- All eyes will be on Bryce Harper as he makes his Phillies debut on MLB Opening Day. Philly's new slugger opens up to SI about his new team and when he returns to D.C.: “I'll definitely get some cheers and a few boos as well. But I'll remember those times, the playoffs and going through it with the guys, the city of D.C., the fans, all of the DMV.”
It’s a new season and a new team for Bryce Harper, yet the seventh Opening Day of his MLB career will see him in a familiar place. The former National League MVP was the talk of the offseason after signing a massive 13-year, $330 million contract—the biggest ever handed out in the history of baseball free agency—with the Phillies. But his first at-bat on the road with Philadelphia will come in his old stomping grounds at Nationals Park, in front of the fans who cheered his every home run as he led Washington to division titles and stellar seasons.
With the 2019 season here, Harper chatted with SI.com about joining the Phillies, leaving behind the Nationals, whether or not free agency still works, and his new role with Johnson & Johnson Vision as the ambassador for Acuvue Oasys with Transitions.
SI: Tell us about your new partnership.
Bryce Harper: I started going blind a little bit in seventh grade, so I had to try to do something a little different, and contacts were huge for me. I wore glasses in seventh grade and started wearing contacts in eighth grade and I've worn them ever since. I started wearing Acuvue three or four years ago, and everything was really good, they were super comfortable, and then I was able to partner with Johnson & Johnson and they came to me with Acuvue Oasys with Transitions. I was really excited to use it, because with my blue eyes, in day games, the sun is really prevalent and makes me squint, so being able to put these lenses in my eyes, they've benefited me so well, especially this offseason, being able to wear them hitting-wise and in spring training. The rotation [of the ball], and outfield-wise, seeing the ball in the sun—those things really impact me on a daily basis. It's been good to be with a company that takes their technology to the next level. This'll be huge for me going forward.
SI: How on earth have you been able to play with vision as bad as you have?
Harper: When I was younger, it was normal to me. Then I finally switched to contacts and things like that, and my vision's been really good since then. But being able to add something with the Transitions—[to handle] UV light and rays from the sun, being able to [deal with] stadium lights and things like that. I don't have to switch it at night, I can wear them all day long, so night games, it helps with the lights. Vision, reaction time, things like that—the recovery time is faster. I don't squint any more. It's been really good.
SI: When the offseason started, did you envision it ending with you as a Philadelphia Phillie?
Harper: I don't think I counted anybody out. My wife and I were going to take the steps to enjoy our offseason and meet with whatever team wanted to meet. If we got that feeling that we wanted to go there, then we would take that next meeting and so forth. So going into the offseason, our minds and ears were open from the beginning, and it was a good offseason, to be able to hear from teams and be wanted by teams. We believe we've made the best decision for our family and long-term, and we're very excited to be where we're at.
SI: What was the most important factor for you in choosing your next team?
Harper: A long-term commitment from the team side. For my wife and I, it was about digging our roots somewhere, being somewhere for a long period of time, and not having to move around or move our future kids around. We wanted to be somewhere for a long time, and the Phillies and John and Lee Middleton were able to offer us that, and I thought Philly was the best fit for our family and us.
SI: Are you surprised it took as long as it did for you to sign?
Harper: [Agent] Scott [Boras] told me at the beginning of the offseason that it would take probably until March 1 to get to where we're going. You saw how slow the offseason was a year prior, and there are still guys now that aren't signed. I just think both sides have to come together and really understand what both sides are willing to do, and we were able to find common ground with the Phillies at the end. I'm very excited and happy to be in this city, playing for the Phillies and the fanbase as well, and I'm looking forward to 2019.
SI: Do you think free agency as a system is broken?
Harper: For me, fans and teams should want the best players on the field at all times. Are guys going into free agency and thinking they're going to sign in a month or so? Probably not anymore. But I think it just takes time, and you've got to find common ground on both sides. If players want to go to free agency, they'll try to get what they're worth and do that to the best of their ability, and if they want to sign the extension like we've seen certain guys do, then that's the way they want to do it. I was willing to go to free agency, and I got exactly what I wanted. So I didn't feel like it was broken for myself.
SI: A guy like Mike Trout, who you were recruiting to join you in Philly down the road and instead took the extension, and who said during his press conference that he didn't want to deal with free agency, it feels like the best player in baseball shouldn't say that.
Harper: Trout made the best decision for him and his wife, exactly like somebody's going to make a decision to go somewhere for school or go somewhere else for work. Trout loved to play in Los Angeles, he loved Anaheim, he and Arte Moreno have a great relationship. Mike Trout's the player they wanted for the long-term, and they were able to work something out and do that. I don't think Mike Trout was scared to go to free agency, per se, but he made the best decision for him and his family, to stay in L.A. for the next 12 years and finish his career with one team. I applaud him for that and I'm excited for him. He got a great contract.
SI: Is any part of you sad that you don't get to spend your entire career with one team?
Harper: It's gotta work on both sides. I had a great career for the last seven years in D.C., and I enjoyed those times. I wish those guys in that clubhouse nothing but the best. Mike Rizzo and I have a phenomenal relationship. For me, it was time to move on. Would I have loved to stay in D.C. my whole career? Absolutely. But it just didn't work out, and I'm where I'm at and where I want to be with a great group of guys. I look forward to going into D.C. in the next few days and enjoying those times as well.
SI: That's gotta be weird for you to be starting the season in D.C. wearing a uniform that isn't a Nationals one. (Editor's Note: The Phillies' first road series of the year, not their opening series, will be against Washington.)
Harper: Yeah. Any time you walk into a stadium where you've spent the last seven years of your career, it's definitely going to be different. But like I said, I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited to be around the people that I grew up in front of. The relationships I'm going to miss the most are the ones with the staff from the ballpark, saying hi to them and seeing the smiles and laughs. It's definitely going to be weird walking into the visiting clubhouse and not the home clubhouse. But I'm excited to go back. I'll definitely get some cheers and a few boos as well. But I'll remember those times, the playoffs and going through it with the guys, the city of D.C., the fans, all of the DMV.
SI: What would you tell a Nationals fan who's upset with you for leaving?
Harper: I don't know. I really have no idea. I don't even know what I would say, to tell you the truth. I haven't thought about it.
SI: When you were younger, you told Tom Verducci your dream was to play in pinstripes, to play for the Yankees. Is it strange to know that, barring something very unexpected, that won't happen for you?
Harper: I think I am playing in pinstripes, they're just red instead of blue. [Laughs] But the Yankees have a great outfield, so I didn't even think about having an opportunity to play for them. For me, I turned the page on that. Everyone knew I grew up a Yankees fan, but there was nothing I could do. The Yankees have a great organization and team, but I didn't fit with that team because of the guys they do have.
SI: Also when you were younger, you mentioned that part of your mission was to "make baseball fun again." Do you feel like that the game is more fun?
Harper: I think there's a lot of young guys who play the game the right way and have fun doing it. I think baseball is definitely a younger generation's sport, hopefully going in a direction where little kids and kids from different countries want to play baseball. Soccer and football and basketball are so prevalent, but we want baseball to be right there with them. My biggest thing is leaving the game better than when I got in, and trying to do everything I can to make the game of baseball successful on and off the field. If we can build that, I think the game will be for the better.