I <3 Papelbees
As the self-proclaimed id of this site, a lot of what I like to write about involves the emotional experience of sports fandom, particularly Phillies fandom. But the tricky thing about writing for a team-specific site is that writing about what it’s like to be a Phillies fan is often pointless. I figure most of you folks are Phillies fans anyway, so there’s not a whole lot to say about the general fan experience that y’all don’t know anyway.
But individual players, however–that’s another story. I’ve always been troubled by the idea that we don’t get to choose the individual players we root for. I mean, we do, to a certain extent. But we root for laundry, and when we’re relieved of a beloved player, it hurts.
Or, more confusingly, when we have a pariah thrust into our midst. I was never that big a Jonathan Papelbon fan. Well, I guess I respected him all along–apart from a little blip in 2010 he’s never been anything other than a great relief pitcher. But I hated his stupid gassy stare that broadcasters seemed to be convinced was intimidating. I hated the almost Trachselian delay between pitches. I hated him for being one of the New Wave Red Sox, that latest group, with Lester, Beckett, Pedroia, and a whining, screaming, legion of folks with obnoxious accents and pink hats.
Around 2006 or so, the Red Sox went from being the lovable, long-suffering Anti-Yankees to being something almost worse–a team with the arrogance and success of the Yankees but lacking the self-awareness that makes the Bronx Bombers what they are. When people hate the Yankees, the Yankees and their fans seem to be aware that they are successful, pretentious, and smug in the extreme, and there’s a tacit acknowledgement among the Pinstriped Army that such qualities come with the danger of being resented by the Great Unwashed. Now bring the car ’round, Jeeves.
But with the Red Sox, it’s different. After 80 years of being the hard-luck underdog, the Martin Freeman character as it were, they suddenly became just as successful and just as obnoxious as the Yankees. Then Hollywood collectively decided to blacklist any director who dared set his movie outside of South Boston. Theo Epstein, the role model for a generation of teenaged nerds who suddenly saw the fruits of intelligence and unconventional thinking in baseball (including me) started getting weird. Now there’s panic fit for Chicken Little when the Sox miss the playoffs. We rend our garments at the degradation of the moral fiber of the clubhouse with (gasp) beer and fried chicken. (Which, to be honest, sounds like every meal I ate in four years of college, but whatever.)
And for some reason, with the oppressive success, the resources of a middling petrostate and the fawning, sycophantic adoration of the national media, the Red Sox and their fans tried to cling to that conception of the self that made them more of America’s team than the Yankees ever were. And when they were no longer the second-favorite team of the majority of baseball fans, they seemed not to get it. Rather than adopt the Yankees’ admirable, if somewhat punchable, mantra of “Yeah, we think we’re better than you, come prove us wrong,” the Red Sox acted like the friend who borrowed money from you, slept with your wife, and then pretended nothing was wrong.
And apart from Dustin Pedroia, no one embodied that mentality, at least for me, more than Jonathan Papelbon.
Sorry for getting ranty there. Feel free to disagree with all that–I don’t care. I just wanted to impress on you how much I came to hate Jonathan Papelbon. And now I have to root for him.
It’s not that often that I experience the tension between name-on-front and name-on-back. Of course, there are players who I hate watching because they’re bad. But carrying cross-team emotional baggage is a different animal.
It can be good, at times. The Flyers, over the past two or three years, have acquired several players I’ve admired from afar–Chris Pronger, Kris Versteeg, Jakub Voracek, and so on. But it can work the other way, too. I’ve just now reconciled the complicated emotions surrounding Max Talbot. And while we’re at it, I find it hilarious that the Flyers have an aversion to using a player’s full name if it’s 1) of French origin and 2) vaguely effeminate. Max Talbot was “Maxime” for years, and Danny Briere was “Daniel” (pronounced Dan-YELL), but both names were truncated upon their arrival in Philadelphia. They’re French-Canadian, folks. Get over it.
I’ve gone through this emotional transformation before. In the 2010 Olympics, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik made the American hockey team, and I had trouble rooting for the USA in those Olympics because Orpik had made a career of being chippy, whiny, and dirty. He was like the girl in your second grade class who would pinch herself until she cried, then tell the teacher you did it. I almost couldn’t cheer on the Americans with Orpik on the team. In short, I hate Brooks Orpik more than I love my country.
Anyway, the way it’s worked for me most of the time is that a player I loved in college goes to a team I hate in the pros, but mostly in football. I despised Eagles receiver Riley Cooper in college. His Florida Gators beat the tar out of my South Carolina Gamecocks year after year. I wanted to dump all that hate on Tim Tebow, but he seemed so earnest that it was tough to work up a solid lather. I also don’t find his showy religiosity as off-putting as others seem to, so screaming the foulest and most graphic obscenities I could think of from the student section at Williams-Brice Stadium (which I did the night he scored seven touchdowns to ice the Heisman) just seemed phony to me.
Riley Cooper, on the other hand, acted the way I wanted Tebow to act. He was cocky, and brash, and flung his long hair around when he took his helmet off. He comported himself on the field and on the sidelines like nothing more than the world’s biggest asshole, and I hated him. He was despicable in the way I wanted Tebow to be, and when the Eagles drafted him to be a role player, I was despondent.
But in baseball, that’s not so common, if only because my college baseball fandom isn’t old enough for it to bother me that Joe Blanton went to Kentucky, or Cliff Lee went to Arkansas, or even that Papelbon went to Mississippi State. But seeing Papelbon wrapped up in that obnoxious Red Sox flag for so long has made it tough to get used to him. It’s almost as if Papelbon’s arrival is another indicator that we Phillies fans are becoming like the Boston and New York fans we’ve so long reviled–whiny, self-entitled, and talking funny.
While the addition of Roy Halladay to the Phillies’ roster was really weird but primarily really awesome, Papelbon’s arrival just seems strange. It’s not the contract, which is bad, but it’s no reason to hate Papelbon himself. It’s the feeling that he doesn’t belong to us that I either never got or didn’t get as strongly about Halladay and Toronto. Halladay’s Blue Jays were just sort of vanilla–a largely unspectacular team of unspectacular players who went 81-81 every year and stayed out of the news unless the Yankees were in town. But the Red Sox, 2005-2011, were nothing if not spectacular. When they won, it was fascinating, and when they lost, it was even more so. Love them or hate them, everyone had an opinion. And Papelbon is those Red Sox teams.
Don’t panic–I’m learning to love Jonathan Papelbon. It’s just taking a while. It probably doesn’t help that because of the vagaries of the schedule so far, I haven’t been able to actually watch Papelbon pitch in a regular-season game for the Phillies. Maybe that will help. But he doesn’t feel like he belongs to us, and like all major changes, that takes time.
As much as I hated Papelbon last fall, I know that in time I’ll come to accept him as one of our own, and cheer his accomplishments without having to stop and think about it first. Sometime in July, he’ll strike out the side to close out a 3-2 win, and I’ll have forgotten all about the awkward transition and historical revision that went on this spring. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. And I love Jonathan Papelbon.