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Monday, September 28, 2015

Reaction to the Ridiculous Harper-Papelbon Fight That Defined the Washing Nationals' Season

Although the Major League Baseball is in its last full week it couldn’t avoid absurdity as most teams play out the string to either a playoff berth or earlier tee times on their local golf course. On Sunday, the disappointing Washington Nationals had their futility summed up by reliever Jonathan Papelbon after he physically attacked star outfielder Bryce Harper late in the team’s loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, allegedly because of displeasure with his lack of hustle on a lazy fly ball he had just hit to left field. Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh wrote a terrific piece today on the happenings, which left me with the desire to write down some of my thoughts (that I will do here in lieu of the comments section of his article).

Once widely regarded as a near lock for a serious run at the World Series, the Nationals season has instead been defined by injuries and dysfunction. Only this final week will determine if they have enough fortitude to finish above .500. I state freely that I have no inside stories or connections, and that the opinions I am about to spout come from what I, like the public at large, have seen. I freely acknowledge that like most things in life, there is likely more to the story. Even so, I feel more than justified in my reaction to this incident.

Numerous reporters have written that Papelbon’s lunging at Harper was due to his perception that the young star wasn’t giving enough effort- essentially, not playing “the right way.” There are few things I hate more in baseball than that premise. It’s most frequently used by those who are explaining away their own bad behavior. There’s no official book of baseball etiquette, yet there seems to be no shortage of those who feel it is their duty to enforce unwritten rules that happen to ruffle their feathers on any given day.  

As Lindbergh pointed out, the players that take it upon themselves to mete out baseball justice under the guise of playing baseball the “right way” are often laughable in their hypocrisy. Look no further than Papelbon, who was suspended for seven games just over a year ago while with the Phillies for being ejected from a game and then making an obscene gesture towards the crowd once they started booing him.

Much has been made of the Sunday’s encounter because of Harper’s star status. Posting triple crown-worthy numbers, he is a good bet to be named the 2015 National League MVP when the awards are announced later this autumn. However, there should be outrage over Papelbon’s actions regardless of if Harper was the team’s best player, or the bat boy. Simply put, one does not put one’s hands on a co-worker (or anyone for that matter). Only in sports can this happen and there is no possibility of legal consequences. Can you imagine if Greg from your office put his hands around your neck and slammed you into a wall because you weren’t “filing the right way?” It would be a pretty safe bet that if that occurred, Greg would be preparing for his arraignment right about now.

That all being said, going after Harper is especially egregious from a franchise standpoint. At 22, if he isn’t already the best player in baseball, he is absolutely part of that conversation. With his free agency looming in a few years, and his agent being the bull dog Scott Boras, being publicly confronted and embarrassed is not the best way to get in the good graces of someone who will likely be able to name his own price when the bidding opens following the 2018 season.

Incredibly, there are those who agree with what Papelbon did. Fox Sports’ CJ Nitkowki, a former major leaguer himself, reported that he spoke with a number of a current and former players—none of whom fully backed Harper, while most came out in staunch defense of the pitcher. The consensus reasoning by Pap’s supporters is that Harper had recently spoken out to the press (although not very strongly) about the pitcher having been recently ejected for hitting Baltimore Orioles’ star Manny Machado with a pitch following a home run—in essence, playing the game “the right way.” I have no problem with a veteran like Papelbon giving a younger player, or any player for that matter, a dressing down if needed but they should only do that in a private and non-physical manner while simultaneously contemplating if their own track record  taints that message in any way.

Finally, Nats’ manger Matt Williams deserves recognition for the horrible way he has apparently treated the situation. He not only removed Harper from the game following the altercation, but then allowed Papelbon to go in and pitch. This effectively took sides as it pertains to the public eye, even if that was not his intent. Following the game, Williams indicated it was only afterwards that he knew the severity of what had happened. However, given that it all took place in a space the size of a school bus, and coaches jumped in and helped break up the melee, that seems unlikely. Although Papelbon has now been officially suspended for what will effectively be the remainder of the season, the bell signaling that dearth of good leadership cannot be unrung.

Harper may have his faults and may have even played a role in the dugout encounter but that doesn’t account for the actions of Papelbon. It was a disappointing conclusion to a disappointing season. It’s hard to say how this all may impact the players and the team in the future but for right now it’s impossible to see beyond the ridiculousness of it all.

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