Jonathan Papelbon isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last professional athlete to go lewd and rude in the heat of a moment’s frustration when fans crawl all over him following a moment’s failure. But it doesn’t put him squarely in the right to suggest that Joe West, an umpire who is not allergic to the limelight, the grudge, or the self-appointment of being a law unto himself, was squarely in the wrong for escalating a simple misbehaviour into an unnecessary toxin.
On Sunday, Papelbon clutched a certain part of his anatomy while coming off the mound after he’d surrendered a three-run ninth-inning lead, which turned in short order into a 5-4 Philadelphia loss to Miami. Papelbon simply didn’t have it, loading the pads and not escaping until four hits, a walk, and a wild pitch destroyed what was a 4-1 Phillies lead. He hadn’t immolated like that since 2010.
The boo birds flapped all over Papelbon as he returned to the dugout, before and after he made the grab seen around the world and especially on Philadelphia’s back pages. In the dugout he was when West ejected him. Papelbon promptly shot back afield and went face to face with the confrontational West. (“Notoriously” is the adverb that normally precedes “confrontation” in most discussions about the veteran umpire.)
It was quite inadvertent when Papelbon’s forehead brushed the bill of West’s cap. It was anything but when West grabbed Papelbon by the jersey and pushed him to one side, requiring umpire Marty Foster to intervene. Papelbon’s been suspended seven games. West at this writing hasn’t been disciplined yet.
Whether Papelbon’s or West’s subsequent explanations are the most credibility straining I leave up to you. Papelbon swore he did nothing more than adjust his athletic supporter and forgot in the moment, perhaps, that it just might look a little discomfiting at best. West noted properly enough that Papelbon’s gesture came out of the booing, and right then and there the ump should have quit while he was ahead.
Papelbon: [West] basically came over and said that I did an inappropriate gesture, and I had no clue what he was talking about… That is when I got upset. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no explanation. I was still obviously pretty heated from what had just transpired. Me and Joe we go way back. We don’t see eye to eye a lot of times . . . I had to make an adjustment and I did it . . . I don’t even hear the fans out there. When I am out there I am in the moment — the fans are irrelevant to me. I don’t even see them or hear them. To me, it’s pretty stupid, to be totally honest with you. The fans come and pay their money and want to see a good game. They have the right to boo and do whatever they want to do, but an umpire gets caught up in that and starts trying to look for extra things he may think are going on.
West: The whole thing started because the fans booed him and he made an obscene gesture. He had no business doing that. He’s got to be more professional than that. And that’s why he was ejected. Whatever happened out of that may have happened in anger out of being kicked out. But that’s irrelevant.
Very few would argue against West’s definition of professionalism, even as they counter that the most professional of professionals can be only too human in moments of failure. But fewer still might be those who’d argue that it’s not asking an overweight burden to ask an umpire, presumed as well to be professional, comprehend a distinction between a moment of abject frustration that provokes a lewd overreaction and a simple matter of spoiled brattiness.
Had West kept his head, not to mention his hands to himself, when Papelbon bolted forth following his ejection, it’s likely the Phillies themselves would have taken an appropriate action to put their frustrated closer squarely in his place. A seven-game suspension might seem excessive for one dumb gesture in the heat of frustration. But it should be noted that the Phillies have been trying to find a taker for Papelbon for long enough despite his obvious abilities, while Papelbon hasn’t been shy about saying he’d prefer to pitch for a real contender.
All of a sudden Michael Pineda’s ten-game suspension for pine tar looks even more ridiculous, and Manny Machado’s five-game icing for throwing a bat looks even more insufficient. Four years ago, Torii Hunter, Yorvit Torrealba, and Ty Wigginton got far less for almost inadvertent ump contact. Even Devin Mesoraco didn’t get half Papelbon’s exile when he poked Chad Fairchild with a finger.
Ivan Rodriguez once got a single-game suspension for a naughty gesture. Jack McDowell once got fined $5,000 by the Yankees and ordered to buy “substantial amounts” of tickets to home games after he flipped Yankee Stadium the bird following a bad outing—but he missed no time.
