Bryce Harper's take on how to grow baseball internationally

Bryce Harper’s take on how to grow baseball internationally originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

LONDON — Bryce Harper wears a lot of hats. Husband, father, superstar athlete, franchise icon, one of the faces of Under Armour and Gatorade.

Friday afternoon at London Stadium, a day before his Phillies opened a two-game series against the rival Mets, he wore another, almost serving as an ambassador of not just Major League Baseball but the sport of baseball itself.

Remember, these folks aren’t too familiar with baseball. The Yankees played the Red Sox in 2019 and the Cubs faced the Cardinals last year, but those were the only two major-league series to take place in the UK.

At his press conference Friday, Harper was asked by British reporters several times in several ways to explain why he finds baseball so exciting, how the game can be grown and what initially drew him in as a kid.

“I grew up playing football, baseball, basketball, other sports as well,” he said. “I love the grass, I love the leather, I love the dirt. I love the wooden bat, man. I remember the first time I wore metal cleats and it was like click, click, click, click. As you (grow up), you wear the moldeds and then you go into metals and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, this is cool, I’m like an older guy.’

“Just the whole thing. The tradition of MLB as well. It’s been around a long time. The game has changed so much. Obviously, you still have your traditionalists. But I think as the game has gotten younger, as players have gotten younger, people have kinda pulled from those players. The emotion has helped, but you have to understand this is a traditional game as well, so you’ve got to kinda border both sides because you don’t want to lose one fan or lose the other, you want to pull them and have everybody together.”

As far as growing the game, Harper’s overall message was that it’s done by holding events like the London Series, by showcasing the sport to different countries. There might be 100 kids who watch Harper or Ranger Suarez or J.T. Realmuto this weekend and become lifelong baseball fans. There might be 1,000. There might be 10,000. That kind of conversion is hard to measure and impossible to overstate.

“We have some really good players in our game from all over the world,” Harper said. “It’s a great game to see get over here and down into Mexico. I think as we come into the UK, I’d imagine we’d probably go into a lot of other places just like the NFL has. I think that’s going to help put our game in front of fans.

“But also, fans are gonna have to want to watch us play. Other countries are into different sports. As much as you put it in peoples’ faces, the Premier League is still going to be bigger. There’s certain things that are bigger than baseball. Obviously, the NFL has a pretty good fanbase here as well. I think a lot of fans know basketball because basketball’s in Europe as well.

“As the game grows and as it goes, the more we go into different cultures in the world, I think it’ll grow a little bit more.”

And then there’s the Olympics, which Harper has always been passionate about. Baseball returns to the summer games in 2028 in Los Angeles. Harper badly wants major-league players to be involved and has already expressed his desire to participate.

He doesn’t just want it for himself, he wants it for the sport as a whole.

“My biggest thing (to grow the game) is the Olympics,” he said. “There’s nothing more worldwide than the Olympics. I watch the most random sports during the Olympics because it’s the Olympics. So not having baseball in the Olympics is really tough. If you send those players over there and take that break, I think that’s the big one. I love hockey, it’s one of my favorite sports and seeing it in the Olympics is one of the coolest things ever. They take that three-week break and they let those guys go and play. I think that’s another big goal that we should have as Major League Baseball.

“I’ve talked to numerous people with MLB about it. I would love to be a part of it. Obviously, we have the World Baseball Classic, but it’s not the same. It’s not. People can say as much as they want, it’s just not. The Olympics is so worldwide. WBC is great, brings a lot of people together and that’s really cool, but the Olympics is something you dream about playing in. So if I have a chance to put my nation’s colors on again and represent that on my chest again like when I was 18 and 16, I would absolutely love it.”

He’ll be 35 years old by then, in Year 10 of the 13-year contract he signed with the Phillies prior to 2019. Harper is obsessed with winning the World Series, and nearly tasting that triumph in 2022 and 2023 has only added to that sense of urgency.

“Once I signed, John (Middleton), knowing his mentality, what he wanted to happen, it was incredible knowing what kind of track he wanted this thing to be on and I think we’ve fulfilled that, we’ve hit that a little bit,” he said. “Obviously, our main goal is to win the World Series and so that’s what we’re striving toward every single day. Had a great start to this year but we play a full season and a lot of things can happen. We just have to keep rolling, keep doing our thing, keep understanding we can be better in all facets of the game and get better every day.”

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