CJ Nitkowski: In Jonathan Papelbon-Bryce Harper fight, media has lost objectivity; players overwhelmingly support pitcher
Baseball writers and bloggers hate Jonathan Papelbon, at least most do. They hate him because he’s gruff, cocky and obtuse. He’s that jock bully from high school who even as adults we can’t seem to forgive. He’s got an edge to him and he doesn’t care what you or I think about him.
So when opinions came in on the Bryce Harper-Papelbon scuffle in the Washington Nationals dugout almost all of them were anti-Papelbon. They love Harper, hate Papelbon … and all objectivity was lost.
Let’s break this thing down from a place that has no preconceived notions on either of these players.
The only history that matters is recent history. Papelbon thought he was making friends last week when he took it upon himself to hit Manny Machado with a fastball in a game where Machado had homered earlier. The assumption is that Papelbon thought Machado admired his home run too long and was due a high-and-tight fastball.
This column isn’t about debating that night. What’s done is done and Papelbon thought he endeared himself to his teammates by doing what he thought was right. But he didn’t, at least not to one teammate in particular.
Harper seemed to take exception to Papelbon’s actions.
"I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer,” Harper told the media after that game Wednesday night. “Walked it off, and somebody drilled him. I mean, it’s pretty tired. It’s one of those situations where it happens, and, I don’t know, I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow."
That somebody was Papelbon. Harper didn’t call him out by name but we obviously know he was referring to his closer teammate of about two months.
Harper is free to disagree with Papelbon; the mistake came in airing his grievance to the media. That’s a conversation that happens between teammates, not in front of a microphone and a camera. You can bet Papelbon, at 34 years old with 11 major-league seasons under his belt, didn’t take too kindly to the 22-year-old Harper’s comments.
The line was drawn by Harper: Calling out teammates publicly is OK.
Fast forward to Sunday. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning and with the score tied 4-4, Harper flew out to left field but did not hustle out of the batter’s box. It was the same thing he was taken out of a game for in April of 2014. At the time the media crushed manager Matt Williams for being hard on the then 21-year-old Harper.
Manager Terry Francona in Cleveland removed rookie Francisco Lindor from a game earlier this year for not running out a popup. Francona told me Lindor was so ashamed by what he did and how we drew attention to it on TV (It was an FS1 game) that he vowed to never let it happen again.
After Harper’s lack of hustle Sunday, Papelbon was waiting for him on the top step of the dugout, ready to return the favor to Harper for all to see. Papelbon immediately began verbally peppering Harper about his effort level and embarrassment to the team. As Harper reached the bottom of the stairs and turned the corner he bit back at Papelbon, the same guy he called “tired” a few days earlier to the media. Papelbon wasn’t having it and the scuffle was on.
So who’s to blame? I don’t play the “I played and you didn’t” card unless I think it is warranted; this is clearly a situation where playing experience matters. The clubhouse is like no other place. It’s not like an office, and it’s not like your weekend softball team. Don’t compare a clubhouse to where you work, it’s completely different. But even with my experience I have a checks-and-balances system. It’s easy to lose sight of what the game was like the further you get away from it, so I polled well more than a dozen former and current players I know about what happened Sunday in Washington.
Not one fully backed Bryce Harper. Not one. Some of what I was told …
● Pap did what should have been done three years ago. Veteran players should be doing this across the league.
● Right intentions, horrible timing by Pap.
● I would have done the same thing if I were Papelbon.
● Bryce is a great player. He’s a true superstar. But he’s not above playing the game the right way. I’m glad someone finally told him that.
● I am perfectly OK with Pap’s reaction. I can understand some people having a problem with the timing. At the same time this guy is the MVP.
● Kid has been allowed to loaf for the past two years. Williams got crucified for benching him last year; media and fans took Bryce’s side so he kept doing it and wasn’t getting punished. Veteran finally said something; kid ran his mouth at the wrong guy and got beat up.
● Do it behind closed doors. However, it needed to be done.
● As a teammate you always feel you have the right to say something to someone if you feel it’s wrong or hurts the club. Right after the popup is not the best time to call out a hitter.
● We all know how Harper has behaved since he got called up. But when you’re at that level (MVP for me) why would you not run? It’s not the first time! And why did his manager take him out of the game (after the scuffle)?!?
● You saw Pap say you should run it out which is 100 percent true. I get Harper is frustrated about the at-bat and result but still he’s gotta run it out … and I don’t think the whole Pap hitting Machado the other day and Harper saying what he did helped the whole thing. Pap was probably just waiting for something to happen so he could criticize Harper. If somebody else said, “you need to run it out” I don’t think that whole thing would have happened.
● I agree with Pap calling Harper out — hustling and continuous work ethic creates champions. He got the response most players would have probably given from the exchange. Should have been handled in the clubhouse.
● As much as I hate to say it, Albert, Papi and Miggy have earned the right not to run out every ball. Partly age, respect and risk of injury. Harper is 22, he hasn’t earned it.
● I believe if Papelbon was not questioned for his recent actions on the Machado beaning and his other stuff of his past, most people would love what he did. I still loved it and it needed to happen.
● He quit on his team after the fight, just like he does on popups.
These quotes are the most objective and knowledgeable viewpoint you’ll get on this matter. These are from current and former players who don’t have a bias and come from perspectives closer to the current game than anything else you’ve read. These guys clearly respect the player that Harper is, but not the way he’s handled himself at times in his career, especially on Sunday.
Papelbon is everybody’s favorite punching bag but it’s not deserved here. This is a game that governs itself; it always has and always will. No one is above giving his full effort every time. When you don’t, there will be a veteran teammate there waiting to remind you. Sometimes that might result in a fight and that’s OK. This is not your office.