It says something about a player when he can be the biggest story at an event he didn’t even attend. Bryce Harper, of course, was the biggest story coming out of NatsFest this weekend precisely because he didn’t attend. Despite being scheduled to appear, Harper skipped the event, allegedly in protest of a contract dispute, which has since been resolved.
There were other Nats who didn’t attend NatsFest–Gio Gonzalez, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, just to name a few. But the sun shines a little bit brighter on Bryce Harper, and his no-show dominated the news Saturday, especially when Mike Rizzo took the unusual step of saying he was “disappointed” Harper didn’t show up.
Judging by the anecdotal responses I saw at the event, and on social media, it seems like a fair number of fans were upset at Harper’s decision. If Rizzo intended to fan the flames of fan outrage, he succeeded. Rizzo could have easily invented an excuse for Harper, but he clearly didn’t want to, proving he’s just as annoyed with Bryce as Bryce is annoyed with the Nationals.
In the middle of the situation, of course, is Scott Boras. Boras has been Harper’s advisor and agent since high school, where he thought up the scheme to graduate Harper two years early from high school to enroll him in Community College, allowing him to be drafted one year earlier than he otherwise would have been.*
*We should thank Scott Boras for pulling off this maneuver. If Bryce hadn’t graduated high school early, he would have become a Pittsburgh Pirate.
We’ll probably never know whether Boras advised Harper to skip NatsFest, or Harper decided to do it himself. Either way, it was a silly and self-defeating gesture. Boras for quite some time has been the savviest agent in the league, at least in terms of getting his players the most money possible. Boras has become a rich man, mainly by making his clients very rich men. Boras regularly surprises the baseball world with the free agent contracts he secures, for example the $200 million deal for Prince Fielder in 2012. It was Boras who originally shocked the baseball world back in 2000 with Alex Rodiguez’s original record-breaking $250 million contract, when the next highest bidder allegedly offered $80 million less.
The Alex Rodriguez reference is appropriate here because Harper is probably Boras’s most valuable client since A-Rod. Harper, like Rodriguez before him, has more talent than any other player his age. And like A-Rod, Harper made it to the majors at an exceptionally young age, guaranteeing that he’ll enter free agency before he even enters his prime. If Harper reaches his potential—or gets anywhere close—he’ll set records too. It’s fair to say Harper is currently Boras’s most valuable asset.
But the A-Rod comparison is also appropriate because, while Boras made him richer than anyone imagined, he failed him in nearly every other aspect. Boras led A-Rod from a winning team (the Mariners) to a losing one (the Rangers), only to see his client start whining a couple years later that he was tired of playing for a losing team. The A-Rod to Boston-to-New York saga is too complicated to recount here, but let’s just say the PR was handled poorly. In 2007, A-Rod’s contract opt-out with the Yankees was conducted so badly by Boras, Rodriguez made a public show of “firing” Boras before agreeing to his next contract. With Boras and A-Rod, there’s really no better example of winning money and losing everything else. Rodriguez is the richest player in baseball history, but it’s hard to find a fan—or fellow player for that matter—that doesn’t hate his guts.
So after this weekend, it’s entirely fair to ask where Boras and Bryce Harper are headed. I don’t make the A-Rod analogy to suggest Harper is heading down the same path; I only make it to demonstrate that Boras can be as tone-deaf as he is financially savvy. (But go ahead and tweet something like “crazy blogger compares Harper to A-Rod if it makes you happy).
Walking around NatsFest on Saturday, there were more Bryce Harper jerseys on fans than of any other player. While Harper is booed at nearly every other MLB stadium, he’s regularly given standing ovations at Nationals Park. The public perception of Harper around the country has not improved over time. This, in turn, has made some Nationals fans love him even more. The gulf between Nationals fans’ impressions of Harper and the impressions of the other 29 fan bases seems to grow bigger every season.
Boras only cares about the size of Bryce Harper’s first free agent contract. However, we don’t really know Harper’s motivations. Is he a typical Boras client, looking only for money, or is he more like Ryan Zimmerman, a player who attaches actual value to playing for the Nationals franchise? In the past, Harper has expressed that he understands the appeal of playing for one team throughout a career, achieving an iconic status in one city that endures well after a player retires. Bryce has demonstrated knowledge and interest baseball history, with an understanding why the legacies of Tony Gwynn and Ryan Sandberg are different than the legacies of Dave Winfield and Andre Dawson.
We’ll soon forget about Bryce Harper’s absence from NatsFest. I never really cared. Even the kids who lined up to get his autograph Saturday, only to walk away disappointed, will still cheer for him on Opening Day. In the vast sea of Bryce Harper “controversies” this is a small one.
But it does make us ask, however briefly, the uncomfortable question to which only one man knows the answer: How much does Bryce Harper actually care about playing baseball in DC after the 2018 season? If the answer is “none at all,” then we know we’ll soon be asking another question: who do the Nationals get to replace Bryce Harper?