Somehow, There Are Jonathan Papelbon Defenders

At FOX Sports, former major leaguer C.J. Nitkowski wrote a most mind-numbing defense of Jonathan Papelbon for his attempt to choke teammate Bryce Harper on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park. Fisking has been out of style for a while now, but that’s how I’m going to respond to Nitkowski’s points here. His quotes in bold, my comments follow in regular typeface.

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.

Given the lead-in text, in which Nitkowski cites the opinions of fans and bloggers, one can assume he’s talking about them here. And anecdotally, saying that fans and bloggers “love Harper” is disingenuous. Many respect the historically-great season he’s having this year, but he’s taken a lot of heat because he’s young, brash, and has a loud hairstyle. Seriously. Search Twitter for “Bryce Harper hair”.

Secondly, thinking that objectivity on this situation will come from a former major leaguer, fully steeped in baseball’s culture of toxic masculinity, is laughable at best, as you’ll see later on.

Nitkowski then explains a recent situation in which Papelbon intentionally threw at Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, an act for which he was immediately ejected. After the game Harper called Papelbon’s decision to throw at Machado “tired”.

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.

I can agree, generally, that Harper might have better settled this grievance by speaking to Papelbon privately. Personally, I think his publicly admonishing Papelbon does a lot more for the greater good by pushing back against sport-sanctioned violence. We do need more players pushing back against the culture of exacting revenge by trying to hurt other players. The culture won’t change unless there’s a large enough force; one player, speaking to another player quietly in the hallway outside the clubhouse, doesn’t have that kind of impact.

Nitkowski cites the players’ ages, as if they’re relevant to the discussion. Papelbon’s criticisms and actions are supposedly justified because he has 12 years and seven more seasons’ worth of experience on Harper. There is no amount of demographic information that can justify Papelbon’s assaulting of a teammate. In any other scenario, Papelbon would have been arrested or, at the very least, fired from his job for instigating a conflict and putting his hands on a coworker with an intent to injure. In sports, we make a special exception because we have this mistaken belief that a player’s manhood is on the line at all times.

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.

This depends on your perspective. From what I recall, Williams was applauded for disciplining Harper. Regardless, it is another example why Nitkowski’s supposedly “objective” commentary is anything but. We are all biased; our responsibility is to recognize that and to mindfully limit the effect our biases have on our conclusions.

At any rate, failing to run out a fly ball does not justify Papelbon’s attempt to choke Harper. This is victim blaming, and is a direct result of toxic masculinity in sports culture.

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 others have pointed out, Papelbon has thrown 63 1/3 innings this year. He’s gone more than one inning exactly six times. Harper has played 1,262 innings defensively, not to mention the 4-5 plate appearances he takes every night. He’s also having an historically-great season. At no point can Papelbon justifiably call out Harper’s “effort level” and “embarassment to the team”.

Furthermore, Papelbon’s issue with Harper over the Machado incident had to do with public disagreement. Why was it then okay for Papelbon to chastise Harper for all of the cameras to see? Even if we grant that Harper was in the wrong for publicly criticizing Papelbon, two wrongs do not make a right, as everyone’s mother once said.

So who’s to blame?

Papelbon, for assaulting his colleague.

I don’t play the “I played and you didn’t” card unless I think it is warranted;

C.J. doesn’t play the “I played and you didn’t” card unless his argument is weak and full of holes like Swiss cheese. C.J. doesn’t play that card because he’s 42, growing up and playing in a time in which solving disputes with violence was the zeitgeist of sports culture. It is 2015, Nitkowski hasn’t played in a decade, and the times have changed.

this is clearly a situation where playing experience matters.

It’s not. Even veteran Jimmy Rollins got crap for not running out surefire outs. Wailing about “playing the game the right way” is how past-their-prime players attempt to maintain their relevance in a sport which has quickly become dominated by younger players.

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.

Why is this the case, and why should we accept it at face value just because C.J. says so? Assault is still assault. If the dust-up hadn’t been broken up so quickly, and if Papelbon were allowed to choke Harper undisturbed, would the young guy’s throat heal up faster because he’s in a major league dugout? Would the bruises fade faster?

