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.
DeRosa on Papelbon on MLB Central: pic.twitter.com/SbuOmpOAC8
— Jake Russell (@_JakeRussell) September 28, 2015
Here’s two more major leaguers:
ESPN's John Kruk: "You don’t mess with your franchise, and Jonathan Papelbon crossed the line." t.co/5BFtA7HQZs
— 106.7 The Fan (@1067thefandc) September 28, 2015
— Baseball Tonight (@BBTN) September 27, 2015
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.