotten suit seemed just a minor inconvenience.
“It was definitely tough last year. Everything was up and down,” Harper said. “It was kind of a whirlwind because we were kind of packed, but we weren’t. We weren’t sure if we were going to Arizona or to Florida. That was definitely tough. Because I think people look at it from a baseball standpoint, and they’re not thinking of the family aspect.”
Despite the whirlwind offseason, Harper still hit 35 home runs last season and drove in 114 runs with a .882 OPS. It was hard to complain about Harper’s first season in Philadelphia. But it’s worth wondering how much Harper’s on-field performance can benefit in Year No. 2 from a settled life.
He spent last winter meeting with teams to discuss free agency, a process Harper said he enjoyed because it was nice to feel wanted, but he conceded it might have been stressful for his wife and for his agent, Scott Boras. This offseason, the Harpers jet-setted across Europe with their son, Krew. They already knew where they would be come March.
Bryce Harper did not have to scramble last month to find a place to live during spring training, nor will he spend April house-hunting in the Philadelphia area. The unknowns of last spring have been solved.
“The worst unknowns were where are we going to live? What are we going to do? Where can we build a family for 13 years? Do we see ourselves in this area for 13 years? And then on the baseball side, it was more, does this team have a chance to win? Can it do that? ” Harper said.
“Once I got the feeling that each organization I was talking to, where they were going and what I thought that they were going to do, that’s when the decision became clear and I was able to come to Philadelphia.”
Last October Harper turned 27, an age that usually signals the start of a player’s prime. Perhaps what he did in last year’s second half — 19 homers in 67 games with a .941 OPS — is a glimpse of the player Harper could be this season with his life freed from the distractions of last winter.
“A ton,” manager Joe Girardi said this month when asked how much Harper could benefit from a routine offseason. “Because it was a normal winter for him. He got to rest. Even though you’re maybe physically not doing something during the offseason, you’re wondering, ‘Where am I going to be?’ Every day. ‘Where am I going to be? Where am I going to be? Do we hear this? Do we hear that?’ He probably went to a number of different meetings during the course of it.
"So he got to have a normal winter, which I think will be truly beneficial for him.”
Harper arrived in Clearwater this year in the middle of February, two weeks earlier than he boarded Middleton’s jet last March. The frenzy of last year — cameras, reporters, and fans — is down to a simmer this month. Everything seems a lot calmer, Harper said.
He will have a full spring training, more than five weeks to prepare for the season. Harper’s life, crazy last March, is now settled, and the Phillies could benefit.
A year later, much has changed. There was no custom suit to pack this spring.