“The clubhouse is like no other place” because older guys are allowed to call all the shots and don’t have to answer to anyone. In an office setting, an employee who choked his colleague would have to speak to his manager, HR, and the police. Major league coaching staffs ignore it, as do the front offices. Nitkowski is simply flailing to maintain the status quo for his friends and former teammates, some of which still have employment as coaches and instructors. If Nitkowski were to push back on the toxic masculinity in sports culture, he would be actively attempting to weaken the systemic power his friends and former co-workers have. Just another reason why his so-called “objective” opinion isn’t objective at all.

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.

Here’s another example where biases come into play. Nitkowski proudly brandished himself as “objective”. He polled 12 people, which is not even close to a large enough sample size. Did he subconsciously poll people whose responses he knew would align closely to his? Did he consciously omit any responses because they didn’t match up with his viewpoint? Did these players feel compelled to agree with Nitkowski because he was the one giving the poll, the same person with whom they have an ostensibly close relationship?

Supposedly, these 12 people polled by Nitkowski are supposed to represent baseball culture at large, but former major leaguer Mark De Rosa is at least one pushing against the grain.

Here’s two more major leaguers:

I’m not going to go through the responses Nitkowski listed as I’ve largely addressed them throughout this post. Nitkowski follows up with this laugher:

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.

Used car salesman. Again, Nitkowski nor anyone he polled is objective on this matter. People who worked under Bernie Madoff aren’t objective about Ponzi schemes. Players who played under Andy Reid aren’t objective about running the football. People who played in a band with Tom Morello aren’t objective about obnoxious guitar solos.

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.

Harper could have handled himself in an exponentially more obnoxious manner throughout his career, and that still wouldn’t have justified being the victim of assault from a teammate. That Nitkowski stumping for violence as a problem solver is, frankly, something for which he should feel deep shame.

This is a game that governs itself; it always has and always will.

Major leaguers have illegally bet on games, consumed massive amounts of harmful illegal drugs, and routinely try to harm each other. That’s not a sign of a healthy game. That’s a sign of a sick culture. These players don’t need fewer babysitters; they need more, because they clearly can’t be trusted to behave like normal human beings on their own.

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.

“Fighting is OK.” – C.J. Nitkowski, a man who quotes a Bible verse in his Twitter profile.

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  1. Bob

    September 28, 2015 11:59 AM

    (1) Harper didn’t run out the fly ball – bad on Harper.
    (2) Cagey veteran Jonathan Papelbon admonishes youngster Harper. – Good on Papelbon. This is a Jeff Francouer-type move right here. Teaching those young kids how to play the game the right way.
    (3) Harper says something back. – Bad on Harper.
    (4) Papelbon responds. – Bad on Paps.
    (5) Harper says, “Do you *** wanna go?” – Harper physically threatening Paps. Bad on Harper.
    (6) Turns out, Papelbon does want to go. – Assault. Bad on Papelbon.

    It’s funny to me that people are picking sides. They are both way out of line. You can’t assault people in the work place, but you certainly can’t threaten people in the work place either. Both of these numb-skulls should be punished.

    • bubba0101

      September 28, 2015 12:04 PM

      Words are one thing. Physical assault is a different animal. Papelbon was the one way out of line.

      • All That Nattitude

        September 28, 2015 12:09 PM

        True, but let’s not pretend that these things are ever real fights/assaults. Just the usual “hold me back, cuz I’ll murder ya” nonsense.

        The real problem is that Harper & Pap are too much alike & they repeal each other like magnets. There’s only so much douchery a given radius of space can tolerate before things boil over.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2015 12:13 PM

        If you threaten someone with physical violence and he or she responds, it’s more often than not self-defense. You might say that Paps should’ve been the bigger man and walked away, but threats of violence are taken seriously in today’s society and they are criminal.

      • bubba0101

        September 28, 2015 12:19 PM

        The real problem is that that asshole physically attacked a teammate on TV at a live sporting event. What does that say to impressionable kids who were within viewing distance and anyone watching on TV? That its ok to physically attack someone for something they said to you? There’s about 4 people who heard what was said and potentially millions, many of whom are children who love the game of baseball who saw a well known baseball player attack a fellow teammate. The actions were completely disproportionate to anything that was said.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2015 12:25 PM

        I disagree. You can’t threaten people with violence. It’s unacceptable. Retaliating with violence is also unacceptable unless you feel that you are justifiably in harms way. To pretend that Harper did nothing wrong is accepting that it’s ok to threaten people with violence. It’s not. Both Harper and Paps are in the wrong. This trying to whitewash or minimize Harper’s role in this and justifying threats of violence is troubling.

