I wrote all of this before the Nationals suspended Jonathan Papelbon, and I suppose in some ways it’s now mooted. I mean, the Nationals clearly agree that Papelbon was in the wrong here, and it’s ultimately their word that matters most. Still, we’re gonna all argue about this stuff again at some point because all baseball arguments recur over and over again, so it’s probably still worth saying. Anyway:
I am not one of those people who think that, just because I like a player’s game, he’s any kind of a leader or a role model or a good person or anything like that. Far from it. Which is to say that I am 100% open to the possibility that Bryce Harper is a jerk. I have no idea if he is. Neither do you. His coworkers have a pretty good idea, I presume, but unless they’re willing to put their cards on the table about that — and they’re not, because ballplayers generally don’t talk out of school — we can’t really know that either.
But there is certainly a strong thread of “Harper is a punk” floating around among people who don’t know any better. Some of it is insanely overt, based on the sentiments of many commenters and fans. We’ve seen that for years, of course. Ever since Harper was on the cover of magazines as a teenager. An anonymous scout once said he was a “bad, bad guy,” everyone nodded in agreement because it feels good to nod in agreement when we feel like we know things only insiders know, and it has taken on a life of its own. Hell, maybe it was true five years ago. The kid was 17 then and a LOT of 17-year-olds are jackassses. It sort of doesn’t matter because he’s 22 now and 22 year-olds are rarely the same as their 17-year-old selves. Maybe one day we’ll get a new assessment of the guy.
For now, though, people are sticking with the old one, and in today’s discussion of the Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon dustup, we’re seeing quite an undercurrent of the Harper-as-the-bad-guy meme. But not just from fans nodding along with five year-old intelligence. Former player C.J. Nitkowski’s column this morning implied it and his followup in response to critics strongly suggests that Harper has something to learn out of this. Reliever LaTroy Hawkins is on that train too. A lot of people are framing this as an issue of veteran vs. younger player with the bone of contention being Harper’s alleged lack of hustle on a pop fly and the spark of the fight being Papelbon correcting him.
This is madness.
There is zero chance whatsoever that, yesterday, Papelbon was taking issue with Harper’s hustle in anything approaching an honest and genuine way. Or that, even if it did bug him as a professional, his reason for calling Harper out publicly about it was in furtherance of baseball ethics. I mean, Papelbon has been around for a long time and he’s played with a LOT of guys who don’t run out fly balls and I can’t recall him ever speaking up about it before. The dude broke in on a team led by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez for Pete’s sake. At least with respect to getting down the line on popups they make Bryce Harper look like the bastard son of Pete Rose and Lenny Dykstra.
No, the reason he did so was because last week Bryce Harper took public issue with Papelbon throwing at Manny Machado. Given Papelbon’s lack of a leadership track record, it’s a pretty safe assumption that that what was animating Papelbon. He simply does not say a thing to Harper if not for Harper’s comments. So that requires us — in order to really assess this situation — to take Harper’s comments into consideration.
Those comments were themselves somewhat unorthodox in that, again, they were a public rebuke of a teammate. But they were a correct rebuke. They arguably displayed some leadership. And they were, if one looks at them objectively, possibly even brave.
The Nationals were still mathematically alive last Wednesday night as they took on the Orioles. And they were down by a run in the top of the ninth when Papelbon, quite intentionally, hit Machado. That put a base runner on in a close game and got the Nationals’ best relief pitcher ejected, each of which hurt the team. It likewise put Harper — the Nationals’ best player — at risk of being hit at some point in the near future. Indeed, that was the substance of Harper’s comment. Any player who gets hit could get hurt and having your best player get hurt while you’re still technically alive for a playoff spot is a very, very bad thing. So, on at least three levels, Papelbon did something stupid that hurt his team.
Pointing that sort of thing out is not what a lot of ballplayers do, but Harper was 100% correct in his assessment of Papelbon’s actions and saying so took some guts. It took guts to say, in as conservative a world as baseball is, that perhaps, after 150 years of dumb unwritten rule enforcement, maybe it makes more sense not to put guys at risk of injury with retaliation pitches. Maybe, to quote, Harper, he’s not alone in thinking such things are “tired.” And if he’s not alone, maybe his saying so will inspire more players to be more vocal about it. Maybe, several years from now, more people speaking up about that sort of thing like Harper did will lead to a game in which guys don’t throw 93 m.p.h. fastballs at people’s heads because they don’t like the cut of the batters’ jib. If so, Harper, perhaps unwittingly, will have proven himself to be something of a leader.
So, in totality, maybe this little drama isn’t about Bryce Harper’s lack of hustle, bad attitude and alleged lack of professionalism. Maybe it’s not about a veteran taking issue with a young player’s failure to play the game the right way. Maybe it’s about a young man showing some maturity and, frankly, some bravery in calling out dumb headhunting orthodoxy and some waning superstar with a known history of being an immature jackass not liking it all that much because, at some point soon, his seniority is all he’ll really have.
Perhaps that’s way too charitable of an interpretation in Harper’s favor, but I find it far more plausible than an explanation in which the sage veteran Jonathan Papelbon is taking the reins of leadership and treating the young Bryce Harper to a teachable moment.