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The Myths of Bryce Harper and Phillies Free Agency

Sing Muse, of Bryce Harper signing with the Phillies! And Muse, while you’re up, take a look at Harper, his contract, and the Phillies’ free agency history.

Bryce Harper by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Myths of Bryce Harper and Phillies Free Agency


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Estimated Reading Time: 13 Minutes

Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies. Beyond my feelings of utter elation and excitement for the upcoming season, lies a deep, profound relief: the city of Philadelphia will not be burned to the ground. Which some people might say would be an improvement. But I’m like, hey. It’s my hometown. Only I get to say that.

St**id Money

With the Phillies entering the offseason as the odds-on favorite to land either Harper or Machado, and reports circulating in the dumb-o-sphere that they might try to get both, it’s easy to forget now that it’s rare for a huge free-agent to sign with the team. The myth of their “stupid money”–a phrase I would never like to hear again, and I think John Middleton would agree with me—hampered the Phillies front-office team all offseason, both in terms of their negotiations and managing potential blow-back from baseball fans and Phillies fans alike.

Let me be clear: I was no exception. After Machado signed with the Padres, I was fully in support of Middleton chipping in his first-born child if it would seal the deal for Harper. And if you think I’m being heartless to children, first-born or otherwise, know that when the Phillies’ broadcast director suggested that I could be a throw-in, I was willing to put whatever I had on the line, too.

But contract bonuses aside, it’s important to remember that this recent image of the Phillies organization as the Daddy Warbucks of baseball is not one borne out by overwhelming historical precedent. I’m certainly not here to cry woe-is-me as a fan–particularly if we’re talking about the post-February-28-2019 me, who feels like a completely different person from last week—because the Phillies have signed notable free agents before. It’s just not an extensive list. In my lifetime, the largest offseason signings that spring to mind are that of Jim Thome and Cliff Lee, and I still consider the latter signing to be one of the best days of my life. I have the New York Daily News cover from the day that Lee signed with the Phillies on my refrigerator. Yes, that’s right, a newspaper from 2010. I have placed it on three successive refrigerators with care.

Newspaper from the day of the Cliff Lee signing, still on my refrigerator

The Cliff Lee Signing: An Autobiography

There may be no way to match the all-consuming joy that I felt on that day for a number of reasons. One is that, in 2010, Cliff Lee was my favorite player in the entire sport. Lee had been traded to the Phillies, I had fallen in love with him, and traded away again, breaking my heart. His exploits in the latter half of 2009 would not have been out of place in The Iliad (yes, I am a nerd and just referenced The Iliad, but that’s 100% on-brand with myths). Lee started his tenure with the Phillies with a 0.68 ERA through five games, and pitched a complete game with no earned runs in the 2009 World Series. The Phillies won only won in that Series when he was on the mound.

Phillies fans remember the total pin-up that was the rotation in 2011—Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt and Lee—but Lee was my personal favorite. A few Christmases ago, my husband and I commissioned joke portraits as presents to ourselves, and to match the portrait for his cooking-show girlfriend, Gail Simmons, I have a portrait of Cliff Lee. This was after Lee had retired, but if you can grasp my enduring love for him, you can understand how thrilled I was in 2010.

Portraits of Cliff Lee and Gail Simmons in our living room

The second reason is that, in choosing to sign with the Phillies, Lee spurned a larger offer from the New York Yankees. I was raised on a fundamentalist hatred of the Yankees, so there could be no larger narrative of good triumphing over evil than my favorite player in my favorite sport refusing the cartoon money-bags of the Yankees to come back to my team. Speaking of myths, depictions of St. George stamping on the dragon’s head got nothin’ on the faded cover of the NY Daily News on my refrigerator.

Lastly, it was completely a surprise. It happened before Christmas, Phillies fans everywhere awakening to discover that their true love had gotten them a lefty from Arkansas with a league-leading ability to throw three-pitch strikeouts, instead of eleven pipers piping with no damn gift receipt. There was no expectation, no long offseason slog. Just a miracle. Shit, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Me at an early 2011 Cliff Lee start. Once a dweeb, always a dweeb.

However, exhilarating as that day was, Cliff Lee was not the Bryce Harper of his day, even if he, in 2010, and Jim Thome, in 2002, were as close as the Phillies have come to this moment in my own lifetime. Cliff Lee was not the face of baseball; he wouldn’t have been on the cover of The Show videogame. Unless, of course, I taped his picture on myself, which sounds like something I would do, muttering “He won a Cy Young, what do you want from the man,” with every piece of scotch tape.