      • TommyDigital

        September 28, 2015 12:34 PM

        No one is saying that Harper was right…just less wrong.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2015 12:46 PM

        Unfortunately, that’s the excuse many deranged people use. “All I did was threaten him or her. They’re just words.” Threats are violent conduct and abuse. Assault is violent conduct and abuse. Trying to justify one over the other misses the point.

      • TommyDigital

        September 28, 2015 12:51 PM

        Yeah I don’t want you to think i’m saying harper is right. Threats are not acceptable behavior either…especially at work. My issue was mainly with the escalation to violence and using the verbal threat as an excuse for that.

      • JB Allen

        September 28, 2015 09:11 PM

        Actually, threatening someone with words is assault. Striking someone is battery.

        If Harper threatened Papelbon, that’s assault.

    • TommyDigital

      September 28, 2015 12:12 PM

      Good luck arguing that “you wanna go” is a physical threat…it is not. It reminds me, a little, of the Geno Smith ordeal. Why is it up to the Nationals to “handle the family problem in house”. Assault is assault and verbal provocation is not a valid reason for it. Baseball needs to step in if the Nats won’t handle it.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2015 12:17 PM

        Please go up to someone at work who has just reprimanded you for untowards conduct and ask him or her if he or she wants to “go”. If you did that to me, I’d call the cops and press charges for threatening me with violence and ensure that you were let go from the company. You can’t physically threaten me and think that there aren’t going to be serious repercussions.

      • TommyDigital

        September 28, 2015 12:26 PM

        The serious repercussions cannot be physical…plain and simple. My problem is with Paps responding with violence. Words are NOT provocation for violence. The way you responded is what paps should of done…not what he did. If you choked me you’d be put in jail and kept longer than the wanna go guy

      • Bob

        September 28, 2015 12:32 PM

        Of course words are provocation for violence. If someone threatens you with bodily harm and you feel threatened, you are allowed to defend yourself. You don’t have to wait until the person attacks you. Words alone are enough to justify action to defend yourself.

        What else is completely untrue is this purported disparity in punishment. If you punch or choke someone without the intent to cause serious bodily injury, the punishment is more similar than you would think to terroristic threats. I doubt that either the person who threatened violence or the person who responded by choking the guy would spend any time in jail. The law views these offenses as minor.

      • TommyDigital

        September 28, 2015 12:41 PM

        I was involved in a similar incident when I was in college and thought I was tough. The judge specifically told me non-specific threats like “wanna go”, with physical action are not provocation for violence. I wrestled a guy down to the ground and was charged. He was not. Luckily for me it was community service, anger management, and my parents canceling “my” credit card and my record is clean.

      • TommyDigital

        September 28, 2015 12:44 PM

        should say without physical action

      • Bob

        September 28, 2015 03:28 PM

        What did the jury determine? Were you guilty or not? Or did you just plead guilty? Did you have an attorney or did you just listen to whatever the judge said and take it as gospel?

    • Jack

      September 28, 2015 05:51 PM

      Harper was on first base when the pop up was caught. This was all just bullshit by Papelbon to try and get back at Harper for not being happy with him hitting Machado a few days ago. Zero to do with Harper’s effort level at all.

  2. bubba0101

    September 28, 2015 12:02 PM

    Wow. What a fraud. C.J. Nitkowski, that feeling you have right now, although you may not know it, is the feeling of being owned. Nice rebuttal Bill.

  3. Ben

    September 28, 2015 12:17 PM

    I disagree with Bill’s rebuttal. It gives merit to Nitkowski’s piece by taking its arguments seriously and head-on. Here is a better rebuttal:

    “C.J. Nitkowski wrote an article defending Papelbon’s antics. Who is C.J. Nitkowski?”

    • bubba0101

      September 28, 2015 12:20 PM


  4. Dan

    September 28, 2015 12:26 PM

    I was on board with the article until this:
    “People who played in a band with Tom Morello aren’t objective about obnoxious guitar solos.”

    In the words of Kirk Lazarus: “Pump your brakes, kid, that man’s a national treasure.”

