This being the last week of major league baseball’s regular season brings bitter sweet sorrow for true baseball fans, and our annual opportunity to editorialize about the sport.
While all the media and pundits refer to the clash between the Washington Nationals’ Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper last Sunday as a “fight,” anyone watching the replays has to conclude that it was not that. It was an ugly physical assault by Papelbon on Harper and Paperbon deserves to face criminal charges.
A preceding verbal argument stemmed from Papelbon taunting Harper relentlessly like a playground bully, presumably criticizing Harper for not running out a lazy fly. Harper finally had enough, and issued some heated remarks back. But then Papelbon lunged at Harper, grabbing him forcibly by the throat and shoving him back. Papelbon’s assault to the jugular could have resulted in a serious injury to the Nationals’ singular candidate for a batting title and most valuable player this season.
Papelbon has always been bad news, and it was a serious mistake by the Nationals’ management to pick up this sad thug. Earlier in his career, when he had success as a closer for the Red Sox, he felt compelled to intimidate batters with a creepy, leering glare prior to each pitch. Anybody with a capacity for scoping out body language and such would spot him as someone to avoid.
Papelbon was a disaster from the day the Nats picked him up. It was a double fiasco because it also involved a rude demotion for the one closer the Nats had this season who performed well. It was a bitter pill for closer Drew Storen, who’d worked hard to recover his earlier effectiveness and was doing well, but suddenly found himself kicked to the curb.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had not been Papelbon, and his known offensive bullying personality, who was selected to shove him aside. Storen was proverbially mugged, and his subsequent performance collapse reflected that. It is easy to say that a professional baseball player should be able to ignore such things and simply do his job, but that’s ruling out human nature which, of all sports, above all impacts baseball.
A spillover effect contaminated the entire team. Morale took a nosedive, as its subsequent performance demonstrated. An injustice had been perpetrated internally to the team. Rather than boosting the team’s playoff chances, Papelbon’s arrival signaled its demise, and his assault on Harper, the club’s Number One performer, proved it.
Blame for the Nationals’ collapse belongs to a management incapable of calculating anything but stat sheets. Manager Matt Williams’ stoic inability to show empathy for his players was a related flaw. Williams was normative for a bygone era, but recently the sport has benefited from a lot of morale-boosting loosening up.
The Nats lacked humor. The players weren’t having any fun out there and it showed.