But Bryce Harper is baseball. Friends of mine who know very little about baseball still know who he is, perhaps helped by the times Bryce pops up in TV commercials to sell you Gatorade or T-mobile or Under Armor or, like, Catitude Cat Food.

But now, Bryce Harper is a Phillie. Gonna have to change that brand to Phancy Pheast.

The Bryce Harper Doesn’t Want to Play in Philly Myth

I had found myself thinking of Cliff Lee often in the last, excruciating weeks of Bryce Harper’s free agency, and not just because I can be in neither my kitchen nor living room without looking at his face. Cliff Lee had chosen Philadelphia, despite being offered more money to play for the Evil Empire. I reminded myself of this as there were more and more rumors that Bryce just didn’t want to play in Philly.

One of literally thousands of tweets that will come up if you search “Bryce Harper doesn’t want to play in Philly” or “Philadelphia” on Twitter

These rumors were from sources more and less reputable, from people who enjoy bashing the city, and from people in the area reading the tea leaves of John Middleton’s airplane exhaust and the ensuing silence. I think the lowest moment for me came when I saw assertions that Harper thought Kapler was goofy and didn’t want to play for him.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that some Philadelphia sports fans should have their own cheering section in Dante’s Inferno, and there have been many days when I’ve been seconds away from purchasing www.gabekaplerisgoofy.com myself. But when I hear that unaffiliated players might feel that way, I want to yell, ‘You can’t say that about my manager, the players seem to like him!’ (Okay, except for Hoby Milner.)

But until the last day, there were rumors swirling that Harper was going to require some Scott-Boras-patented opt-outs, because clearly he could only want to play for the City of Brotherly Heckling if he could get the heck out. And it was so disheartening to find those things part of the country-wide discourse. If, of course, you can consider Twitter ‘discourse.’

Consequently, it’s been beyond satisfying to find that myth thoroughly repudiated in the form of a thirteen-year contract, clearly not the action of a man who doesn’t want to play in Philadelphia. Apparently, Bryce spent the offseason talking with former Phillie Jayson Werth, with Mike Trout, noted for his Philadelphia-sports-fandom and a coupla other abilities, and with his home run derby buddy, Rhys Hoskins, about what it’s like to live or play in Philly. He was literally in the midst of doing his research on his future home, while the infamous “sources close” to Harper were reporting he’d as soon choke on a cheesesteak as move there.

Because, and here you’re in for some advanced numerical analysis, thirteen years is a long time. Bryce Harper will be thirty-nine at the end of that contract, and thirteen years ago he was thirteen. It boggles the mind. There is no age at which a person doesn’t imagine what age they will be in thirteen years, and think, Whoa. Seven-year-olds think they will be grown-ups and have it all figured out. Twenty-year-olds think they will be old. Seventy-year-olds will actually be old. For one moment, humanity is unified in its contemplation of how long the Bryce Harper contract is.

The Bryce Harper Contract: 2 Bajillion Dollars, 76 Years

What we’ve learned, of course, is that the length of the deal, with no opt-outs, was actually the selling point for Harper. According to Matt Gelb of the Athletic, it was Harper’s original stipulation that he wanted a contract for, essentially, the rest of his career. The Phillies were set at $330 million, but they initially offered 15 years, which Scott Boras found too low an AAV (average annual value). They countered with a bevy of different contract lengths to match the $330 million, from six years to fourteen, and thirteen was finally the amount that gave Boras an AAV that he could live with, and Harper his Cooperstown laundry.

And so it seems, at the last, that the st**id money, was, in fact, smart. Myth: busted. Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs posits as much, noting that Zips projects Harper to be worth $289 million, mostly over the next ten years. However, he notes, in a crowded and competitive division, the cost of four wins to get a team from 85 to 89 wins will be more than it would be to get them from, say, 75 to 79. Ten years and $330 million would have been a reasonable move to make, given the context, so an extra three years, even if they’re less productive years for Harper, seems like a bonus. And if the Phillies were willing to offer $330 million for six years, this ends up looking like a bargain.

