Before Cole Hamels drilled Bryce Harper with a fastball in the back two weeks ago, the Phillies were throwing verbal darts at the Nationals rookie phenom.
“Golden boy is up,” Shane Victorino said while a Nationals game was broadcast last month in the Phillies’ clubhouse. The Flyin’ Hawaiian was goofing on Harper, as he stepped to the plate for the first time.
“What is he, 3-for-2?,” Cliff Lee cracked.
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Victorino turned off the television while Harper was batting. Harper was wearing a bulls-eye on the back of his jersey way before Hamels welcomed him to the big leagues in Cole’s “old school” way.
The 19-year-old future of the Nationals laughed heartily when informed of Lee’s joke.
“It’s unbelievable playing against guys you grew up watching,” Harper said during an 1-on-1 interview with Metro. “You see guys like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m really up here playing with these guys.’ I just try to take everything in stride and take one day a time.”
Harper isn’t just impressive on the diamond. The rookie phenom is also a star in the classroom. Apparently, Harper aced his media relations session. He’s saying all the right things and using clichés like he sports eye black. He predictably downplayed Wednesday night's rematch versus Hamels.
“I’ve put that all behind me, definitely,” Harper said. “Hamels is a great pitcher. He’s an All-Star. He does everything right. He’s a bulldog. You just try to go out there and get a ‘W’ and not worry about anything around you. He’s an All-Star, who is very talented. He’s an outstanding pitcher.”
Those certainly don't sound like fighting words. But the Phillies’ animosity might be driven by Harper’s perceived lack of respect for the game. He infamously blew a kiss at a pitcher after taking him deep in a minor-league game. Odds are, he’s not likely to do that to Hamels.
“Bryce is going to be a target for awhile, not just in Philadelphia but everywhere in baseball,” said former Phillie turned National Brad Lidge. “But from what I’ve seen, he has a good head on his shoulders on the field and in the clubhouse. I can’t say anything bad about the guy. Everyone in the world is watching his every move and he’s only 19. I couldn’t handle that at 19. Bryce is an amazing player. You see what he does out there?”
Phillies fans have had an eyeful already. Harper is on pace to rival Chipper Jones, J.D. Drew and Scott Stevens for the city's most despised athletic enemy. Harper had two hits in the Nationals’ 2-1 win over the Phillies Monday night, then singled and tripled in a pair of runs Tuesday night off Halladay.
“It’s fun playing here,” Harper said. “They have a great fan base in Philadelphia. Win or lose, they have a packed house. All of that [the boos directed his way] is no big deal. They want their team to succeed. I understand it. I’m looking forward to coming up here [with the Nationals] and playing here in front of them for years to come. It’s fun to play against the Phillies.”
The way Charlie Manuel’s team is playing right now, it's definitely fun to face them.