Jonathan Papelbon struggles with at least two things off the mound, apparently. He isn’t as good as he thinks with public apologies, and he’s no historian of Washington baseball. He showed both when he faced the press at the Nationals’ Space Coast Stadium spring digs and owned up over trying to choke Bryce Harper in the dugout on last September’s Fan Appreciation Day.
It may have been nothing compared to the Nats themselves showing how out of touch with things like reality they may well be.
“I want to apologize to the fans and the coaches and everyone included. I think that with what happened last year, I was in the wrong. Should have never went down that way, and I understand that,” Papelbon said to begin. So far, so good.
“I had a lot of time this offseason to reflect on that,” the combustible relief pitcher continued. “I’ve had three months to think about it. I’ve done a lot of reflecting, and I think sometimes in life, good things can come out of bad situations.”
Papelbon tried choking Harper in late September. It’s been five months since. What was he doing the other two months? And does he really believe the bad situations from which the good things come normally include attempted manslaughter? But wait. There was more.
“I think the fans will see from me that I play with a great deal of pride,” Papelbon went on to say. “And with that pride comes . . . I’m not a perfect human being. I’m an imperfect person living in an imperfect world. I don’t claim to be [perfect]. So for me, I realize that what I did was wrong. And the fans see that. And I see that. But my whole point is that good can come of this. I can redirect this, and we can go out and win 95 games this season and go into the playoffs and be hot and go win a world championship still. That does not deter from that.”
Rough translation according to some: If you gotta choke somebody to get us to win 95 games and be hot and win a World Series, well, I’m human enough to admit it. What does that mean for assorted commentaries suggesting Papelbon and Harper put the choke heard ’round the world behind them at once? For suggestions that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo “entertained offers” for Papelbon during the off-season without turning one into an addition-by-subtraction deal to get Papelbon out of town?
What Rizzo did turn was a deal to send Drew Storen to the Blue Jays for Ben Revere. Storen, the reviving closer in the middle of a lights-out revival when Rizzo was fool enough to deal for Papelbon last July. Storen, who was thus bumped out of the job he’d busted his fanny to re-earn and turned into a mess down the stretch—partly because then-manager Matt Williams was too wedded to his Book to use both Storen and Papelbon according to immediate game needs and not just their pre-determined hours—and probably left wondering what short of murder he had to do to prove himself again.
At the Nats WinterFest event in December, a few players addressed the incident. The theme was probably isolated best by Jayson Werth: “There’s going to be some disagreements and fights happen, even brothers fight, so I don’t think it’s as big a deal as everybody thinks it is. I think it will be fine and the bottom line is we’ve got games to win. So little, petty little fights and stuff like that that happen they don’t last real long. in our minds.”
Brothers fight, shiznit happens, think nothing of it, time to move on, attempted manslaughter is just such petty little stuff compared to games to win. How removed from reality are these people? Where were they when the winter winds blew in such messages as that most of the winter’s free agents and their point men were in no big hurry to put the Nats on their call lists? (Reality check: it wasn’t just the Nats’ court battle with the Orioles over local television rights and fees that kept free agents from casting their eyes to the capital.)
Not even with Matt Williams cashiered as the team’s manager, the Papelbon-Harper incident only exposing him further as a man completely out of touch with his own team and clubhouse. Not even with Mr. Clubhouse, Dusty Baker, brought aboard to succeed him. Not even with Harper himself taking the higher road and reaching out to Papelbon when it should have been Papelbon moving first and fastest.
That Papelbon took the initiative to apologise again as the Nats kicked into spring training is laudable. That he, his teammates, and maybe even their bosses are that oblivious to just how outrageous the Harper choke was in the first place—especially to the Nationals’ fan base—is grotesque.
That there are those who think Harper showed “leadership” by reaching out to Papelbon after last season ended is a sure sign that enough in and around baseball remain prone to blaming the victim—just as some so-called old-schoolers did in effect when they decided Papelbon only did what was overdue regarding a Harper who actually showed up to play the day after the Nats were eliminated.
(Is it wrong to ponder whether it was more than just a little coincidental—as I observed in the original aftermath—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 the Orioles’ Manny Machado, whose heinous crime was to hit a two-run homer off Max Scherzer that turned a 3-2 Nats lead into a 4-3 Nats deficit?)
Still, there was at least one moment over which to be amused. “I didn’t feel like I got to say and apologize the way I wanted to apologize to the fans and everyone the way I wanted to last year,” Papelbon added. “Because I think the fans will see that I come here for one reason. I came here to bring a championship to a city that’s never had a championship. None of that’s changed because of what happened with me and Bryce last year.”
I hate to bust Papelbon’s balloon any further, but Washington has had a baseball championship, albeit almost a full century old. Pay attention, children: The Washington Senators—defying their longtime image, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”—beat the New York Giants in seven games in the 1924 World Series, with a legend securing the championship in Game Seven with four innings’ shutout relief. A legend named Walter Johnson.
The Senators actually won two more pennants (1925, 1933) before high tailing it to Minnesota for 1961. A second Senators franchise, known since 1972 as the Texas Rangers, didn’t get that lucky in Washington. The world last spring predicted the Nationals would go to and maybe even win last year’s World Series.
The world this spring isn’t sure what to predict for the 2016 Nats. Unreality wouldn’t necessarily be out of line.