The Myth of Seeking the Highest AAV

Many people seem baffled by why Harper would take a deal with a lower AAV, particularly when he could have gotten a four-year deal from the Dodgers that would have put him back onto the free agent market at the age that most baseball players enter it to begin with. It makes sense to me for three reasons, and one of them is not “the Phillies are my life partner” (although they are):

  1. Think about the hell that Bryce Harper has been through for the past four months. Would you want do that? I wouldn’t. And even if you think would, there’s every indication that Harper didn’t relish his impending free agency, and the chatter that was thrown at him in every interview for the last three-to-seven years. He wanted it to be done. Frankly, I don’t think Helen of Troy had as much fun as everyone thinks she did.
    • Yes, I did just compare Bryce Harper to Helen of Troy. It’s a callback to The Illiad reference.
  2. I think it’s no stretch of the imagination to say he loves playing baseball and what he really wants to do is play baseball. As someone with a profession that is also my primary love, if someone told me that I could have $8,000 to shoot a movie for a month or $6,000 to shoot two days on a TV show, I would take the film, even though the ADV (the made up statistic average day value) would be much less. In my view, I am also getting paid in the spiritual food of doing the thing that I love, however such a notion might annoy my agents.
    • See Scott Boras.
  3. If what Mr. and Mrs. Harper really want to do is start a family—‘family’ would, after all, have made a very good press conference drinking-game buzzword, for all the non-Mormons watching or in attendance—so that their kids can go to school in one place, thirteen years can do that for them. Their kids will be Philly kids, which both warms my heart and makes me feel sorry for them.
    • Again, I can say that, because I’m from Philly.

The Bryce Harper is a “Cad and a Miscreant” Myth

And while we’re on the subject of the press conference, it was there that Harper put a good foot forward in terms of dispelling another possible myth, that Harper is not a ‘good guy’ or a ‘team player.’ Or, in the words of my witty friend Matthew Trumbull on Facebook, who replied to my Bryce Harper on the Phillies is Good for Most of Us piece with the following: “Mets fan question: But isn’t he still a cad and a miscreant. Sorry/not sorry that I phrased my question as the ironclad Natural Law that it is.”

Mr. Trumbull agreed to be attributed, which is why I have done so.

In a way, I have been no better, since I described my backlash-to-the-backlash theory regarding Harper and Machado as the “If They’re Assholes, They’re Assholes I Want on My Team” policy on The Sleeper and the Bust (my most recent episode here). But my mom called me after the press conference, cooing to me about how charming and grounded Harper was, not at all the Cad and the Miscreant she had believed.

I pointed out that people who have been elite athletes from basically the time that the rest of us were trying to master combination locks in middle school are more likely to be cocky, and with some good reason. I argued, If I were as good at baseball as Bryce Harper is, I would be cocky too (because I care about on base percentage and not batting average like some losers)—and it’s possible to be, shall we say, full of self-worth and a good, considerate teammate. And a grounded man devoted to family. I also mentioned to my mom that, because I’m always watching commercials for actor performances, I had noted that Bryce Harper is a pretty good actor in those T-mobile commercials.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that a Russian person uploaded this. If the Russians want me to believe that Bryce Harper is not a bad actor, I guess their sphere of influence will continue to grow.

Does that mean I think the press conference was an act? Absolutely not. As an actor, I know that good acting isn’t lying, it’s having access to a lot of different truths within yourself. So I’m not saying Harper wasn’t being himself at the press conference, I’m just open to the fact that he can be conceited and charming, both. He can be a Mormon who’s opening a cocktail lounge. (For anyone who didn’t know these two facts, this is true.)

On the one hand, I feel like he can be any contradictions he wants to be, as long as he’s a Phillie. The most important thing to me, now, is that last week Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections had the Phillies in fourth at 85-77, and they’re now tied for first at 89-73 with the Nats. Clay Davenport had Phillies in third at 85-77, and now tied for first at 89-73 with the Mets. Fangraphs, always the most pessimistic last week at a projected 81-81 for the Phillies, now at least puts them four games back of the Nats at 86-76: striking distance.

But at the same time, I’m here to say that Bryce Harper was exceedingly charming in the press conference. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was more excited now to have him on my team than I was on Thursday, and on Thursday I had to be tethered to the ground to keep me from leaving the earth’s atmosphere.

It was a very winning gesture for Harper to defer not only his old number 34 to Roy Halladay, but his preferred number, 7 (a tribute to his hero Mickey Mantle) to Maikel Franco. He’ll probably wear number 3 longer than Franco will wear 7, which is only to say that 13 years is a long time, not to throw shade on Franco. Although throwing shade on Franco is certainly something I could have done, while taping Rhys Hoskins’ picture to the front of my husband’s copy of The Show. But it looks like, for this year, I can spare myself the effort.

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