Kevin Frandsen hasn’t forgotten his first encounter with Bryce Harper.
It happened early in the 2012 season — April 11, to be exact — during a triple-A game in Allentown. Harper, 19 years old and two weeks from making his major-league debut for the Washington Nationals, stroked an opposite-field line drive off the left-field wall, zoomed around the bases, and dove into third with a triple.
"He gets there and I'm like, 'What's up, Bryce?'" Frandsen recalled recently. "And he goes, 'What's up, dude? This is awesome!'"
Frandsen, pushing 30 then and back in the minors after a brief run as a utility infielder with the San Francisco Giants, loved Harper's enthusiasm. But he also could see how it might be a turnoff within the warped culture of a sport that believes hotshot prospects should keep quiet and fall in line rather than, you know, be themselves.
Harper has strived to be himself as much as possible over the years, critics be damned. As a teenager, he slathered eye black on his face, Ultimate Warrior-style. He claimed Mickey Mantle as his favorite player, never mind that he was born 24 years after the Mick stopped playing and only three years before he died. Harper’s hair and beard have sometimes gotten more attention than his hitting and defense. And did we mention his footwear? He has a custom line from Under Armour and delights in helping the company design a cleat for every occasion.
Maybe that’s how it happened. Maybe that’s how Harper became baseball’s most polarizing superstar since Alex Rodriguez — or at least, in the words of Phillies teammate J.T. Realmuto in an offseason interview with MLB Network, “one of the most misunderstood people in baseball.”
It probably doesn't help that everyone thinks they know Harper before they actually meet him. At age 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which labeled him "Baseball's Chosen One" and "the most exciting prodigy since LeBron." Talk about hype, right? Phillies outfielder Jay Bruce calls it "the poster-child treatment," and it tends to cause opinions to form and harden like concrete without regard for whether they align with reality.
"Every single move of his is watched and critiqued," Bruce said. "He's under a microscope."
Said Frandsen: “He’s misunderstood because he’s been in the spotlight since he was 15 years old. Anything he does or says, it blows up when he’s just trying to be normal.”
Whatever the case, as Harper begins his second season with the Phillies after signing the biggest free-agent contract in baseball history by overall value ($330 million over 13 years), his teammates say they have learned enough that, in some cases, their minds have been changed about who he really is.
Harper isn’t the best player in baseball and might not be in the top-five. But he’s far more substance than style, with an unbridled passion for the game and an investment in the Phillies’ success that matches the team’s considerable stake in him.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got over here from a clubhouse standpoint, what kind of teammate he was, and all that‚” Realmuto said after training camp opened at Citizens Bank Park. “I knew playing against him that he was a good guy because we’d always have conversations, but didn’t know what he’d be like in the actual clubhouse. He’s a great teammate. You’d never know he was a guy with $300 million coming his way.”
Realmuto didn't just say that because Harper has been lobbying so hard for the Phillies to sign the All-Star catcher to a contract extension that he would deserve an agent's 5% commission.
On the field, Harper sets a leadership tone by plunging into second base on 200-foot hustle doubles down the right-field line. Off the field, he welcomed each of the Phillies' four draft picks last month by obtaining their phone numbers from general manager Matt Klentak and FaceTiming them moments after they were selected.
“I wish I could take credit for that, but that was all Bryce,” Phillies amateur scouting director Brian Barber said. “I thought it was just an unbelievable thing for him to take the time to reach out to these guys and just congratulate them. I mean, being an 18- to 21-year-old and being reached out to by one of the most famous baseball players in the world? Just unbelievably cool.”
It's tough to fake that kind of passion. If anything, Frandsen said, it's Bryce being Bryce, which wasn't always encouraged during his early days in Washington.
Harper was 19 when he made his major-league debut on April 28, 2012, 691 days after being drafted first overall. He went 1-for-3 with a double in a 4-3 loss at Dodger Stadium and went on to win Rookie of the Year and help the Nationals to their first postseason appearance since they were the Montreal Expos in 1981.
But Harper tended to show emotion on the field, and it didn’t always sit well with older players. The most public incident happened in 2015, when Harper and closer Jonathan Papelbon came to blows in the dugout. But there were other attempts, less overt and not physically aggressive, to tamp down some of Harper’s individualism.
“You had so many veteran guys. I think there was some jealousy there,” former Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said last season. “Any time he didn’t do something right it would be everybody hovering over him, which I thought was a little extreme. He worked it out and had some great teammates over in Washington. Jayson Werth was hard on him, and him and Jayson are real close; Ian Desmond was hard on him, and he and Desy are close. They wanted to teach him the right way.”
When Frandsen signed with Washington in 2014, he was assigned to the locker next to Harper in the Nationals’ home clubhouse, which enabled him to see a side of Harper that, by then, wasn’t always on display.
“We would talk about certain things — he would ask about Chase [Utley] and about guys’ prepping [for games] — and he was so damn personable,” said Frandsen, now a Phillies radio broadcaster. “And then when [teammates] started rolling in, it felt like he would start closing up a little bit more. The Nationals, I think, did a great job in protecting him, but also at the same time, not so much as far as the growth of the human aspect and just letting him be.”
With the Nationals, Harper was always the phenom with the impossible-to-meet expectations. In a sense, then, coming to the Phillies was liberating. Nothing that happened before matters much now, and with a 13-year runway here, he can write his Philadelphia legacy.
Harper is older now. He’s a father, too, with an 11-month-old son and another baby on the way this winter. But he is less afraid than ever to be himself, even if it means stepping out with strong opinions.
To wit: Harper flirted with tampering charges last year by saying he would recruit Mike Trout to play for the Phillies if he ever became a free agent. (Soon after, Trout signed a 12-year, $426.5 million extension to stay in Anaheim.) He’s been outspoken about Realmuto’s future. During a live video-game stream on Twitch the other day, he endorsed prized pitching prospect Spencer Howard for a spot on the team.
"If Spencer Howard isn't starting in our rotation by Game 6 in New York against the Yankees, there's a problem," Harper said. "That's all I'm saying."
Indeed, Frandsen believes Harper has been able to let his guard down. What the Phillies have seen, Frandsen said, is who Harper really is.
"He was having to grow up in the big leagues, and shoot, he was doing this with social media going at the same time," Frandsen said. "I don't envy it. I don't think anyone does because it's not easy. And then he gets here and it's like, what we saw last year was him before a game with me. That's what I saw from him. The freedom of just being himself."
It’s when Harper is at his best.