Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon, And The Problem With Unwritten Rules
There's nothing all that complicated about Jonathan Papelbon choking out Bryce Harper. But it's no surprise in a game governed by contradictory, unwritten rules.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
In baseball, nothing says your season is over like a closer strangling his MVP teammate, mid-game, on national television. There are other ways to signal irrelevance, of course, but Jonathan Papelbon taking Bryce Harper by his throat and slamming him into the concrete of the Nationals' home dugout wall on Sunday was both a novel and action-packed way of doing it. The kerfuffle embarrassed everyone involved, and left fans to wonder if this was a case of deeper team issues bubbling to the surface.
Possibly. Something is clearly not cooking right in Washington, but this particular simple assault unfolded in a very complicated workplace.
Baseball is a hell of a place to work. Think about what would happen in your working world if you took a co-worker by the throat and a mob of junior executives had to drag you apart like a pair of crazed dogs?
Worst case, you're both fired, someone's arrested for assault, and lawsuits get passed around like pink eye. Best case is unpaid leave and some HR-mandated anger management courses. In baseball, however, you shower, ice your throat, and get ready for the next game, tying the issue off with a bow as Harper did, saying, "I mean, he (Papelbon) apologized, so, whatever... It's like brothers fighting, that's what happens."
Right, that's what happens. Which is why Matt Williams, who didn't even see all this go down despite being the team's manager and sitting in the same dugout, can say something as benign as, "It's no fun when stuff like this happens, but it does happen, and you must deal with it, and that is what we do," and, poof, it all goes away.
Hurray! Another crisis averted by complete and utter apathy—the hallmark of a manager whose job will also vanish with a poof come the end of the season.
But how can a manager, or even the players themselves, be this apathetic about a fight among teammates? Simply put, because it's the logical conclusion of the testosterone-driven, dick-measuring culture that is the basis for nearly every unwritten rule the sport has ever concocted.
In a locker room, the moral high ground is attained via getting older, not wiser. Thus, he who has been there longer makes the rules. This is Papelbon. The only way to change those rules, beyond becoming the longest-tenured yourself, is to play so well that the rules no longer apply to you. This is Harper. But, even then, you're not safe from the clubhouse purists who believe the sport should be played exclusively by battle-hardened veterans whose only emotional note is white-hot righteous anger.
There is a camp that believes this fight stems from the fact that Harper is a young, flashy, emotionally demonstrative prick who doesn't always hustle, can be whiny, and has been known to say brash stuff, like, "That's a clown question, bro." The only reason he hasn't gotten his comeuppance, in this reading, is because he's played well enough to avoid it.
Enter Papelbon; the perfect trigger-happy lunatic for the job of teaching superstars, home and away, lessons on proper baseball behavior. This is a guy who is deranged enough to drill Orioles star, Manny Machado, and then say "Perception is reality. If Manny thinks I hit him, that's what he thinks."
Uh, that's not what he thinks, Pap, that's actually what you did.
Papelbon isn't the only player who likes to reject reality and substitute his own—every player does it at some point. Fact is, playing baseball for a living is an exercise in suspending the reality of others in order to see your own fulfilled. Doing so is a prerequisite for making it to, and in, the majors.
Let's run through evolution of a rookie for a moment. In order to get to the big leagues, you're supposed to follow one of baseball's oldest truisms, Fake It 'Til You Make It. That is, you're supposed to act like a big leaguer even though you aren't, and to play with the brashness of the best in the game, because that's what you're trying to be.
However, if you actually make it, you're supposed to Act Like You've Been There Before, and like being in the bigs is no big deal. So keep your head down, your mouth shut, and obey anyone with more service time than you—which is everyone—until you've done something useful.
Most importantly, you must play the game right way—a holy baseball term for which there is no known definition besides the objective whimsy of your veteran teammates, the opposition, and the media. It is an amorphous standard that will nonetheless govern your existence as long as you have a jersey on your back.
Take the current frontrunner for the American League MVP, Josh Donaldson. Upon his arrival in the Bigs, his teammates hated him. In recent profile on Donaldson by Ken Rosenthal, Johnny Gomes said, "The guys who had been there were like, 'He's kind of a jackass, kind of like in his own world. He does this. He does that.'"
Then Gomes added, "I thought in my head, 'Those are all characteristics of a superstar. That's how superstars act.'"
Yes, superstars do have a tendency to suspend the concerns of others in favor of their own. But think about what a problem such an overt lack of awareness is when you work in a profession like American Baseball, where the preferred tool for teaching is assault, and no one has any idea what that lesson is actually being taught because all the important stuff is not written down anywhere.
This also reveals the loose thread of hypocrisy that holds the whole tapestry together. When Josh Donaldson started having incredible success, the script flipped. Suddenly, him being a jackass wasn't what made him play the game wrong, it was the character trait that made him so good to begin with.
Said Brandon Moss of Donaldson, "It's not an arrogance of, 'I'm the best.' It's an arrogance of, 'I'm going to show you why I'm the best.' He wants to go out and prove it every single night. He literally wears every at-bat on his sleeve."
Wears his at-bat on his sleeve, huh? You mean like Harper did when he, out of frustration, threw his helmet and bat and didn't run out a pop-up? Is that him actually being the best, or him just showing you why he's the best? Hard to say, but better choke him just to be sure.
Oddly, while baseball's social norms are about as clear as mud, one thing is crystal: baseball is full of fragile narcissists who justify a great deal of their behavior by citing sources that don't exist. They rationalize their foolish behavior as customary or, worse, crucial to the development of a younger generation. The system that makes Jonathan Papelbon a narcissistic borderline fascist is the same system that encourages Bryce Harper to be a narcissistic egomaniac.
And what happens when two narcissists clash? That's easy, one ices his neck and says it's what brothers do; the other goes home a week early and gets a head start on spending the $11 million option he already had picked up for next season. Both agree that it was just another day in baseball.