The Nationals’ Nadir: Jonathan Papelbon, Bryce Harper, and the Choke Heard Round the World

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Jonathan Papelbon started the second half of September so well. Ten days ago, MASN’s Dan Kolko reported that Papelbon had donated $50,000 to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in honor of former Boston mates Jon Lester and John Farrell. It was among the Nationals closer’s kindest public gestures, up there with loaning his condo to a family whose son was in the hospital, working with The Jimmy Fund, drilling the Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey with a tomato (for charity!), and hunting some moose for what many non-moose-sympathizers would consider a good cause. As small a sum as $50,000 is to someone who will have made 2,000 times that by the time he retires, that one gesture was enough to remind us that people are complicated, and that even an athlete as off-putting as Papelbon might have hidden, non-douchey depths.

Since then, though, Papelbon has been on the warpath, wiping out whatever good he’d recently done his public perception. Last Wednesday, he hit Manny Machado with the second uncomfortably-up-and-in offering of a ninth-inning plate appearance, sandwiched around a 1-0 outside slider, a disingenuous decoy that made the subsequent beanball more dangerous. The pitch was a reprisal for the crime of hitting a go-ahead homer off of Max Scherzer two innings earlier. Maybe Machado admired his hit, which always angers the old guard, but it’s tough to tell from the video, which says something about how subtle the perceived slight was.

For that obvious act of headhunting, which Machado called “cowardly,” Papelbon was suspended three games, a typically toothless sentence that was almost certain to be defanged further after an inevitable appeal. While waiting for his final sentence, Papelbon continued to play, which gave him a chance to target a teammate, Bryce Harper, on Sunday.

Harper, who’d described the attack on Machado as “pretty tired,” led off the bottom of the eighth in a 4-4 tie with the Phillies by popping out to shallow left. Papelbon, who’d recorded the last out of the top of the inning, watched as Harper trotted to first, fast enough to be safe had left fielder Jeff Francoeur dropped the ball, but too slow to try for second (which would’ve been a stretch even if he’d busted it out of the box). When Harper walked within earshot, Papelbon said something, which made Harper say something else, which in turn made Papelbon stop using his words and start using his hands and fists instead. Papelbon had the high ground, and he struck Harper with Statcast-quality speed, acceleration, and route efficiency.

A few years ago, I asked Evan Brunell, a deaf writer and skilled lipreader, to help me transcribe manager-umpire arguments. I asked Evan to take a look at this confrontation, too. Here’s what he thinks was said:

Papelbon: … fucking go! On the fucking … Yeah, run the fucking ball out. [Obscured swearing] … goddamn ball out.

Harper: … the fuck up! Are you fucking kidding me? Chill the fuck out, man. Let’s fucking go! I’ll fucking go right —

If that transcript is accurate, Harper didn’t exactly deescalate, but this was all posturing until Papelbon charged without waiting to find out what would happen when Harper said “now.” In a span of five days, the 34-year-old Papelbon clashed with two athletes in their early 20s and managed to look like the one with the worst attitude and impulse control. He’s a Vin Scully clothesline away from having physically assaulted three of the best things about baseball. And while some people can’t help having infuriating faces, Papelbon wasn’t even trying to hide his smug grin.

Maybe the (relative) maturity Machado and Harper showed is a sign that these flare-ups are on the way out, but old-school attitudes are deeply ingrained, as we learned from the pro-Papelbon responses JABO’s C.J. Nitkowski heard when he polled players. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the cycle repeat when today’s youngsters are old enough to play the experience card.

As I watched the full video again and again, trying to decide whether Papelbon’s disproportional response looked worse in motion or in the brutal, Vader-esque stills of hand held to throat, I kept coming back to the girl in the front row, whose whole world was Harper.

This is the saddest four-second silent movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a baseball remake of the “Daisy” ad, with Papelbon playing the part of the mushroom cloud. There’s Daisy (or maybe she’s Madison today), tickled to be a few feet from Harper, oblivious to the apparent disgrace Harper has just brought upon the franchise by failing to sprint on a soft fly to left. There’s Papelbon, equally unaware of the hero worship his tirade is interrupting. And there’s Harper, distracted by the need to defend himself. On a different day, Harper might have returned the girl’s attention, flashing a smile or gifting a batting glove. On this day, he doesn’t see her.

I don’t mean to make this about the children, as if this girl were scarred by what she witnessed, or as if the situation explains anything about baseball’s struggle to attract young fans. (If anything, more chokeholds would probably help.) In fact, Daisy/Madison didn’t even notice. Here she is moments later, when the camera pans back to the right as Harper is hustled out of the dugout. Her innocence is intact, unless she’s checked Twitter in the past 24 hours.


But go back to the GIF to look from her face to the solemn stare of the boy to her right, who isn’t that much older but who seems to understand that something is wrong, and you’ve essentially seen Inside Out. Daisy’s is the face of every fan who wonders why baseball has to be such a serious business — why we can’t just smile, wave, and watch Harper have a great season instead of obsessing over how fast he runs on routine outs. We all start out as Daisy, and we all end up straight-faced and stressed. Being Daisy looks like a lot more fun.

