Sunday, May 28, 2023|
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PHILADELPHIA — The billionaire owner of the Philadelphia Phillies pounded his fists on Bryce Harper’s chest and joked the Phillies slugger was almost underpaid at $330 million over the life of his contract.
It was absurd to put a price tag on the moment for John Middleton as he pulled in Harper for a hug while the National League championship celebration swirled around them on the field. This was a moment the duo visualized when Middleton took a jet in February 2019 to Las Vegas to court Harper in meetings and dinners that would eventually yield a 13-year, $330-million deal, the biggest in baseball history for a free agent.
So when Harper and Middleton finally embraced — once the Phillies beat San Diego 4-3 on Sunday in Game 5 of the NLCS and reached their first World Series since 2009 — yeah, the feelings were a bit more personal.
“You bet it was! Of course it was,” Middleton said. “(It’s) $330 million later, mutual promises of being committed to winning and doing whatever it took to win.”
Harper delivered in the postseason, a place seen only in fits and spurts for a franchise that has two World Series championships in 140 years. The tater forever etched as an all-timer in team history — the one that had Middleton and Phillies fans everywhere pleading for the ball to keep going — was his game-winning, two-run homer in the eighth that lifted Philly into the World Series and left even Harper momentarily bewildered.
“Oh my gosh. I just did that,” Harper said in the dugout.
Next stop, Houston.
The Phillies open the World Series on Friday against the Astros with more than a puncher’s chance against the defending American League champions strictly because of Harper. The numbers only tell part of the tale, even as the 30-year-old designated hitter is piling up stats among the best in postseason history, all while declaring Citizens Bank Park is his house. He leads in the clubhouse, and from his Phillie Phanatic cleats and headband, to his novelty T-shirts to his shoutouts for Philly sports legends, he has embraced the fans and the pressure of playing in the city like few outsiders ever have in any sport.
“All the things we thought he was, have turned out to be true,” Middleton said. “There’s been no disappointments. Sometimes when you go through that process you think you understand somebody and what you really get is a little bit different. There is nothing different with Bryce. He is just committed to winning. He’ll do whatever it takes. I think if I told him he had to play third base, he’d play third base.”
The right fielder who bowed to Phillies fans each time he ran out to start the game was forced into a DH role in April because of a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing elbow. Because Harper could not throw with the injury, had the National League not adopted the DH rule this season, he might have missed a considerable chunk of time, if not the season. Remember, too: When Harper’s thumb was broken by a pitch from San Diego’s Blake Snell in late June, there were concerns he might not be back until next year.
The 2021 NL MVP slumped a bit late in the season as the Phillies made a run a the NL wild card. But in the playoffs against St. Louis, Atlanta and the Padres, Harper’s numbers soared higher than his jersey sales. Unlike Padres slugger Manny Machado, Harper did not ask for an out in his contract, though his postseason play would have provided ample negotiation fuel.
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