Sep 8, 2015, 10:21 AM EDT
The question was simply about the pennant race atmosphere at Nationals Park, and Bryce Harper’s answer was brief. But his quick, perhaps off-the-cuff response has set off a firestorm of scrutiny both from outside the city of Washington and within the Nationals fanbase itself.
Harper, when asked about the crowd on Monday afternoon, noted how many of the 34,210 in attendance left after the seventh inning. “That’s pretty brutal,” he said.
This just happens to come on the heels of Jonathan Papelbon referencing a lack of energy among the Nats faithful during Friday night’s win over the Braves.
“I got a little bone to pick with some of the fans here tonight. I saw a few of them sitting down. I’m not going to lie. We need to stand on up in those situations. So let’s get that going, you know what I mean? Because this is playoff baseball,” he said after the victory.
Those are two of the biggest names on the Nationals – their best player and their closer – essentially calling out the fans who root for them.
First, on Harper’s comments. In fairness, his observation was correct. After the Nationals saw four relievers combine to allow three runs to the Mets in the seventh inning, thousands in the stands cleared out. It was a mass exodus of sorts.
But, for what it’s worth, many of the fans who left were sitting on the first base side, or the part of the stadium that had been baking in the sun all afternoon. The departure of so many fans was noticeable from the pressbox in large part due to its symmetry. One third or so of the stadium was nearly empty during the eighth and ninth innings, while the rest of it was packed.
Could that be a coincidence? Possibly. But I did have Nats fans reach out on Twitter in support of that theory and some said they were sitting on that side before moving to the shaded concourse to watch the rest of the game.
And though many left after giving up hope for a comeback, there were 34,210 there to begin with. That’s actually about a thousand more than what the team has averaged this season (33,109), a mark that is good for 10th in baseball.
Of course, it wasn’t the quantity of fans that Harper and Papelbon, it was the manner of their support. And, love him or hate him, Papelbon of all people would know.
The right-hander made his name while pitching for the Boston Red Sox, who not only played some pretty big games while he was there, they lifted a fanbase that had been through decades of disappointment to new heights. The feeling of a pennant race at Fenway Park, especially in the first few years of Papelbon’s Red Sox career, would be hard to replicate, especially in a town that is relatively new to the experience.
As we outlined in our previews leading up the Nats’ series with the Mets, this is the first time in team history the Nationals have been playing games this late in the season with such high stakes. They are going head-to-head with the team they are chasing in the division with only a handful of games separating them. Each of these games can either help close the gap in the NL East, or create distance and put them one step closer to missing the playoffs.
This is the first pennant race not only for the Nationals, but for generations of sports fans who call Washington, D.C. home. A major league pennant race is its own, unique thing. Sure, the Redskins have had do-or-die Week 17 games where their postseason hopes rested on a handful of plays. The Capitals have fought for their playoff lives in April, and so have the Wizards. But those are all different than the highs and lows of an MLB pennant race when every single day can change so much.
For Harper, in particular, to say what he said speaks volumes. It’s one thing for Papelbon to ask for more from the fans. It would be another thing for a tenured veteran like Jayson Werth or Ryan Zimmerman to say it. But coming from Harper, who is not only their best player but an emerging face of the sport, it carries a special kind of weight.
This is actually not the first time Harper has done this. Late in the 2013 season he made a plea in his then-weekly sitdown with CSN for more support as the team was chasing the Braves. Excitement for the football season was heating up and Harper sensed a fade in loyalty.
“Coming to a game without any fans isn’t fun. Last night we didn’t have that many, and we need that for this last month,” Harper said at the time. “I think it’s tired, I really do. Just because football season’s coming up, we’re still in it.”
Harper further explained it by saying, “I think fans know that guys feed off the crowd.” It was a message he wanted to get across, and Monday’s comments were likely coming from the same place.
Criticizing your fans is always a risky proposition, but maybe there is an intent behind his words just like there was last time, a call to action that apparently he isn’t alone in believing is necessary.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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