Perhaps the most extreme example might have been Garry Templeton. He’d climaxed a long, frustrating period of playing down from his considerable talent—and playing addled by lingering pain from an offseason road accident, which may have led him to the drugs that might have exacerbated what proved to be clinical depression—by flipping the bird and, ahem, adjusting his supporter, when a St. Louis Ladies’ Day crowd booed him for jogging rather than sprinting it up to first.
Manager Whitey Herzog yanked him off the field and ran him out of town, trading him to the Padres—for future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith—as soon as he could make a deal.
Tempelton’s bat and speed (he once got 100 hits from each side of the plate in a season) was what the Padres thought they needed more than Smith’s defensive virtuosity. The trade shook Templeton to the roots. His great fortune proved to be Dick Williams. The Padres manager took Templeton under wing, perhaps recognising Templeton’s outburst in St. Louis was something of an aberration coming from a buffeted young man, and saw something in Templeton’s native baseball intelligence.
“He pulled me down one time,” Templeton said upon Williams’s death, “and said, ‘Hey, sit next to me. I want to show you how to run a game.’ I had a day off and I sat next to him and watched how he ran the game and how he saw things as a manager, and it really made me realise what goes on as a game is played and what does a manager think—two or three innings ahead.”
Templeton has long since made a nice career as a respected minor league manager. The incident that turned out to begin turning him around had nothing to do with an umpire. The Cardinals acted swiftly and justly, and the Padres allowed him to transform.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg, who’d worked so long and hard to get his chance in a major league dugout, didn’t have a chance with this one. Papelbon bolted too fast for Sandberg to hold him back. But the questions are begged as to whether Papelbon has sunk his stock so deeply with the Phillies despite an otherwise solid season that Sandberg wasn’t in all that much of a hurry to protect his man even against a Joe West whose reputation for thriving on confrontation isn’t unearned.
Sandberg and Papelbon met privately in the wake of the incident. “It’s not my position or my spot to make any judgment on that, but just to listen to him,” the manager said. “By Major League Baseball rules, [we] have no authority to make official judgments about activity which occurs on the field or to determine the appropriate penalty for misconduct,” the Phillies said in a statement after Papelbon’s suspension was announced. “We apologize to our fans for the actions of our player yesterday.”
It just might translate to any other team that wants Papelbon can have him if they might be willing to help the Phillies take some of his remaining salary off their hands. If all you had to worry about was Papelbon’s pitching, he was having a season very reminiscent of his best, after a 2013 in which he was bothered by a hip injury, with 37 saves, a 0.95 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, almost a strikeout an inning on average, and a 2.10 ERA.
Unfortunately, you now have to worry about two things. One is whether Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. will continue turning his nose up at even reasonable offers “for the kind of talent we have on our roster,” never mind that the Phillies need rebuilding desperately. The other is whether Papelbon himself will alienate his next team’s clubhouse and front office the way he seems to have done now.
Those may prove to be simpler problems than the ones presented often enough by West. Once upon a time he shoved Joe Torre, then managing the Atlanta Braves, and got a three-day icing for his trouble. Today Torre, baseball’s vice president for for baseball operations and on-field discipline and umpiring, is West’s boss. When Torre returns from the sad necessities involving the death of his brother and one-time World Series hero Frank, he should have an interesting decision to make.
Baseball government doesn’t make its umpire discipline decisions public too often. Player discipline becomes too public, too swiftly. Papelbon has taken a very public flogging for his foolishness. Just imagine what he’d take if, instead of his forehead inadvertently brushing the bill of West’s cap, he’d shoved, pushed, or even decked West. West was just as foolish in choosing physical confrontation over reason with a foolish, boorish, but not otherwise dissembling pitcher having a bad night.
It doesn’t diminish Papelbon’s wrong one degree to suggest West himself may be a spoiled brat overdue for a session over Torre’s knee.