There was not much normal about the Phillies’ first official summer camp workout Friday at Citizens Bank Park. It started at 11:15 a.m. with Andrew McCutchen pulling down his black coronavirus-protection mask beneath his chin before dropping down a bunt off batting-practice pitcher Dusty Wathan.

It was the start of a long, hot day with all the Phillies coaches and manager Joe Girardi wearing masks while the players practiced social distancing by taking the field in shifts.

In between the first and second shift, Bryce Harper, the most prolific and highest-paid player on the team, fielded questions via a Zoom interview. It was clear that he has not lost his enthusiasm for a game that is starting late not only because of a deadly virus but also because of an ugly financial feud between the owners and players.

Remember, this weekend was initially supposed to be the start of the 2020 season, but the owners and players botched that plan with their endless bickering.

“I think everybody can say the game is hurting right now,” Harper said. “We need to get back on the field and try to turn that page as quick as possible and grow this game as much as we can. People want to see us play. People want to see us on the field.”

That’s true, but the dispute between the owners and players during the COVID-19 shutdown has created a fear that the game is headed for an even more contentious battle when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after next season.

A recent Associated Press story indicated that the union has been saving for a work stoppage and has nearly doubled its nest egg from $80.1 million to $159.5 million since the end of 2017.

Harper, signed with the Phillies through 2031 and seemingly in the prime of his career, should use his position in the game to be a voice for making things better. He should do it not only by expressing his opinions on social media but by also becoming a stronger voice inside the Major League Baseball Players Association.

His agent is Scott Boras, one of the game’s true power brokers, so he could surely get a seat near the head of the union table if he wants one.

It is obvious Harper cares deeply about the game.

“All we want to do is grow this game, especially myself,” he said. “I want to do everything I can possible to leave this game better than when I got in it. It was such a great game when I got here. It’s still a great game. We just have to understand as individuals, as players, as owners, that we have to come to our best agreement … and move this game forward. It’s sad that it is at the state where it is now and hopefully we can get back to where the game is growing.”

Harper has had a successful run since entering the major leagues in 2012, but MLB attendance has fallen with each year of his career.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Harper has had a successful run since entering the major leagues in 2012, but MLB attendance has fallen with each year of his career.

Even though Harper has made a fortune from the game, it would be a stretch to say that baseball overall is better today than it was when he joined the Washington Nationals as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012. Average attendance was at 30,806 his rookie season and has fallen every season since. It was 28,198 in 2019, its lowest total since 2003.

Games take longer and players strike out more than ever. Yes, we see more home runs, too, but an argument can be made that more balls in play is more entertaining than more balls leaving the yard.

For his part, Harper is always pushing his own ideas on social media. During the pandemic, he proposed that Major League Baseball should push to be part of the Olympics in the future and he also called for a College World Series like playoff format for 2020.

Instead, we are getting a 60-game season and a status quo playoff format because the owners and players could not agree on financial compensation.

It’s hardly ideal, but at least Harper is still excited about what lies ahead. He is particularly pumped about a schedule that has the Phillies going only against teams from the National League East and American League East, two titans among the game’s six divisions.

“I mean East versus East, are you kidding me?” Harper said. “We are going to face a lot of good teams, a lot of good organizations, and a lot of good pitching. I think I read it and I went down each roster, there could be 14 Cy Youngs in East versus East.”

Not exactly sure what that means, but if his point is that the Phillies will be confronted by some great pitchers during this shortened season, he is absolutely correct.

Four Phillies opponents – Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, Washington’s Max Scherzer, and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and Rick Porcello -- have combined to win seven Cy Young Awards. Yankees free-agent addition Gerrit Cole finished second in the AL voting last year and Charlie Morton finished third. Add in Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and Atlanta’s Mike Soroka , and it’s a pretty good bet the Phillies will be faced with some serious challenges this season.

It would have helped the Phillies a lot if the playoff format had been expanded to 16 teams. It would have helped make the 2020 season more interesting, too.

Baseball needs to get better in a lot of ways and Bryce Harper needs to be at the forefront of that improvement.