Opinion: On the Jonathan Papelbon-Bryce Harper fight


Credit: Flickr user arianravan

Above is a picture of the Washington Nationals’ stadium in Washington, D.C. WSPN’s Meg Trogolo comments on the recent fight between the Nationals’ Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon.

Meg Trogolo

Sunday’s dugout fight between the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon was one last humiliation for the Nationals. The team has performed far below the high expectations of baseball fans and media this season. Papelbon lunged at Harper in plain view of just about anyone watching during the eighth inning of a 12-5 loss against the Phillies, attempting to choke him. Harper shoved back, and teammates and coaches immediately pulled them apart. Papelbon was suspended for the remainder of the season shortly afterward, and Harper was benched the next day. Both were at fault when they lost control and seriously compromised their team’s dignity.

The brawl has also been one of the most talked-about events in American sports this week. Media, players and fans alike have split into two distinct groups: one in support of Papelbon, and one in support of Harper. Those who think Papelbon was in the right say that Harper was breaking an unwritten rule by not hustling and needed to learn a lesson about how baseball should be played. Those who have sided with Harper believe that Harper’s status as one of the best players in baseball allows him to act however he pleases. If you’ve been following the saga, you may even have taken a side in the debate yourself.

Although there may already have been about a million opinion pieces on the subject before this one, neither side has really looked at the whole situation. In reality, Papelbon and Harper were both at fault, one for his lack of self-control and the other for his lack of humility. Neither of them exercised much common sense, and both of them embarrassed not only themselves, but their team as well.

Let’s start with Papelbon. The man is not exactly known for being level-headed. During his time in Boston, he called teammate Manny Ramirez a “cancer”. After leaving to sign with the Phillies before the 2012 season, he insulted Red Sox fans in the press. While pitching for Philadelphia, he complained about their fans as well and made an obscene gesture into the stands during a home game. Just last week, he hit Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch and then issued a bizarre denial when asked if he had done it on purpose. Even if baseball’s unwritten rules are justified, Papelbon is not someone who should be enforcing them.

In order for a team to play well, its members have to get along somehow. Part of that is solving any disagreements off the field with as few people involved as possible. Choking a teammate mid-game proves that despite his 11 years pitching in the major leagues, Papelbon still hasn’t figured out how to treat other players with respect. He also has not realized that he is no longer in middle school and minor arguments shouldn’t be settled with fists in the cafeteria.

Although Papelbon’s outburst came when Harper returned to the dugout after not running out a ball that was sure to be caught, there was no real reason for Papelbon to pick a fight with Harper. The team had already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. There was nothing on the line. All there was left for the Nationals to do was to play their best and try to salvage the team’s dignity, but the fight did exactly the opposite. People may someday struggle to recall what the team’s final record was, but no one is going to forget about this incident anytime soon.

Of course, Harper was by no means innocent. One of the best players in baseball, he’s let his status go to his head over his four-year career. He often waits much longer than is necessary to trot to first on pop-ups, and was even benched last year for not running out a ground ball. Running to first on grounders is a basic and necessary part of the game, not to mention a practical one. If an infielder misses or drops the ball or makes a poor throw, the hitter has a chance at reaching first safely. However, if the hitter gives up on getting there and slows down, they have a good chance of being thrown out anyway. Harper has been thrown out on exactly these kinds of plays because he didn’t run hard.

It’s not hard to imagine that if he did run everything out, he’d get more hits and be able to help his team and boost his numbers even more. He’s already had a monster season (.334/.466/.654 with 41 homers and 97 RBIs) and is, alongside Mike Trout, one of the most talented all-around players in the major leagues. He’s gotten too used to the hype and the worship of the baseball media, though, and he knows how good he already is. His immaturity isn’t even a result of his age – other stars in their early ‘20s, such as the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson and the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, have handled the attention with dignity. He just doesn’t really seem to care that he could be even better.

More relevant to the fight itself, though, when Papelbon hit Machado last week, Harper told reporters that he thought it symbolized a “tired” way of playing. One of baseball’s most illogical unwritten rules is that when a batter hits well off a certain pitcher, that pitcher is obligated to hit the batter. However, it’s become less and less relevant in recent years. Really, Harper’s mistake was in publicly criticizing Papelbon’s choice. Not only did it make the Nationals look even more dysfunctional than they already were, it was the source of the bad blood between Harper and Papelbon, and it reflected badly on Harper himself. Here’s a player who is willing to insult teammates publicly, but not willing to do everything he can to win games. He’s just embarrassing himself.

With the season almost over, the Nationals now have nothing left to play for. They dropped out of contention long ago and lost what remained of their dignity over the weekend. Meanwhile, sports media outlets will continue to churn out angry tirades against Harper and indictments of the unwritten baseball code of conduct. As baseball fans, we will have to refuse to take sides. It would be too immature, too hot-headed, and too self-important to say with certainty that either Papelbon or Harper was in the right – in other words, it would be too much like the two of them.

Opinion articles written by staff members represent their personal views. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent WSPN as a publication.