Inter-Team Fighting, Veteran Status

Every Story Needs a Bad Guy; This One Has Him – But Not For the Reason You Might Think

Pap vs. Harp II

Turns out that Jonathan Papelbon’s old-school-vs.-new-school emotional crisis last week was only the beginning. At least then he was hitting members of the opposition.

In the aftermath of his physical assault on Bryce Harper Sunday, caught on TV for all to see, we’re left to digest the complex implications of not only what happened, but why.

After Harper failed to run out trotted slowly to first on an eighth-inning popup to left field (but still plenty fast enough to make it if the ball was dropped), Papelbon began railing on his lack of hustle before the guy even made it back to the dugout. When Harper failed to exhibit the kind of subservience one can only assume Papelbon expected a 22-year-old to pay a veteran of his stature, the closer went for his throat, literally. (Watch it here.)

Over at Fox, former pitcher C.J. Nitkowski makes the case, citing unnamed current and former big leaguers, that it was Harper in the wrong, that young players in baseball must pay emotional servitude to their seniors, as it is and as it has always been.

There’s something to this. Rookies who watch quietly tend to absorb more than those whose energy is spent making their own voices heard. For generations, upstart rookies were not allowed to exist in a big league atmosphere; veterans worked tirelessly to tamp them down until they were no longer noisy. That’s no longer so. Part of it is top-tier signing bonuses that put many young players on comparable financial footing with veteran teammates. Part of it is players being rushed to the big leagues earlier and earlier, making them more prevalent to the overall culture than ever. Part of it is the collective realization that stifling one’s teammates is simply not a productive use of one’s time.

That, though, is not the real issue.

What Nitkowski fails to acknowledge in his treatise is that clubhouse standing is not based purely on seniority. Veteran status plays a part in it, of course, and by that measure Papelbon, with his 11 years in the big leagues and 34 years on the planet, has it all over Harper.

Production, however, trumps seniority. Harper has made three All-Star teams in his four years in the league, and has already earned more MVP votes than Papelbon ever did. He’s the best player not just on the Nationals but damn well in all of baseball.

Papelbon, on the other hand, has been with the Nationals for all of two months. If anybody gets traded over this incident, it’s not going to be Harper. By this measure—which is more real than whatever hokum Papelbon or his defenders want to spin about veteran status—Harper wins in a landslide.

That, though, isn’t the real issue, either.

Evidence points toward Papelbon’s anger stemming from Harper’s decision to go public with his frustration over the closer drilling Manny Machado last week, telling the press that the closer’s actions were “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

In that much Papelbon is correct: Those kinds of comments are better delivered behind closed doors than in a public forum. Had Harper sat Papelbon down for a heart-to-heart about the nature of baseball and how much it hurts to get drilled in retaliation for a teammate’s ill-considered actions, things between the two might never have reached the critical state they eventually did.

But even that is not the real issue.

For somebody sticking to his guns about the way things ought to be, Papelbon failed both himself and his old-school proponents. In drilling Machado for showboating, the closer could cite historical precedence; ballplayers of yore did it all the time, and by gum the game was better then, and etc. But even if we ignore the big picture that tells us that’s no longer the case—not to mention the fact that a reticence to evolve is one of the most damning characteristics a person or organization can foster—it’s impossible to miss Papelbon conveniently ignoring as solid a tenet as baseball’s unwritten rules contain: Don’t throw at a guy’s head.

Had Papelbon drilled Machado in the thigh or in the ass instead of sending two pitches above his shoulders, there’s a good chance that Harper would not have said anything at all. And had Harper not said anything, Papelbon would have had little reason to extend his vendetta to his own damn dugout. And therein we find the crux of the issue.

The hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy of players hiding behind semi-formed tenets of decorum while conveniently ignoring their own culpability in a given matter. (And never mind Papelbon’s postscript lip-service statement, “I’m in the wrong there,” delivered without a smidgen of guilt.)

The hypocrisy of meathead pitchers trying to leverage the unwritten rules to bolster their own macho need to exact a toll whenever they can, wherever they are, while claiming the moral high ground.

The hypocrisy of somebody shutting out every detail of a situation save for the ones that bolster his own point of view.

The American sporting public is a forgiving crowd, but only when we’re certain we’re not being played. Athletes are given second and third and fourth chances, provided they’re honest about whatever it was that plagued them in the first place. Jonathan Papelbon will never come out and say that he dislikes Bryce Harper for his combination of youth and ability and earning potential and clubhouse leadership at an age when Papelbon himself was pitching in the short-season Class-A league in Lowell, Mass.

Sure, Harper might be grating. Many stars are. Their status affords them that leeway. Papelbon, however, refuses to acknowledge that status, and couches it however he can to validate his actions.

It’s a weak mindset, and goes a long way toward explaining the abundance of burned bridges the closer has left in his wake. Most good stories need a hero to save the day. This one has only a villain, but at least it’s enough to keep things interesting.

Update, 9-28: The Nationals seem to agree, suspending Papelbon for what amounts to the duration of the season.

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10 thoughts on “Every Story Needs a Bad Guy; This One Has Him – But Not For the Reason You Might Think

  1. Sounds like they’re both a couple of jerks. I get the idea that Harper isn’t that well-liked throughout the league, but he’s kind of right to be upset over Papelbon setting him up for retaliation. These pitchers have a lot of ‘guts’ when they don’t ever have to hit.

    1. You may well be right about Harper, but his ability to make friends isn’t germane here. Barry Bonds wasn’t universally liked in the Giants clubhouse, but he was unequivocally respected. His status afforded him as much. Harper should expect no less, especially from a newcomer like Papelbon.

  2. It’s the Nationals fault for actually TRADING for a closer who makes 11 million a year and is a known asshole. Why you would give that much dough to a player who mans the most overrated position in sports is beyond any rational thinking.

    1. And the formerly-effective closer is now an ineffective reliever… no doubt because of the lack of faith his team showed in him.

      It’s an interesting case… You’ve posted plenty about Harper, and he has a reputation for not running out fly balls, but you’re right, Papelbon wasn’t exactly the right person to be calling him out, and not just because he’s new to the team. Shouldn’t it be the position players taking care of the position players, rather than the pitchers doing the same?

      1. Generally speaking, you’re right — position players take care of their own, as do pitchers. Players from both camps can assume leadership positions in a clubhouse, however, at which point what they say goes, for whoever they say it to. This is obviously NOT the case with Papelbon.

        The thing about running the ball out, as Adam Kilgore noted in the Washington Post yesterday, Harper DID run the ball out, inasmuch as for that kind of play, at this time of year, what he did is really all that could be expected. If the ball was dropped, he would have safely reached first, so what was Papelbon’s problem? Clearly, not that.

  3. Excellent piece Jason. Thank you so much for sharing your work. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED your book by the way. Of course Harper is a bit annoying (understatement) but he is certainly entitled to more respect than this especially from the likes of known-jerk Papelbon. I heard him on satellite radio saying “I’m in the wrong there.” Gag. No class.

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