Bryce Harper leaned on the rail of the dugout as the Phillies played out the final innings of a loss in Atlanta earlier this season. He had been heckled all weekend -- as he usually is wherever the Phillies travel -- and one fan was tossing a few more barbs.
“You’ll never be as good as Ah-coon-ah,” the fan shouted. “As hard as you try. You’ll never be as good as him.”
That was enough. Harper turned around, locked eyes with the heckler, and fired back. He told the fan how to properly say Ronald Acuña Jr.’s last name -- “ah-CUHN-ya”-- and used his hand to motion a tilde mark. A front-row seat came with a Spanish lesson.
“Know your players, right? Come on, man,” Harper said last month.
Harper is treated like a hero in Philadelphia, bowing before each game to the fans in right field and pumping his fist as the crowd roars. Harper and the city’s fans -- ever since he signed a 13-year contract for $330 million before the 2019 season -- have fallen for each other.
But the return of fans to ballparks this season has served as a reminder that Harper’s hero worship doesn’t stretch too far away from South Philly. The heckling in Atlanta was nothing new. Harper is booed in New York and Miami. He’s heckled in Chicago and Milwaukee. And he expects to hear it this week in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In ballparks around the country, Harper plays the villain. And he likes it that way.
“It’s just my desire to play in front of fans and love the boos and the hate a little bit,” Harper said. “I’ve been hearing it since I was 12 or 13 years old, so it’s kind of normal. That’s sports. That’s fan bases. I think that’s what Philadelphia does when other teams come into town. That’s why I loved coming in here to play, because they care. If you go to Atlanta, they care about the Braves. If you go to New York, they care about the Mets and the Yankees. They usually hate the guys who they are playing against . It’s fun. I’m excited to go back to L.A. and see those fans.”
The heckling in Atlanta was not new, and neither was the way Harper responded.
“I love it. That just means he’s present with what’s happening,” Phillies reliever Brandon Kintzler said. “He’s not a robot. Sometimes everyone thinks we’re robotic and our minds are out there. He’s very present and he’s having fun with it.”
Harper shushed the fans with his finger in San Francisco after hitting a 420-foot home run, and threw a ball out of Wrigley Field after tricking hecklers that he was tossing it to them.
“It seems like as he goes on in his career, he’s kind of accepted that villain role and almost plays into it a little bit,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “He says he likes it and I really think he does. He enjoys how quiet it gets after the boos or how loud it gets after the boos if he does something well. It fuels him.”
Being booed on the road is usually part of the job description for a superstar athlete. But fans in Colorado don’t boo Mike Trout like they do Harper. Opposing fan bases aren’t waiting to heckle Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant or Fernando Tatis Jr. or Christian Yelich the way they are for Harper.
Even Acuna wasn’t booed in Philly this month until he hit a mammoth home run and slowly trotted around the bases. Harper seems to create more angst than other stars.
“It seems like anyone who has swag gets booed. Anyone who shows emotion gets booed,” said Kintzler, who also played with Harper in Washington. “Mike Trout doesn’t show much emotion. Bryce is busy on social media. He’s promoting his brand or whatever. It just seems like people have been jealous of Bryce Harper since he was 16. So naturally, you’re going to hate him unless you get to know the guy. I feel like it happens a lot where you don’t like the guy until you play with him.”
Harper and Kintzler are both from Las Vegas, but they didn’t know each other until Kintzler was traded to the Nationals in 2017. Before that, Kintzler only knew Harper from the other side of the field, seeing him the way the booing fans do: an opponent.
And then he met him.
“All of a sudden, you get there and you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s not that bad,’” Kintzler said. “You never know what these superstars are like. Sometimes they’re arrogant and cocky and come off as not good teammates. But he’s a very genuine teammate. You just get the fact that the guy wants to win. The guy wants to win so bad that people hate him. If he didn’t want to win, people would probably like him.”
“He’s actually a really genuine guy. Just on the field, the guy has been under a microscope since he was 16. He lets out his emotions in the moment, but at the end of the day he’s a really private guy. Maybe some people don’t like that. I don’t know what else they want from him.”
By the time Hoskins reached the majors in 2017, Harper was already an established star. So he was already an established villain, even in Philadelphia as the fans in South Philly booed him just as much as any other city’s fans before he joined their team.
“I had this perception of him before I played with him. He was easy to dislike from the other side,” Hoskins said. “Part of that is because he killed us.”
Harper said he doesn’t know why he gets so much flak on the road. That’s just fans, he said.
Hoskins said Harper is misunderstood. He’s a “completely normal dude” who “enjoys the things that the rest of us enjoy and enjoys them in the same way,” Hoskins said. He quickly learned that the perceptions he had about Harper were mistaken.
“He plays with an incredible intensity on the field. From across the field and not being on the field around him in other situations, you assume that that’s how it’s going to be all the time. But it’s the furthest thing from it,” Hoskins said. “It’s way more subdued than I thought it was. He just has a different type of zest for the game, and plays with it.”
Hoskins said the fan’s perceptions of Harper can be traced back to June 2009 when Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old with the headline, “Baseball’s Chosen One.” It was easy to root against him.
Three years later, Harper reached the big leagues with eye black streaming down his face and a mohawk under his cap. His introduction to most fans came in a viral moment a month into his career when a Canadian reporter asked the 19-year-old Harper what beer he was going to drink after the game.
“That’s a clown question, bro,” Harper responded.
Harper was still a teenager, but already one of baseball’s biggest starts. Fans -- just like Hoskins and Kintzler -- were ready to mold their opinion of him.
“Maybe it’s just more of where we come from and we say whatever we feel. He was probably really young and came off as a cocky guy who said whatever he wanted,” Kintzler said. “But I’m sure he was asked a dumb question and thought it was stupid, so he said what he felt like. That was a stupid question. He doesn’t even drink.”
Major League Baseball was played last summer without fans in the stands, so Harper played a season without heckling. Yes, he missed the cheers in Philadelphia. But he also said he missed the fans on the road.
Harper, like a professional wrestling heel, enjoys the role he plays. As everyone seeks normalcy this summer, Harper will enjoy a slice of it every time he walks into a ballpark as a visiting player. The hecklers should know that he’s listening. And he might even respond.
“I think a lot of that has to do with how successful he’s been on the field,” Hoskins said. “An envy almost, like, ‘I wish he was doing that for me. I wish he was doing that for my team.’ And there’s also a cool factor to him. Everything he does is cool. There’s an envy to that. Everyone wants to have that.”