High-priced, coveted free agents from 2019 - Bryce Harper and Manny Machado - square off in NLCS

SAN DIEGO — The Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres were at each other’s throats, making each other’s lives miserable, desperately wanting the other to go away. 

It was the winter of 2018, and two of the youngest, greatest position players to ever hit free agency were simultaneously on the market. 

The Phillies, with owner John Middleton telling the world that he had “stupid money’’ to spend, wanted Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but it was an errant telephone call by his 5-month-old grandson that might have been the deciding factor. 

The Padres, with owner Peter Seidler trying to be discreet about their free-agent wishes, wanted Machado or Harper, too, with the tranquil San Diego community, and even Seidler’s young daughters, playing a key role. 

These two franchises spent the winter wining and dining each of them, throwing around $200 million, then $250 million, and finally $300 million contract proposals, trying to entice them to their respective cities. 

The Phillies got Harper for $330 million, the Padres landed Machado for $300 million, and here they are going at it again four years later in the National League Championship Series beginning Tuesday (8:03 p.m. ET,  Fox) with the winner awarded a berth in the World Series. 

“This is the way it’s supposed to be, right?’’ Middleton told USA TODAY Sports. “That was quite the time. We loved both of the players. But I couldn’t be happier with our choice.’’ 

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Ditto, the Padres. 

“We were close to both of these incredibly young, gifted, superstar players,’’ Seidler said, “that we were kind of joking, 'Hey, if we can’t get one, let’s get them both.’ 

“But I’m absolutely thrilled to death having Manny as the No. 1 rock of stability on this team. He has been perfect for us.’’ 

Really, the way it’s played out for the past four years, with both players beloved in their communities, leaders in the clubhouse, and stars on the field, it couldn’t have worked out better. 

“I believe that it worked out perfectly for both players, I really do,’’ says Dan Lozano, Machado’s agent. “Philadelphia did a really nice job of recruiting Manny, but I think after Manny met with the Padres, and saw their vision, he felt like San Diego was the place he wanted to sign. 

“I think both guys ended up where they were supposed to be.’’ 

Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, says his client would have been happy either place, but the fit between Harper and this blue-collar city goes hand-in-hand like the Liberty Bell and Philadelphia. 

“It has worked out extraordinarily well,’’ Boras said. “Bryce wanted to be assured the ownership would be committed to winning annually, and John has done that. They’ve followed through with it. Bryce loves Philadelphia, the audience, the fanbase, and let’s be honest, there’s a lot to like about him.’’ 

Harper and Machado have been linked almost since the day they were born just 101 days apart, 30 years ago. They played in youth tournaments together, were drafted the same year, reached the big leagues the same year, played 41 miles apart on the East Coast, hit free agency at the same time, so it’s only fitting that they are back on center stage together. 

“We've gone way back,’’ Machado said. “Obviously, I signed with Baltimore, and he was in D.C., so we were right up the road, and played against each other for a long time. And then leading up to free agency, we were two of the top free agents. 

“He went to a city that wanted to bring a championship back, and I went to a city that's never won a championship. Here we are a couple years later, we've done that, two organizations, and we've helped the organizations out big-time.’’ 

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2015.

There was natural trepidation by the two ownerships handing out the biggest contracts in franchise history. Sure, Harper and Machado were gifted talents, with Harper winning an MVP and earning six All-Star appearances with the Washington Nationals while Machado had two top-five MVP finishes and four All-Star berths with the Baltimore Orioles. 

Well, they have been worth every single penny to their franchises, and more. 

Harper, in leading the Phillies back to the postseason for the first time since 2011, has hit .282 with 101 homers and a .940 OPS since his arrival, winning an MVP with two All-Star nominations. 

Machado, in leading the Padres to their first NLCS since 1998, has batted .280 with 108 homers, an .855 OPS and two All-Star berths since coming to San Diego. He is expected to finish in the top three of the MVP voting for the second time. 

No wonder Boras got a recent text message from Middleton telling him that the 13-year contract to Harper was the greatest investment he has ever made. 

“When you sign someone for $330 million,’’ Middleton says, “character matters. Do you have the character to handle the pressure? Can you handle the pressure of the environment? Are you going to be hungry? Are you going to be hungry every single year of that contract? 

“Some guys sign big contracts and say, “OK, I made it.’ Subconsciously, they let up. Bryce has never up. He never will. He has that ambition to be great.’’ 

The Phillies, who made their first offer to Machado before Harper, look back and openly wonder if Machado could have handled the hardcore, blue-collar fans of Philadelphia. They demand great performance, and if not, will certainly let you know it. Harper wasn’t even with the Phillies for a week until he got booed by the Phillies’ faithful. 

“We seriously pursued Machado, made an offer, but we were concerned about the fit,’’ Middleton said. “Philadelphia is such a demanding town. Bryce has the intensity to not just deal with that, but to really relish that, and motivate himself.’’ 

When Harper was booed his first year in Philadelphia, sometimes unmercifully, he was asked what he thought of the crowd reaction. 

