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  • The Phillies had been considered frontrunners in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes for so long that the deal hardly came as a shock for his new teammates. They were more animated about their Ping-Pong championship than their marquee acquisition.
By Stephanie Apstein
March 01, 2019

CLEARWATER, Fla. — As the news broke on Thursday that free-agent rightfielder Bryce Harper had reportedly signed the most lucrative contract in American sports history, and as fans at the Phillies’ spring training ballpark cheered and social media erupted, Harper’s new teammates barely looked up from their Ping-Pong game.

The starters in that day’s split-squad affair against the Orioles had trotted off the field after the bottom of the fourth inning, where they encountered pitchers Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin locked in battle. Rightfielder Trevor Plouffe sat at his locker, picked up his phone and saw the tweet: Harper to the Phillies, for 13 years and $330 million.

“We got Bryce Harper,” he announced matter-of-factly.

“Seriously?” said Nola. “That’s tight.” He and Eflin rested their paddles on the table and snuck a glance at Plouffe’s phone. Then they went back to Ping-Pong.

Harper eclipsed the $325 million, 13-year contract extension Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins before the 2015 season, and the $300 million, 10-year free-agent deal third baseman Manny Machado signed with the Padres last week. Harper, a six-time All-Star who will play next season at 26 years old, is seemingly unprecedented in his potential value: Almost no one so good has ever been available so young.

The biggest star in the game is now the richest player in the game. This is a seminal moment in baseball history. But half an hour into its existence, the Phillies were already tired of discussing it.

And who could blame them? Harper has been linked to Philadelphia since at least November, when team owner John Middleton said that he was “expecting to spend money. And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.” Since then, it seems no day has passed without a report that the Phillies have met with Harper, or Harper dislikes Philadelphia, or the Phillies have made Harper an offer, or Harper has countered the Phillies’ offer, or—satirically—Harper has asked the Phillies to move to a different city.

This was distracting enough during the offseason. Once spring training began, manager Gabe Kapler instructed his players to limit their focus on the men in Clearwater. He claimed Thursday afternoon that he had done the same, that he hadn’t given Harper a moment’s thought even as rumors intensified this week.

Thursday had been a normal day for him, he insisted, until the fifth inning of the Orioles game. A cluster of fans behind the bench began yelling at Kapler and his coaches: You got Bryce! Kapler was skeptical until they held up their phones and started sharing the terms of the deal. “Well, who’s making the report?” he demanded. “We’ve got to make sure that this person’s credible!”

He spent his postgame media availability prefacing every answer with “if the reports are true.”

The dramatic irony recalls the commotion last week, when the report of Machado’s signing leaked during the Padres’ workout. Manager Andy Green was scheduled to address the media six minutes after the tweet, San Diego owners an hour later and GM A.J. Preller half a day after that. All danced around the topic, saying they had nothing to announce. The players learned piecemeal, some of them not until reporters asked them for reaction. Catcher Austin Hedges’s eyes widened. “Let’s go!” he yelled, thrusting his bat in the air, before grinning sheepishly. “That’s how excited I am about bunting,” he explained and jogged into the batting cage.

In the clubhouse after the workout, players cheered and whooped. But Machado’s signing with San Diego was unexpected, and it made a contender of a team that lost 96 games last year. The Phillies’ muted reaction makes sense: They have been answering these questions for months. (“This thing’s been going on forever,” explained Eflin.) And their expectations have not changed.

“We were a great ball club coming into spring training without Bryce Harper,” Kapler said. “If the reports are true, we’re going to be an even better ball club with Bryce Harper.”

In the meantime, that ball club is focused on the players already in Clearwater, just as Kapler wanted. Nola and Eflin politely answered questions about Harper, but mostly they wanted to debate Ping-Pong prowess.

“For the 10th time I beat him!” Nola crowed. “He gets in his own head.”

“It’s not really 10 times,” Eflin argued. “It’s probably six. It’s not a tournament game yet, so I have a lot of confidence. It’s just a scrimmage, and scrimmages don’t mean anything.”

The World Series is in eight months. Harper gives Philadelphia a better chance to reach it. But the Phillies’ team Ping-Pong championship began last week.

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