To say that Bryce Harper is disliked in Braves Country may be the understatement of the century. If you want to see some of the loudest boos you will ever hear in Turner Field (non-Dan Uggla or Melvin Upton division), go to a Nationals-Braves game and you will hear them rain down upon Harper during every one of his at-bats. And if anything like THIS happens:
Braves fans love every second of it and will cheer almost as loud as when the home team scores the go-ahead run. Bryce has certainly made his fair share of miscues in the past against the Braves, in particular on the bases or getting mouthy with umpires after striking out. In fact, Bryce struggled against the Braves in many respects before this year (like many Nationals did to be fair). After a relatively successful rookie campaign against the Braves where he hit 4 homers and batted .258 in 18 games, Harper batted .216 in 2013 before bouncing back in 2014 (although in less games because he was injured) to bat .261. However, he hit 3 home runs total against the Braves in that span. This kid (who by many was considered to be the most promising hitting prospect to come out in some time) was, at best, only okay against the Braves and often struck out or made a base-running gaffe to undo the progress he had made against them. This was on top of the fact that Bryce wasn't exactly known for his durability during his few years of his career and you have a player-fan relationship that ultimately seemed pretty one-sided.
But how did we get here with all of the animosity towards Harper if he wasn't breaking Braves' fans' hearts? Why do the fans hate him so? Well, to begin with is the fact that Bryce was an ultra-hyped prospect on an arch-rival of the Braves who had a reputation (deserved or not) of being arrogant and cocky. That, in itself, will create a certain amount of animosity. However, where a lot of what we see now really began to come to a head in 2013 in the heat of a pennant race. Bryce had hit a solo shot off of Teheran earlier in the game and then this happened:
It's hard to derive a lot of intent from the pitch as it's sort of a weird spot to intentionally plunk a guy, but Bryce's reaction, the subsequent bench-clearing and comments after the fact, and Bryce being hit AGAIN in a game a day or two later certainly created a lot of bad blood.
It didn't help matters that Bryce isn't exactly known for keeping his feelings to himself and seems to revel a bit in being the villain. When asked during the 2013 season about Braves fans hatred of him, Bryce said point blank that he lives for the booing and loves Braves fans because of it. He went one step further in 2014, when he decided to drag his foot repeatedly across the Braves logo behind home plate.
While Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves responded publicly with a collective shrug, many Braves fans were livid and it further entrenched Bryce as their most reviled player. But again, much like his total career up until that point, he had been long on talent and promise while somewhat short on production. That didn't stop the boos though, and before too long they would have more reasons to let the boos rain down.
To be blunt, Bryce has been torching the Braves in 2015. While his dominance hasn't been isolated to just against the Braves, in six games against the Braves, he is batting .455 with 3 home runs and 9 RBIs. Granted, he has been doing this courtesy of a .538 BABIP against the Braves this year, but the fact remains is that he has certainly begun to live up to the hype that followed him in to the big leagues as a teenager. To top it off, he hasn't been producing at inconsequential times, but has put his team on his back and taken games away from the Braves by himself.
Now that's not to say the Braves haven't gotten back at Bryce a bit this year, too. After all, that play by Andrelton was made this year. But for the first time, Braves fans have "real" reasons to hate Bryce. It's not just reviling a talented-but-cocky kid who ultimately didn't do much against the Braves. Here is a player who, for my money, is turning into one of the best players in baseball. He's also a player that Braves fans already hated. Who does that remind you of? Ryan Howard would be an acceptable answer as he has famously hit 50 home runs and batted .288 against the Braves in his career and has continued to cause them trouble even though his best years against the rest of the league seem to be well behind him. Howard, however, was never really a blow-hard and never really caused the Braves fan base to turn against him in a particularly strong way. Was he great in his day, especially against the Braves? Sure, but the vitriol didn't approach the level that exists for Bryce.
No, this brings back memories of a young, brash third baseman coming in to his own in the 1990's and who absolutely owned the New York Mets. His first home run was against the Mets. Starting around 1995 or so, he would over and over again come up with big hits in games against....yep, the Mets. And famously, after destroying the Mets in a three game series that decided the division in 1999 and then bounced the Mets from the playoffs in the NLCS, he proclaimed, "Now all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees' stuff on" which didn't exactly go over well in New York. He would continue to wreak havoc against the Mets for the balance of this career with 19 homers and 53 RBIs in Shea Stadium. That player, of course, was Chipper Jones. Even now, Mets fans will not hide their scorn for Chipper and still have flashbacks of him dashing their hopes again...and again....and again.
Now, I am in no way advocating that Bryce is even close to the player Chipper was or that this half-season of dominance by Harper is sustainable. There are a lot of things that go in to a rivalry and one of the principle components is time...which hasn't transpired yet for Bryce and the Braves. Plus, in Chipper's case it happened to be true that the Braves seemed to always be just ahead of the Mets and the Braves were, for the most part, better teams. While the Braves-Nationals rivalry seems to be in a bit of ebb-and-flow with the Nationals having the upper hand in the most recent of history, one doesn't get the sense that this will be. However, it does make one feel like we, as Braves fans, finally have what Mets fans had for all of those years if in that different context of a true, close rivalry. Instead of just booing a guy in a half-filled stadium because Braves Country doesn't like him, maybe the rivalry will bring folks to Turner Field to see the home team try to tame a reviled, yet feared talent. Maybe Braves Country has someone to boo, someone who is a threat, someone to go to the ballpark and heckle, and someone to hate....and maybe now it will be for all the right reasons.