From your ancient baseball history, 1949 to be specific, a little story: In his third major league season, a still very young Yogi Berra has been the target of much veteran needling. Part of it has been due to his squat, homely appearance. But sometimes it has nothing to do with his appearance and everything to do with continuing the young man’s baseball education.
Berra has impressed his manager, coaches, and teammates alike with his willingness to listen, learn, listen more, and learn more, but never mind. One fine day he lofts a short pop to center field that falls in for a base hit. The next Yankee hitter, alas, forces him out at second, followed by two fly outs to end the inning.
Veteran Charlie Keller, who didn’t get the nickname King Kong because he was anything resembling movie-star handsome, but who was a respected Yankee veteran, approaches Berra to talk about the inning sequence before Yogi straps on his catcher’s gear to re-take the field.
“You feeling alright?” Keller asks.
“Yeah, why?” Berra replies, with no disrespect implies.
“You didn’t run on that ball you hit,” Keller continues, gently but firmly. “If you did, you could have made it to second, and the ground ball and the [first] fly ball would have scored you.”
The story was told by Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat to Casey Stengel’s biographer Robert Creamer. His point was that much of the ribbing Berra took from the Yankee veterans was indeed a way of teaching him. About the worst Yogi received after that pop single was a chilly stare from Joe DiMaggio.
Not one of those Yankees thought it would have been appropriate to try teaching him about hustle by way of putting him through the dugout wall in a choke hold.
Remember that whenever you read any of the nonsense about the old schoolers who think Jonathan Papelbon was perfectly in the right to go for the throat in a bid to remind Bryce Harper about hustle. But add to that the commentary from Mark DeRosa, a sixteen-year major league veteran who now works as an MLB Network commentator:
Here’s my problem with Jonathan Papelbon. You’ve played 63 innings this year. You’ve been in the clubhouse probably— every closer I’ve ever been with— through the fifth inning getting a rubdown, eatin’ a sandwich, doing your Jobe exercises, takin’ your time. You’ve earned that right. His pedigree—he’s earned the right to do that. That’s the way [John Smoltz] went about it. All the great closers I played with, they’re not gonna get down there in the first inning. You’re top-stepping a guy who’s played in 1,262 innings, who’s hitting .336 with 41 homers, is gonna be the National League MVP and you’re questioning whether or not he goes to the post every day. That’s tired, OK? No reliever should tell a position player anything about hustle. Go stand out there in the rain, sleet, and snow while you guys are giving up gap shots. That bothered me.
Apparently, there turned out to be someone in the Washington Nationals’ hierarchy who does have eyes and a spine, who doesn’t think it’s proper for one player to try choking a teammate, never mind the franchise player, regardless of the actual or alleged crime in question.
Papelbon’s season is over. The Nats suspended him for four games without pay, to be served after he serves a three-game suspension without pay courtesy of baseball government. The latter—incurred after Papelbon threw twice at the head of Orioles’ Manny Machado last week—began Monday, after Papelbon elected not to continue his appeal. Which was probably the most, if not the only intelligent decision he’s made since becoming a Nat in the first place.
With apologies to the late Bob Murphy, back with the unhappy recap:
Bryce Harper popped out to shallow left leading off the Nationals’ eighth Sunday afternoon. He fumed in disgust for a moment before dropping his bat and trotting to first base anyway. Then he turned to return to the dugout. As he arrived, Papelbon on the top step snapped at him, apparently to run it [the expletive] out. Harper snapped back as he descended the steps and reached the dugout floor.
Maybe he did or didn’t say words to the effect of “bring it on,” but from the dugout steps Papelbon lunged at Harper, slamming him to the dugout wall with his hands on the outfielder’s throat. It took several Nats including coach Rick Schu to pry Harper away.
Nothing out of Harper’s mouth can justify Papelbon putting him into a choke hold. Or, for that matter, docking Harper a game, which is what inept Nats manager Matt Williams turns out to have called Harper’s pre-scheduled off day Monday against the Reds. (Harper at least had one of the best seats in the house while Max Scherzer got to within five outs of no-hitting the Reds.)
“He was involved in it,” Williams told reporters. “He said something to Jonathan and he played a part in the incident.” That’s from the man who didn’t even see the damn fight until he saw video postgame.
Papelbon opened his mouth first, Harper replied, Papelbon apparently continued, and Harper snapped back. Then came the choke hold and slam. A relief pitcher who thinks it’s kosher to throw twice at the head of a guy who took another pitcher over the fence a couple of innings earlier is in no position to be playing field or dugout sheriff.
After Harper disappeared into the Nats’ clubhouse following the scrum, Papelbon could be seen leaning against the dugout rail with a pronounced smirk on his face. The sad sack Phillies, the team that dealt him to the Nats in the first place in July, were only too happy to wipe that smirk off his face, which is exactly what they did when, inexplicably, he was allowed to start the ninth and surrendered a tie-breaking two-run homer. To a no-name named Andres Blanco.
(And is it more than just a little coincidental that Papelbon decided to teach Harper a dubious lesson just a couple of days after Harper publicly described as “tired” Papelbon’s throwing twice at the head of Machado, whose heinous crime was to hit a two-run homer off Scherzer that turned a 3-2 Nats lead into a 4-3 Nats deficit?)
Williams just looks more clueless by the hour, which is a shame to say about a man who was a fine player and has been an accommodating sort publicly since he became the Nats’ manager. Unfortunately he’s also a man who’s likely to go to the guillotine at just about the moment the Nats’ sad season finally ends.
Let’s be straight up: Nobody is arguing against hustle. Harper’s been lectured in the past about hustle—by his coaches and his managers. But have we lost count of how many times players become so disgusted with popping out that they, too, have fumed, dropped the bat, and trotted to first base instead of going supersonic?
Bet on it. If Harper had gone Road Runner up the line in that instance only to turn up with a pulled hamstring (he’s had issues with the hammies in the past, folks), the same fools hammering him for not “hustling” the Sunday pop would be hammering him for overdoing himself into an injury on a measly popup.
The way a lot of (mostly anonymous, and you can look that up) the old-schoolers weighed in in supporting Papelbon, you’d think Harper was practically the only player in baseball who ever trotted up the line on a leadoff pop out even Marv Throneberry wouldn’t drop.
Why wouldn’t you ask a player with known, on-the-record leg and knee issues to save the jets for something that might mean something substantial—like maybe a chance to turn a single into a double, a double into a triple, or beating out a grounder deep in the hole for a base hit?
I’ve seen Harper do such things. Including missing a third of 2014 after fracturing his thumb sliding into third base while turning a double into a three-run triple. Come to think of it, I’ve seen him get hurt crashing into outfield walls making plays. And, since when can you lead the league in runs scored, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+, and wins above a replacement-level player, which are exactly where Harper leads the National League at this writing, if you’re dogging it?
Papelbon could easily have done nothing more than ask Harper why he didn’t bust it up the line, and if Harper chose to bark back a little more vociferously, you’d think an eleven-year veteran would be mature enough not to think the appropriate response should be two hands around the throat.
Especially not on a team whom the same know-nothings supporting Papelbon for upholding the old school—which surely wasn’t the old school of Charlie Keller, Yogi Berra, and the Stengel-dynastic Yankees—might otherwise accuse of a big pennant race choke in the year the experts, actual or alleged, predicted they would go all the way to the World Series.