TAMPA — Gabe Kapler, standing in the visiting dugout Wednesday night at Steinbrenner Field, noticed that a larger-than-normal crowd was gathered for his usual pregame media session.
The six New York-based sports writers were not waiting for an injury update or searching for an answer to the pressing question of who is the team’s backup first baseman. The large group, Kapler learned, was there to talk about Bryce Harper, providing a preview of the attention that awaits the Phillies and their $330 million star this season
“I was trying to figure out why everyone was here,” the manager cracked before a 5-5 Grapefruit League tie with the Yankees.
A year ago, the Phillies were relatively anonymous. They were fresh off another losing season and it was Kapler — the new manager with the interesting blog and the affinity for numbers — who garnered the most attention. Expectations? Slim.
A lot has since changed. The Phillies are again fresh off another losing season, but they spent 38 days of that losing season in first place. They then remodeled their roster with a busy offseason that ended by signing Harper to the richest contract in the history of American team sports. Expectations? They have returned for the first time in a while.
“One of the things we've noticed in this camp is that the bar has been raised for us,” Kapler said. “Expectations have gotten higher, people expect more from us.
The pack of New York reporters who greeted Kapler before the game was dwarfed by the group waiting for Harper to step outside the visiting clubhouse and talk about his night. Getting booed? He expected that, Harper said. Harper reached base on a catcher’s interference but went 0-for-2. So how’s his swing? As good as it could feel after six spring at-bats, he said. His schedule? Harper plans to play in Clearwater on Friday, Saturday, and will be a designated hitter on Sunday.
And how about the attention? How would Harper — who has lived his life in the public eye — advise his teammates who played last season for a team that battled for relevance?
“I’m not really worried about people with microphones or notepads or anything like that. Just try to go out there and be yourself,” Harper said. “If you have a bad game, talk to the media. If you have a good game, talk to the media. It’s one of the big things that’s tough for young guys, and I was part of that, as well. Nineteen, coming up sometimes 0-for-4, I’m sitting there, going, ‘Golly, I don’t want to talk to them again.’
“But also I want [teammates] to be able to lean on me and say, ‘I can’t do it today’ and I’ll answer those questions, as well. I want to be able to be a guy that lets them ride on my shoulders a little bit, and, if I have to talk to the media one day for them, I will.”
The size of a pregame session may be new to Kapler. Frequently playing on national television — two of the team’s first three games will be nationally televised — could be different for players who were with the team the last few seasons. And playing in front of packed crowds may take some getting used to.
None of that attention will be new for Harper. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16. He was an All-Star when he was 19. He was an MVP when he was 22. Kapler, after the Phillies signed him, browsed YouTube to find old clips of Harper. He watched him win a teenage home-run derby. Even then, Kapler said, Harper was poised.
“I think one of the reasons he’s been so good at dealing with the brightest lights is because he prepares for them,” Kapler said. “He doesn’t walk into the brightest lights without a game plan. That’s what makes him special. And the reason he goes in with a game plan is because he’s been conditioned to. Sometimes I think we discount how important experience is, but Bryce’s experience is different than anyone in that clubhouse, and I think he brings a unique perspective, one that a lot of us can lean on.”
Attention, for Harper, is the norm. He could not have appeared more comfortable when he opened the clubhouse door to see a large gathering of reporters. The attention, as always for Harper, will follow into the season. And the expectations? For him, that’s nothing new.
“Play the game you know how to play. Enjoy what you do,” Harper said. “Media is kind of like scouts for high school and college, and things like that. They sit up there with a notepad — they don’t have a stopwatch — but they’re still watching. Don’t be scared, and try to enjoy it. If they’re talking to you, just enjoy. They’ve got a job to do just like you guys and people need to understand that. That’s the biggest thing. Know that you guys have a job to do, we have a job to do and respect that.”