Papelbon and Harper: It’s Tenth Grade again


It’s a rarity, certainly, when I talk about my own life, or even in the first person on this blog. I’d like to think that I’ve avoided that well enough, as its considered good form, and that I set a personal rule for myself, that I should speak in the third person as much as I can, and avoid my own personal stories as much as I can. Here, I’ll break that rule.

This Sunday, nearly one year to the date of Jordan Zimmermann’s no hitter, Jonathan Papelbon, Bryce Harper, and the Nationals gained nationwide media attention, for all the wrong reasons. After Bryce Harper supposedly didn’t run out a fly ball, which he did, Jonathan Papelbon yelled at Harper for a lack of hustle. This is already problematic for a myriad of reasons – not only is Harper the obvious choice for MVP this season, which means that he doesn’t necessarily need to run out every fly ball, he does anyways (Jeff Passan wrote an excellent article about this here). Harper had also already played 150-plus games this season, and was starting a game that many regulars were sitting out, the day after the Nationals played a 4 hour marathon which, despite a win, was the last game they played that had playoff implications. The Nationals had been mathematically eliminated, and yet, there was Harper, playing again. Another blatant issue was Papelbon’s inconsistency. Papelbon had been passable, but certainly not shutdown. The next inning he went onto the field, he blew any shot the Nationals had at coming back, turning a 4-4 tie into a 6-4 deficit, plus putting on three runners for entering pitcher Sammy Solis. And is it truly a pitcher’s place to tell a position player when to hustle, when they spend the majority of the game on the bench or in the bullpen if they’re not starting?

Harper, for obvious reasons, was agitated. One thing led to another, and soon enough, after Papelbon told Harper he would go to physical lengths, Jonathan Papelbon had his hands around Bryce Harper’s neck. Bryce Harper turned on him, and began to fight back. He was restrained by teammates, retreated to the clubhouse, and didn’t return for the rest of the homestand, saying something along the lines of “I’m f***ing done!” to Manager Matt Williams. The Nationals might’ve been mathematically eliminated the night before, but the season truly died that afternoon in the dugout.

Ironically, that day was Fan Appreciation Day. Needless to say, fans did not feel very appreciative of Jonathan Papelbon.

Let’s switch stages now. Let’s move from the bright lights, thousands of spectators and manicured grass of Nationals Park, and move to a torn up field in Washington, D.C.

I go to a small school. We have a small student body, small classes, and thus, a small sports program. It doesn’t necessarily correlate to a lack of success (although it usually does), but in rare cases, teams are very successful – in fact, our Varsity Boys Soccer team won the conference championship last year. But I’m not on the Boys Varsity Soccer team. I’m on the Junior Varsity team, which practices on said torn-up field. The team is made up of a mix of 9th graders, 10th graders, and two injured 11th graders. It hasn’t been a good season so far. We haven’t won a single game, or tied, and have scored two goals over three games. Team chemistry, and morale, is pretty low. It’s still important to keep going, even on humid, rainy days on a torn-up, bumpy field.

To state the obvious, soccer and baseball, at least fundamentally, are very different. But, on this day, it felt similar to the dugout in Nationals Park.

It started innocently enough – two tenth graders, one a striker, one a midfielder, had made a bet. During a penalty kick drill, if one missed, and the other made it, the missing party had to give the other five dollars. The striker missed, on the second-string goalkeeper. The midfielder made it, on the first-string goalkeeper. The striker (who has been average at best this season) was not happy, claiming that the keeper he faced, the first string keeper, “sucked.” The keeper, who’s not only been stellar this season, but is also good tempered and comical the majority of the time invited the striker to be the goalie for a penalty he took.  The goalie, being a goalie, struck it directly at the striker-turned-goalkeeper. The striker-turned-goalkeeper timidly stuck out a hand and quote-on-quote “saved” the penalty kick. Immediately, instead of returning to his place, the striker got in the goalkeeper’s face, yelling at him, and putting him down. Enough was enough for the goalkeeper, and he went towards the striker, shoving him. Teammates restrained him, and he calmed down eventually.

Sound familiar?

There are quite a few similarities here. Although getting in someone’s face isn’t choking them, it certainly has a similar ring to it, in terms of provoking someone to fight back or push back. The banter sounds similar, with a certain “come at me” ring to asking for the penalty kick. One teammate called the other something, the other teammate tried to shut him down, the former began to go on a tirade on the latter, and things got ugly from there.

The teammates certainly haven’t solved it. Neither have Bryce and Jonathan. Practices and games will have an odd feeling to them, especially when both play simultaneously. And, it’s clear that one is in the right and the other is in the wrong. So what can be done, in both cases?

In High School, you can’t trade a player. We can’t get rid of the striker by sending him to Sidwell Friends School, and calling him their problem now. But if there was a way to keep him off the team, at least for a little while, which may mean suspension, is the right call. What he did wasn’t right and it wasn’t anything you want to see on any team, nonetheless yours. But for something a level up from that? Like, choking, per se? That player should never wear that team’s uniform again. The keeper is ultimately more valuable to the team than the striker. Bryce Harper is ultimately more valuable to the Nats than Jonathan Papelbon. The Nationals can get rid of Jonathan Papelbon, and should. After seeing a similar situation, the majority of the team won’t be happy to see him back, especially alongside Bryce Harper.

But the ultimate lesson from this? It’s pretty simple. Jonathan Papelbon has the same reaction to issues as a tenth grader in high school.


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