The most maddening aspect of these episodes is that the sport’s self-appointed policers are so often unworthy of the office. Coming from a fan-taunting crotch-grabber who so often finds fault with his teammates, Papelbon’s critique was hard to take seriously. “I didn’t maybe necessarily do it the right way,” said Papelbon, who admitted that he’d made a mistake but didn’t maybe necessarily sound as remorseful as he might have. He knows he handled this wrong, but he still believes that it had to be handled.

I’d counter that Harper is smart enough to know when he can run at less than full speed. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Range and Positioning System, batted balls similar to Harper’s on the play in question are caught 100 percent of the time. “That number is rounded and is based on a window of several years of similar batted balls,” says BIS’s Scott Spratt. “But for practical purposes, similar balls are pretty much always caught.” A .336/.467/.658 slash line doesn’t buy a player a pass, but it should buy him the benefit of the doubt. Harper has reached the level of performance at which the right way to play is “however Harper does it.”

Incredibly, it was Harper who was pulled from the game — for reasons that Washington manager Matt Williams wouldn’t disclose — while Papelbon returned to the mound for the ninth, where Andres Blanco did what Williams wouldn’t: punished a Papelbon mistake. Papelbon and reliever Sammy Solis combined to allow eight runs in the inning, which in a just world would have been charged to Papelbon’s ERA.

Of all the confounding bullpen decisions Williams has made this season, some of which may have cost Washington wins, this one was the strangest. The irony is that Williams usually draws criticism for refusing to use his closer. This time, his mistake was leaving his closer in, although he justified his decision with the same three-word mantra he’s recited before.

Later, Williams told The Washington Post’s James Wagner that he couldn’t see what Papelbon had done from the other end of the dugout, and that he didn’t see the video until after he talked to reporters. Williams also said he was “livid.” But he sounded like a lifeguard on Amity Island claiming that he didn’t see the dorsal fin and couldn’t figure out why everyone was running away from the water. If I were a Washington fan, I don’t know which would bother me more: that Williams would pretend not to know the details of a dugout confrontation that was obvious to everyone watching at home, or that Williams could actually be oblivious to what went down, let the instigator get away with it, and conduct a postgame press conference without asking one of many witnesses — including multiple coaches who held Papelbon back — what he’d missed. The sequence calls to mind Adam Carolla’s refrain about the only explanations for excuses that don’t make sense.

I don’t know which one Williams is, but it’s clear that he’s not a major league manager. I wouldn’t normally say something like that, since there’s so much uncertainty surrounding most managers’ jobs. In most cases, we dwell on the tactical decisions because they’re the tip of the iceberg, the stuff we can see. The rest stays under the surface, bubbling up only in stories (like this one about Williams from Friday) supported by “rumblings” or quotes from anonymous sources. On Sunday, we didn’t need sources. We saw the entire iceberg surface, and we saw Williams steer into it.

The chokehold might become the defining symbol of the Nationals’ lost season — not just the latest in a series of setbacks, but an easy answer to the difficult question of what went wrong with Washington. Before the punch, it took time and effort to explain the many ways in which Washington misfired. “Well, Stephen Strasburg was hurt for a few months,” one might have said. “Doug Fister fell apart. Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Ryan Zimmerman have played a total of 313 games and combined for 2.9 WAR, down from 508 and 16.7 in 2014. Ian Desmond didn’t hit. Tyler Moore was a mess, and Matt Williams made mistakes with the bullpen.”

Compared to that litany of names, facts, and figures, each of which is a puzzle unto itself, the chokehold has an appealing simplicity. The day before the Nats traded for Papelbon, they were 52-45, with a two-game lead in the NL East, which was disappointing but not disastrous. Since July 28, they’re four games below .500. It’s tempting to draw a connection.

The frustrating thing about blaming chemistry for disappointing seasons is that those arguments often surface after the fact: Every team starts spring training claiming clubhouse harmony, and only after some struggle do the stories about squabbling start. The Papelbon trade is an exception. While everyone acknowledged the Nats’ need for a reliever, which the Papelbon acquisition addressed, there was also unease about the possibility that Papelbon might be a bad fit. Papelbon’s presence isn’t always poison — he won a World Series in Boston — but perhaps it was on this team, given the complications caused by demoting closer-turned-setup-man Drew Storen from a job he’d done well, which culminated in an earlier tantrum. Or maybe yesterday’s scene wasn’t a glimpse of the Nationals’ root problem, but a byproduct of other issues, mixed with frustration on the part of Papelbon, who escaped last place in Philly only to be eliminated from playoff contention on Saturday by the team he’d talked his way off. He may have fought his way off this one: Although the Nats have already picked up his option for 2016, it’s hard to come back from breaking Rule No. 1.

If the Nats had been healthier, they might have been happier, and maybe the chokehold wouldn’t have happened. Or maybe it would have, but it wouldn’t have seemed so significant: The 1986 Mets didn’t get along great, but because they won the World Series, their symbol became Jesse Orosco’s ascending glove. Harper, who’s having the best offensive season since Barry Bonds was blackballed retired, has already been betrayed by his teammates in more ways than one, deprived of a playoff appearance, and possibly MVP votes, by the rest of the roster’s lackluster play. If he can look past that, it should be easy to put a little chokehold between brothers behind him.

Filed Under: MLB, Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Williams, MLB Managers, MLB Brawls, MLB Trades, NL MVP, NL East, Baseball Code, unwritten rules, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh


Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

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