Bryce Harper’s Starpower Shines Bright in Phillies’ London Series Opener

Philadelphia’s star slugger gave British baseball fans a jolly good show Saturday by exhibiting the talent and showmanship he’s had since bursting onto the scene 15 years ago.
Harper had his sixth three-hit game of the season on Saturday in London.
Harper had his sixth three-hit game of the season on Saturday in London. / Matthew Childs/Reuters via USA TODAY

LONDON –– Fifteen years to the day from the publication of what became an iconic SI cover, Bryce Harper met up with me again, just as we did in Las Vegas when he was a 16-year-old kid with major league bat speed. This time we were 5,200 miles away from his hometown, or one-fifth the circumference of the earth, on a converted soccer pitch in London. We stood alone in a hallway between the Philadelphia Phillies’ dugout and their clubhouse.

Like a Broadway show or a rock band tour, Harper and the Phillies had just brought their tried-and-true act across the pond, as if it is similarly scripted. There is a familiar songbook feel to the Phillies, the best team in baseball. They beat the New York Mets, 7–2, with great starting pitching, a ridiculously deep shutdown bullpen and the usual basketful of runs that required a second hand to count. There is no stopping this team—not even traversing 18 time zones in 17 days, as the Phillies will have done by the time they land in Boston around 10 p.m. Sunday.

Harper is their headliner, the leader the team draws its ferocity and confidence from. He also showed in the opener of the London Series that he gives more than that. Harper has the “it” factor when it comes to big moments, a trait he had even at 16 when everybody in amateur baseball knew his name.

About three hours before the game, Harper dragged himself into the Phillies’ clubhouse as if he had just awoken, head bowed, headphones on, vintage cream-colored World Series baseball cap pulled low. He was wearing a plaid shacket, gray chinos and white sneakers.

“Tired,” he told me. “Just tired. When you cross however many time zones we have, it catches up to you.”

And then the lights went on.

When they did, baseball’s Mick Jagger took the stage full of intent. It was showtime. He brought to the plate a custom-painted bat with the Philly Phanatic wearing one of those bearskin hats worn by the guards at Buckingham Palace. With his apropos prop, Harper’s first three at-bats in the U.K. went like this:

Double hit 103.2 mph. Home run hit 107.2 mph. Single hit 109.8 mph.

It was only the ninth time in his career Harper crushed three hits that hard in the same game. London calling? Harper answered. That’s showmanship.

The hits weren’t even the best part. Upon his homer in the fourth inning off Mets lefthander Sean Manaea, Harper threw himself into a Premier League-quality, goal-celebrating slide on his knees as he neared the Philadelphia dugout, his hands thrown up in jubilation, and shouted, “I love soccer!” On a baseball field literally placed atop the natural home turf of West Ham United, Harper found the perfect way to connect the U.S. with the U.K.: the slide heard ‘round the world.

He told me he was on the training table before the game, awakening his body, when his mind conjured this gloriously fun piece of showmanship. Of course, he still had to hit a baseball bloody hard and far for the full house to get a chance to see it, which of course he did.

Fifteen years ago when I wrote about Harper, I was astonished by his bat speed and blown away by his confidence, sense of purpose and bond with his family that were beyond his years. Baseball is a highly skilled game that can grind down even the most talented players with the frequent storms of failure that do not discriminate. True greatness is not guaranteed, but what I did know was that if any 16-year-old kid had the granite-like foundation to weather the storms of failure and expectations, it was this one.

He has not disappointed. The home run was career home run number 321 for Harper. Not turning 32 until October, Harper with two more walks will join Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds as the only players with 300 homers, 100 stolen bases and 1,000 walks through age 31, the imprimaturs of power, speed and patience. He has been even better in the postseason, rising to a .613 slugging percentage and .996 OPS. He has two MVP awards.

But what he does not have is a World Series championship, his six postseason appearances ending at best with one pennant. That is why as we stood there in the runway in London Stadium, Harper gushed not about his celebratory slide but about what makes this Philadelphia team special.

“I just don't feel like we have any emotion, like, towards good or bad,” he says. “Yeah, I think we’re good. We've got a lot of young veterans. But I think we do a really good job of understanding what we can do on a daily basis. It's just fun. I mean, it really is. We just have a good time, man.

“Like I say—and I say it all the time—but we hate to lose more than we like to win.”

The Phillies rarely lose. They are 45–19. Thirty-five previous teams in the World Series era won at least 45 of their first 64 games. Twenty-seven of them won a pennant (77%), with 13 of them winning it all (37%).

The modern expanded postseason is a minefield, as the Phillies discovered last year when an Arizona team with six fewer wins bounced them from the tournament. But this Phillies team, which is relatively young, deep, fearless and coalesced, has a vibe similar to that of the most recent National League team to start 45–19 on its way to winning it all: the 1986 New York Mets.

“We can be down in a game or ahead in a game,” Harper says, “and it's just like, ‘Alright, keep going consistently.’ You know, that's the key. It's a long season, of course. But I think we have a really good demeanor for that. It doesn't matter what you do right now. I mean, obviously it does, but you gotta keep going. It’s like, ‘You just gotta keep going.’ That’s it. That’s what we do.”

Bryce Harper, center, laughs in the dugout with teammates
Harper and the Phillies boast plenty of playoff experience from the last few years and are primed to win their first division title since 2011. / Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

One hundred fifty years ago, in August of 1874, 22 players from the Boston Braves and Philadelphia A’s crossed the Atlantic in the first attempt to introduce baseball to England. The ballplayers wound up being asked to play cricket more than baseball. They played 14 dates in England, seven of them in London.

A newspaper in Tauton was not impressed with this game of baseball, especially when the skill of pitching was compared to cricket: “The variety of English bowling contrasts favourably with the apparent monotony of the pitching at base-ball … The constant employment of the same action by all bowlers strikes an English eye as wearisome.”

VERDUCCI: How Baseball’s Long Courting of London Once Captured the King’s Attention

One hundred years ago, on Oct. 25, 1924, the Times of London carried a letter to the editor postmarked from Windlesham, Crowborough. The writer was a rare local fan of baseball, writing in perfect prose, “Here is a splendid game, which calls for a fine eye, activity, bodily fitness and judgment in the highest degree … It takes only two or three hours in the playing …”

It was signed, Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes series admired the American pastime.

One hundred years later, though, baseball still has not made strong inroads in English culture. There is only one dedicated baseball complex in the country. But if the goal of these international games is simply to expose the greatness of the game to the unfamiliar, then the opener of the latest London Series was a smash hit.

Fifteen years to the day after his introduction to a national audience courtesy of the SI cover, Harper made his in-person introduction to an international audience. He did so as one of the game’s great showpersons. He did so simply by being himself.

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Tom Verducci


Tom Verducci covers Major League Baseball and brings Sports Illustrated 41 seasons of experience. Tom is a five-time Emmy Award winner, two-time National Magazine Award finalist, two-time New York Times bestselling author and a member of the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame. He was the first baseball writer to be named National Sportswriter of the Year for three consecutive years and the only to call the World Series as an analyst. He appears on MLB Network and Fox. He holds a degree from Penn State and lives in New Jersey with his wife. They have two sons.