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Should We Boo Bryce Harper?

An investigation

Bryce Harper celebrates after hitting a home run off Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jesse Biddle during the seventh inning of a baseball game Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Bryce Harper is making his not-very-long-awaited return to DC this week—his first since leaving the Nationals for a $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Which means Washington baseball fans are faced with a vexing question: Should we boo the guy?

It’s not a simple question. In the superstitious world of sports fans, there’s probably a bit of karma riding on the answer. More interestingly to magazine journalists and other wonky types, the sort of reception given to the onetime local phenom will indicate something about what kind of local fan culture we have. How to sort it all out?

The Case for Polite Applause:

Harper had a good run in Washington, starring as the also-ran Nats emerged as consistent contenders. Why not acknowledge that? Especially since Philly offered him a much better deal. Are you saying that you would have left $30 million on the table?

Fine, you say. But did he have to go to an Eastern Division rival? Still, even that unhappy fact need not motivate catcalls. After all, booing is just what Philly fans would do, right? (In fact, it’s what a couple of them have reportedly already done, after their new $330 million man struck out twice.) Washington, by this logic, should embrace its warm-spirited baseball-fan reputation.

Who knows: Perhaps the nice-guy act will even help the team. It might motivate the next big-dollar free agent to pick the Nats. Less nobly, memories of being treated decently at Nats Park might demoralize Harper when he inevitably gets booed by the home crowd in Philadelphia. In a tight pennant race, that sort of thing could matter.

And speaking of helping the Nats win, there’s also this: A lusty round of DC boos, however emotionally satisfying, could also serve as motivation for Harper. When he homers to give the Phillies a clutch win, do you want to feel responsible? No? Then clap nicely when the man comes up to bat.

The Case for Staying Silent:

Washington fans, in general, tend not to boo every run-of-the-mill visiting-team player. Treating Harper like any other Phillie would be a way of acknowledging the reality of his departure. More satisfyingly, it would also send its own message: You’re dead to us. The opposite of love, they say, isn’t hate; it’s indifference. There’s nothing more indifferent than treating the best-paid player in history like he’s a backup utility infielder.

The Case for Booing:

Washington helped put the guy on the map—and stuck with him through that sucky final season—and this is the way he repays us? By accepting a big fat check from a key rival? The guy deserves not just some catcalls but maybe a tossed container of stadium nachos or two.

In fact, there’s even a highbrow reason to let the bile flow when Harper comes up to bat. There are few things in sports culture that bond fans and generate passion like shared loss and shared enemies. Relatively new, and relatively lacking in we wuz robbed outrages, the Nats have struggled to identify an official rival and official villain. (Washingtonian even ran an item in 2016 examining who Nats fans should hate; there was no clear winner among six contenders .) With Harper’s move to Philadelphia, that shouldn’t be a problem anymore. A nice, vicious, all-American rivalry, complete with a nefarious opposing superstar, would ultimately be good for the Nats.

On a less anthropological note, greeting Harper with a Navy Yard version of the Bronx Cheer could even help win a game or two. Yes, sometimes athletes are motivated by hostility. But sometimes they’re not! Turning Nats Park into an intimidating Thunderdome for visiting teams—instead of a place where Brett Kavanaugh racks up credit card debt to watch goofy presidents race around the infield—might pay off down the stretch.

Finally, there’s this: Booing is fun! The players and managers are paid to think about strategic ways to affect wins and losses. The folks in the stands are shelling out for tickets. Why do so if you’re not going to take advantage of your God-given right to hoot and holler at the other guys?

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Editor

Michael Schaffer has been editor of Washingtonian since 2014. A former editor of Washington City Paper and editorial director of The New Republic, Michael is also the author of One Nation Under Dog, a 2009 book about America’s obsession with pets. A DC native, he currently lives in Chevy Chase DC with his wife and their two daughters.