He responded: “I would boo myself, too.’’ 

“That was a perfect answer,’’ Middleton said. “He wasn’t happy where he was, and he knew he wasn’t delivering. But instead of saying, “My thumb hurts. I’m adjusting. I’m not sleeping well in the new house.’ He could have said all kinds of things, but never had an excuse. 

“That’s what it takes to win in Philly.’’ 

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Machado, who isn’t under nearly as much scrutiny as Harper in “America’s Finest City,” is viciously booed on the road. He feels the hatred every time he goes to Los Angeles, where he was traded at the deadline in 2018, and struggled in the postseason. Nothing against Philadelphia, he says, but it was a no-brainer choosing the Padres. 

When asked if he was pleased with his choice, he turned around, and looked back at the NLCS banner Monday over his shoulder. 

“Where are we at, the NLCS?’’ Machado said, breaking into a grin. “I think it worked out pretty good, right? This has been the vision all along. I think going back to the meeting when I sat down with [GM] A.J. [Preller] and he convinced me to come over here. I saw the vision. I saw what he had and what this organization meant. 

“Obviously, the city was one of the best cities in the country and one of the most beautiful ballparks all across the nation. It was a matter of coming out here and trying to do something special. 

“Here we are today.’’

Harper, who spent his entire time in the National League East before free agency, was always fascinated with the Phillies. He loved the rich history of Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton. The city was demanding and intense, matching his own personality. 

“It was something that was perfect for me and my family,’’ Harper said. “We connected very well with John Middleton, connected very well with the city of Philadelphia, with the fans, with the organization, kind of their plan, what they were going to do at the time. 

“I knew John Middleton was going to do everything he could to win at all costs. So being able to come in here and play for an organization like this, it's been a lot of fun. It's been very easy for me to kind of just be Bryce because I don't need to be anything else than myself because of the guys that I have around me and the family that we do have in that clubhouse.’’ 

Harper met with the entire front office for seven hours during his recruiting visit to Philadelphia, and four days later, Middleton brought his wife, Leigh, to meet with Harper and his wife, Kayla, for dinner in Las Vegas. 

They walked away knowing they were meant for another. 

“John Middleton did an amazing job with Harper,’’ Boras said. “They talked about Philly, and his commitment to winning. Bryce was so impressed that he said if I sign here I don’t want an opt-out [clause]. I said, “Bryce, this is going to cost you a lot of money, let me put it in there? He said, “Nope. I don’t want to move around. No opt-outs.’’ 

Middleton couldn’t believe it either, and was more convinced than ever that Harper was the ideal choice to spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia. 

“We were all stunned by that,’’ Middleton said, “showing how committed he was to us. We told him that we’re not going to just sign you and be done. We’re going to bring in other players, surround you with talent, and hope to achieve your goal of winning a World Series title together. 

“It’s like when you get married. We proposed, Bryce said, “I do,’ and here we are, ‘til death do us part. 

“It’s a great marriage, and we’re not getting divorced.’’ 

Really, now that Middleton thinks back, he says, it was that erroneous cell phone call on New Year’s Eve that made it all happen. 

They were at a family dinner when Middleton handed his cell phone to his grandson, Jack, and let him play with it. He locked the phone, but somehow, his grandson figured it out. Next thing Middleton knew, his grandson was calling someone. 

“I grabbed the phone and looked at the name,’’ Middleton said. “It is Scott Boras. Immediately, I shut off my phone and tell my family what Jack has just done. 

“I text [then-president] Andy [MacPhail] and [then-GM] Matt [Klentak]. Andy is worried that we aren’t ready to engage Scott, which we were not. Well, after not hearing from Scott for 24 hours, I think the moment has passed. Then, I get a text from Scott apologized for not answering his phone on New Year’s Eve, but he is available to talk anytime. I tell Andy and Matt, ask them now we should respond, and they both conclude Matt [the 5-month-old] should call Scott to discuss the timing of calls and visits. 

“Jack accelerated the negotiations by at least three weeks. 

“The rest, they say, is history.’’ 

In the Padres’ case, Machado almost immediately fell in love with Seidler and his family, recognizing the close-knit relationship everyone had in the community. 

“Manny is so wonderful with children, kids gravitate to him, as do adults, Seidler says. “I get the sense he’d rather talk to my daughters more than me. Manny just has a special heart. He just plays baseball. 

“I see him play hurt, but he never complains, he just goes out and plays, doing everything he can to help us win.’’ 

Now, for perhaps the next seven games, Seidler and Middleton can sit back, bask in their success, and watch their $630 million worth of investments fight for baseball’s ultimate prize. 

“Frankly, I’m happy on a personal level to see Bryce thriving in Philadelphia,’’ Seidler said. “He’s the man in Philadelphia just like Manny is the man here in San Diego. They are both beloved by their fans and organization."

Only one will be leading his team to the World Series. 

“I think honestly, we’ve got the two best teams going against each other,’’ Machado said. “It’s going to be a fun week for sure.’’ 

Follow Bob Nightengale at Twitter: @Bnightengale