  5. 100Bucks

    September 28, 2015 02:30 PM

    My favorite quote, “Major leaguers have illegally bet on games, consumed massive amounts of harmful illegal drugs, and routinely try to harm each other. That’s not a sign of a healthy game. That’s a sign of a sick culture. These players don’t need fewer babysitters; they need more, because they clearly can’t be trusted to behave like normal human beings on their own.”

  6. Whitey

    September 28, 2015 02:38 PM


    ” baseball’s culture of toxic masculinity”

    Did a baseball player steal your purse some time in the past?

  7. 100Bucks

    September 28, 2015 02:45 PM

    Bryce Harper is the current face of the Nationals and likely to be the best player the Nationals ever have – 50 years from now they will probably look back and say Bryce was the franchise’s all-time best player. Papelbon “calling him out” is just ridiculous on so many levels.

    • Romus

      September 28, 2015 02:57 PM

      I wonder, will this now affect Paps’ Hall of Fame selection?

      • 100Bucks

        September 28, 2015 06:24 PM

        He has all ready built his own HOF and put himself in it.

  8. Boo-urns

    September 28, 2015 04:43 PM

    In the end they are both kinda a-holes in their own way. Neither one could possibly be called “right” in this situation.

  9. Rich

    September 28, 2015 09:16 PM

    Papelbon was still pissed he blew this game, no way he should have taken his aggression out of Harper. Pap is really nuts, if I were Harper, I wouldn’t have gone so easily, I would’ve had to gotten the best of Pap in that one..

    The Nats should just cut Pap and let some other sucker team pick up that time bomb.

      • glovesdroppa

        September 28, 2015 10:32 PM

        Pap all around looks like a joke here. I’m so glad he’s gone. They took a nosedive as soon as he got there.

  10. Eddie

    September 29, 2015 12:31 AM

    “C.J. Nitkowski … fully steeped in baseball’s culture of toxic masculinity, ”

    To paraphrase Freud: sometimes a douchebag is just a douchebag.

  11. Pete

    September 29, 2015 04:23 AM

    I’m not defending Papelbon, but I’m not sure that two knuckleheads getting into a scuffle is a sign of baseball’s “toxic culture of masculinity”. People on occasion disagree. People on occasion fight. Women too I would think. Or is all fighting a product of the culture of masculinity?

    Also, I wouldn’t want to have to prove that Papelbon had an “intent” to harm Harper.

    • Steve

      September 29, 2015 07:15 AM

      Isn’t a phrase like “toxic culture of masculinity” sexist in nature? It is at least implying that said toxic culture is somehow dependent on, or at least a product of, the gender of the players, managers, etc.
      If we are going to hold people accountable for using potentially offensive terminology like “throws like a girl” or “be a man”, perhaps we can find better phrasing to use as well.

      • Romus

        September 29, 2015 08:26 AM

        Maybe should read…..’toxic culture of the human nature’

      • Romus

        September 29, 2015 01:23 PM

        Interesting study……but relatively new…a few years.
        My study goes back a few thousand years:
        Romans 7:18
        For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

      • Romus

        September 29, 2015 02:02 PM

        Well when it come to Ezekial, I cannot go up against breasts.
        I prefer Ezekial 4::9…the edible bread version.

      • Steve

        September 29, 2015 02:42 PM

        Are you saying that your choice of phrasing is directed specifically at the way cis men interact with each other, or that violence is specific to cis men

  12. Major Malfunction

    September 29, 2015 08:14 AM

    Getting paid MILLIONS to PLAY a KID’S game. A KID’S GAME!!! And somehow, they can’t seem to put it all in perspective and keep their cool over making an out.

    You can be passionate about your craft and be understandably frustrated when it’s not going your way. We are human beings. I know I am and thinking about problems at work can keep me up at night. But these clowns make in one kid’s game what I make a year providing for my family.

    When it becomes acceptable at ANY workplace to beat my co-workers ass because I think they aren’t pulling their weight and I can televise it to a national audience, that’s when I will develop one ounce of respect for either one of their behaviors.

  13. CJ

    September 29, 2015 12:06 PM

    The “assault” mantra is curious. The “sick culture” line. The “victim blaming” reference involving a grown man. The “manhood” lament. Papelbon was definitely wrong, but this has nothing to do with Papelbon.

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