Bryce Harper warms up before an April game while wearing a Vegas Golden Knights T-shirt. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
When the Washington Nationals take batting practice these days, it’s nothing for them to be wearing Capitals hats across the board. Manager Dave Martinez’s shtick of wearing a Capitals sweater and cap when he meets the media before games is now so routine that it barely draws notice. When Martinez got his job, he received a congratulatory text from Barry Trotz, the Capitals’ coach. So when Trotz entered the playoffs, Martinez sent him a supportive text back, and they have kept up the dialogue deep into this spring.
“I want them to do well,” Martinez said Tuesday, and this kind of inter-team interaction provides comfort to a fan base that is, honestly, scarred. Hearing Max Scherzer say, “Hell yeah!” when he finds out the Caps won a playoff game, it’s an indication that we’re all in this curse-busting thing together, right?
Except, where the Capitals are concerned, there’s a Nationals holdout, and it’s a notable one.
“Having a team to call my own, it’s so different,” Bryce Harper said Tuesday afternoon. “Now I understand why people root for the Nationals, or root for anybody. I’ve got my Vegas Golden Knights.”
Thursday night, the Capitals host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals, which they lead two games to one. “I’ve been watching the Caps, too,” Harper said, and that’s reassuring to Washington fans who get all angsty about Harper’s commitment to this team and this town.
Harper addressed New York reporters Tuesday by saying, “I’m a National now,” and that’s true. But wherever he signs after this season, he is a Las Vegas boy forever and ever and ever. Now, for the first time, he has a team of his very own to root for. His plan once Wednesday’s marquee matchup with the New York Yankees was rained out? Plopping down at home to catch the expansion Golden Knights, who hosted Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against Winnipeg.
“It’s so new,” Harper said. “It’s like: ‘Holy crap. We’ve got our own team. This is a blast. This is unbelievable.’
“I don’t get nervous playing baseball. But I go home and sit on my couch and watch these guys, and my hands are sweating, and it’s just like, ‘God, I’m freaking out.’ They score, and I’m like,” in an extremely raised voice, “ ‘Yeah!’ And [wife] Kayla is sitting there, like: ‘Calm down. It’s okay.’ She’s fired up, too, but I’m at a different level.”
During baseball’s offseason, as he and Kayla moved into a new house, Harper became invested in the Golden Knights, almost surprising himself. He dropped a puck in a pregame ceremony. He met and spent time with General Manager George McPhee, who previously ran the Capitals. He raves about the game-day experience at T-Mobile Arena. And he can go through line combinations, talk about the development of center William Karlsson or discuss the play of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
What’s interesting, though, isn’t that Harper is so publicly choosing the team from the town in which he grew up over the team from the town in which he has forged his professional identity. (“How cool would it be if they met in the finals?” Harper said.) What’s interesting is what the Golden Knights have taught Harper about sitting in the stands rather than performing on the playing surface.
“I kind of understand now where fans come from,” Harper said. “But I think I understand both sides: being a fan but also being a professional. I don’t want to go full-bore when I see those guys, like: ‘Hey, man! Let’s take a picture.’ Or: ‘Hey, man! Can I get an autograph?’ ”
Still, the emotions of a fan — the sweaty palms, the pacing, the pit in the stomach — are real, and they’re new. Harper long ago established his childhood fandom in favor of the titans of various sports: the Dallas Cowboys or the Los Angeles Lakers or Duke basketball. But rooting for the Golden Knights, and experiencing hockey, is different.
“I come out and play baseball every day, and I love doing it, but it’s also a job as well,” Harper said. “If I don’t play well, I know I got to go play well the next day. Being a fan, I understand when they lose, and I get it. I’m not going to go: ‘Oh, man. This guy’s got to go earn his contract!’ It’s like, I understand both sides now. It’s a lot of fun to be able to watch these guys, root for them, get excited and nervous and respect what they’re doing at the same time.”
To be clear: Harper respects the Capitals, too. He has plotted out the calendar, hoping there’s a scenario in which one game of a Caps-Knights Stanley Cup finals falls on June 4 in Washington, because the Nats are off.
“I love watching Holtby,” Harper said of Caps goaltender Braden. “Backstrom, Carlson — obviously Ovi. They’re a blast to watch.”
Still, the Caps might be the team of Martinez and Scherzer, perhaps even other pockets of the Nats clubhouse. But there’s no chance — none — the face of these Nats will root for the Capitals over a love that, a year ago, he never knew he would have.
“I’ve never been such a big fan of a team in a sport,” Harper said. “You watch football for fantasy. You watch other sports, you’re like, ‘All right, cool.’ But hockey, it’s so much fun to watch. We’ve had the Caps here, and I like that. But having my own team to root for, there’s nothing better.”