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A Star Is Born
Phillies Fans flock from SJ to Clearwater to begin a love affair with Bryce Harper. Sal Paolantonio is there.
By Sal Paolantonio

SalPal with Cherry Hill’s Joel Belfer

On a lazy morning in early spring, when unusually stubborn winds from the north finally loosened their chilly grip on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I wandered through the four practice fields of the Philadelphia Phillies, looking for Bryce Harper.

Instead, I found Joel Belfer of Cherry Hill, with his dad, Robert, who’s a doctor at CHOP. I found Ed Stephens, an engineer from Haddonfield, with his two sons, Eddie and Kevin. Later, I would run into Gary McCloskey, a plumber from Washington Township, hanging out with his two best friends.

We were all there for the same reason: To catch our first glimpse of the most expensive free agent in the history of baseball: the right fielder who is supposed to bring his pyrotechnic left-handed bat north and spend the summer lighting up the sky in South Philly with majestic home runs, leading the Phillies back to the post-season – and maybe deliver a World Series title, or two.

“With the signing of Bryce, we are in win-now mode,” says Joel Belfer, a 22-year-old student at Michigan who was attending his first spring training – to see Harper. “He changes everything.”

And just as Belfer said those words, Harper appeared around the corner of the dugout at Robin Roberts Field, dangling a wooden bat in his left hand.

“Look at him,” says Stephens, who has been coming to spring training for 17 years. “He’s got a presence.”

Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler jogged right in front of us. I introduced myself – I primarily cover football, so I’d never met him. “Nice meeting you,” Kapler says, “But I got to go watch Bryce hit!”

Kapler joined Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak, Managing Partner John Middleton, coaches and batting practice pitchers. Harper shook hands and chatted with them all. Presence, indeed.

Hundreds of fans pulled out their smartphones – so did I. Instagram was about to get lit with this perfect snapshot of spring: Bryce Harper taking batting practice. That’s all it was. Not a game. Not even a simulated game. Not even major league pitching. Just a chance for Harper to take a few swings, track pitches, get his timing.

Harper stepped into the left-handed batters box and tapped home plate. A young right-handed prospect delivered a fastball waist high and Harper wasted no time. Crack! The ball exploded off Harper’s bat and disappeared in the high grass behind the left field fence. First pitch: home run.

Along the third base dugout, Tom Verducci, the great baseball writer for “Sports Illustrated,” muttered: “Not bad. I think he’ll make the team.”

But will Bryce Harper make a difference? From a box office perspective, the answer to that question has already been a resounding absofreakinlutely. After Harper signed for a record $330 million over 13 years with no opt-out clause, the fans were convinced he was committed – to the team, to the town, to them. Ticket sales exploded. Travel agents were deluged with requests for flights to Florida. Harper’s jersey sales eclipsed LeBron James. Just about everyone in Clearwater was wearing a No. 3, including Joel Belfer.

“My son missed the World Series championship,” says Robert. “I promised him I would take him to spring training. This seemed like the perfect time.”

The manager who delivered that World Series title to Philadelphia in 2008, Charlie Manuel, was watching Harper hit, too. “What do you like about Bryce,” I ask Manuel, who is still a special advisor to the team and one of the most beloved figures in all of baseball. “I like what I see, a lot,” he says. “Bryce has got a lot of little boy in him. That’s good.”

Adds Stephens as he watched Harper introduce himself to every young player in camp: “You can tell he was brought up right. He’s perfect for Philly.”

And he’s just what this baseball team needed to stay relevant in this market. The Sixers, with social media sensation Joel Embiid, are back in the playoff mix. Eagles fans still feel the warm afterglow of winning the Super Bowl. The Phillies? They’ve suffered through six straight losing seasons and watched attendance drop 1.6 million since 2010. In Washington, Harper improved the Nationals attendance by over a half-million a year. And TV ratings dramatically improved.

Why? Check this out: Last fall, the London-based SportsProMedia ranked only two Major League Baseball players among the top 20 most marketable athletes in the world: the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper.

“Bryce is a leading man,” says longtime baseball analyst Pedro Gomez of ESPN. “He’s George Clooney. He’s Matt Damon. He’s a big star.”

And he chose to play here. “That goes a long way in this town,” Mike Missanelli said on his sports talk radio show on 97.5 FM, the Fanatic in Philly, the day Harper signed. “Remember the last big free agent to do that?”

That would be the mercurial but wildly popular Terrell Owens. When Owens signed with the Eagles in 2004, 30,000 fans a day packed the metal bleachers at Lehigh University to watch him catch footballs in the blazing July heat of training camp. I was there. I heard them serenade Owens every time he stepped on the field.

He immediately helped take the Eagles to the Super Bowl. The New England Patriots won the game, but Owens – even after he left town unceremoniously – is still beloved among many fans, because he chose Philly and he delivered.

Now, it’s up to Harper to make good. The Phillies were last in the major leagues in team hitting in 2018. Harper’s career slugging percentage at Citizens Bank Park ranks No. 1 among the 71 players with at least 200 plate appearances in South Philly.

So, by every measure, Harper puts the Phillies back on the map in a very competitive division, and in a town that is now getting used to getting results – and winning.

“I think he will help with our hitting struggles,” says McCloskey, a plumber with Local 322 in Winslow, who was wearing a Harper jersey signed by Klentak in black Sharpie on the left shoulder. “He’s got a strong arm in right field. I hope he gets other players to play harder and – hopefully – get more talented players to come to Philly.”

Adds Belfer: “Harper is the guy we all wanted. It’s gonna be a great season just watching him play baseball in a Phillies uniform. For me, that’s enough.”

Sal Paolantonio is a National
Correspondent for ESPN and a
frequent contributor to SJ Magazine.

April 2019
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