CLEARWATER, Fla. — He’s awfully good-looking. But can he cook?
That was the question that many people asked as Bryce Harper, the $330 million man, played right field for the first time as a Phillie.
That certainly was the question for Henry Hill. From the cracked Liberty Bell tattoo on his right forearm (one of his 10 visible inkworks) to his coordinated outfit — hat, T-shirt, red Jordans — Hill was the image of a Phillies superfan. But there’s only one reason that Hill, a Northeast Philly transplant, would rise at 6 a.m. on a workday and drive 265 miles from Fort Lauderdale with his sister, Kate, for an exhibition baseball game.
That reason’s name was printed on the back of a T-shirt that just cost Hill $48.
“For the first time in a long time, we’ve got somebody to root for. A superstar!” Hill said, then looked at the $150 worth of Phillies swag in his bag. He thought about the 4-hour drive home.
“I just hope he’s not a flop.”
Did we mention that Hill once lived in Olney, too?
Harper-mania is real. People are invested. But this is the most cautious case of hysteria in sports history.
Since he agreed to his 13-year, $330 million contract on Feb. 28, Harper has sold tickets and merchandise at a rate the Phillies have never before seen. The team sold more than 340,000 tickets in the first week alone, team officials said, which includes a spike of 2,000 season tickets. Combined with the season-ticket sales already spurred by the addition of other veterans — catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Jean Segura, leftfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson — the Phillies stand at 12,700 season tickets, an increase of 3,200, or, incredibly, more than 33 percent. But only the opener is sold out.
Fans are skeptical, too. Hopeful, but skeptical. When Harper debuted Saturday as the designated hitter, he received a standing ovation. When he ran out to right field on Monday he was greeted with hearty applause.
That’s all. And that’s understandable. It’s hard to fathom: so much money for just one man.
With this new deal Harper, 26, will bank more than $380 million in his career — about $30 million more than Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Carlos Ruiz made, combined. Ryan Howard finished just south of $190 million. Howard hit 284 home runs in his first seven seasons. Harper has 184.
Granted, these comparisons might be irrelevant when considering baseball economics, but they’re vital when considering baseball allegiances. The heart wants what it wants.
“Ryan Howard will always be my favorite,” said Judy Letcavage, 61, of Shamokin, Pa. “And he grew up a Phillie.”
This is her ninth spring training trip in a row, all made with her daughter, Taryn Vanaskie, 37, who lives in Philly. Monday was their last game, and they wore matching “Harper” T-shirts as they leaned over the railing on the right-field concourse, maybe 50 feet from the savior. This is a religion for them.
Mother and daughter got matching Phillies “P” tattoos on their wrists in 2013, when Letcavage’s father, Ed “Poppy” Chervanik, died. He listened to Phillies games on the radio in the coal regions, his daughter and his wife, Betty, right beside him. Betty died in 2008, but not before the Phillies won the World Series, and when Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske she looked over and saw he’d missed it.
“Wake up!” she hollered.
This clan, like most of the Phillies faithful, prefers their heroes homegrown. They’re not Yankees fans, after all.
“I was not happy about them getting Bryce. He was with the Nationals,” said Letcavage.
She allows that Harper was the lesser of free-agent evils.
“I guess I liked him better than Manny Machado," she said. "I didn’t think Machado would’ve fit in Philadelphia.”
Machado decided to join the Padres on Feb. 19. Nine days later, Harper ignited Philadelphia by deed, then word. He insisted that his deal include no opt-out clause, wedding him to Philly essentially forever, and in his news conference he delivered the most glowing non-profane endorsement of Philadelphia in its sports history — a PR and marketing triumph.
“Oh, everybody loves Bryce!” Vanaskie said, chastising her mother. “It’s just exciting to see everybody so pumped again!”
Everybody wasn’t pumped Monday. Harper, a left-handed hitter, came to bat with two out in the first inning against Rays left-handed starter Blake Snell. Snell won the American League Cy Young Award last season. Harper struck out, looking.
“He’s good,” Harper observed.
Harper then walked in the fourth inning, against Jalen Beeks. With three walks and a strikeout, Harper is fitting right in with Team Take-a-Pitch.
Harper will be back in right field Wednesday night in Tampa against the Yankees and will play against the visiting Blue Jays on Friday. By then, the shine will have worn off. It will be business as usual.
Even if the Harper buzz is no longer palpable, the effect remains tangible. A sellout crowd of 9,848 fans filled Spectrum Field on Monday, and Phillies officials said more than 20,000 spring training tickets sold the first week after the news of his signing broke. Phillies fans from all over the country are planning last-minute trips to see Harper in the flesh. The first 1,000 T-shirts printed for sale here sold out in less than a day. At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, 95 minutes before the first pitch, the five checkout lines at the main merchandise store snaked 80 fans deep. Sales at the team store on nongame days have tripled.
By Monday, Spectrum Field had turned into Bryce Harper, Inc.: authentic jerseys, $120; seven different varieties of T-shirts and tank tops, $35-$48; cotton Harper caps with a Liberty Bell logo, $30; drawstring nylon backpacks, $30; $12 Harper balls, $10 Harper mini-bats, $10 Harper pins, $9 Harper refrigerator magnets. And you could stuff it all into a $9 Harper shopping bag.
Beer coozies? On order.
“We won’t be able to tell the real effect until the end of the spring, when we tally up the merchandise,” said John Timberlake, the Phillies’ director of Florida operations. “But we haven’t seen anything like this since 2010, 2011.”
In 2010, the Phillies added Roy Halladay, the late Hall of Fame pitcher. In 2011, free agent pitcher Cliff Lee chose the Phillies over the Yankees, which earned him the same adoration Harper now enjoys for shunning the Dodgers and Giants.
The Phillies also won 199 games those two seasons, the second-highest two-year total in the team’s 136-year history. Even with Nick Foles leaving and DeSean Jackson coming home, a couple of 100-win seasons from Harper & Co. might knock the Eagles off the airwaves for a few days.
“I love 'em, but it’s mostly Eagles on in the car all the time,” said Kate Hill, 31, who is visiting her little brother from her home in Palmyra, N.J. “I like that Bryce Harper’s making Philly the place to be.”
He will if he can cook.
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