2015 Phillies Report Card: Jonathan Papelbon
I used to hate Jonathan Papelbon. I hated his stink of Red Sox overexposure, the Trachselian breaks he took between pitches, his suffocating semiliterate meathead overconfidence.
Then came the Crotch Waggle Heard Round the World. Then he went on College GameDay, as sober as I am willing to get sued for libel for suggesting otherwise, resplendent in the maroon of his native Mississippi State Bulldogs, and while brandishing an unlit cigar so large it would’ve made Sigmund Freud blanch, traded barbs with Lee Corso and shook Mississippi State’s live bulldog mascot in front of a national television audience.
It was at that moment that I reversed my position on the Phillies’ controversial closer. Certainly he was unwatchable, and crass, and grossly macho. He was of a philosophical stripe with the kind of people who claim that we did not, in fact, evolve from apes–and the more you watch Papelbon conduct himself in public, the less certain you become that humans actually evolved from apes at all.
But I started to find Papelbon’s act endearing. There was something authentic about his aggressive stupidity, and the way he jumped aboard a sinking ship in 2012 and seemed earnestly surprised and aggrieved when it went underwater two years later.
And you know what? There was never a moment at which he didn’t take the ball and throw the hell out of it. Say what you will about the man–and I have–but between the lines he was a beacon of light, a Hall of Fame-quality reliever (if such a thing exists) doing his level best while wasting the last years of his prime in service of a team that’s beneath his dignity, such as it is.
Sometimes we act like playing baseball for a living is such a privilege that players do, or even should, sublimate all other worldly considerations in pursuit of winning in the short term. This is bullshit. Baseball is demanding, but it’s a job–you’ll have good days and bad days, and even if you want to try your hardest, sometimes it’s hard to perform at your best when you truly hate the situation you’re working in. Papelbon, for all his other faults, and as much as he agitated for a trade, didn’t let up a bit no matter how deplorably his teammates played, in a situation that would’ve crushed my will, and yours, in a fraction of the time he endured it. For that, I salute him.
None of which made what happened to Papelbon after he left any less enjoyable. The Nationals, clinging to the side of the cliff, sent a trivial player to the Phillies and hoped to fend off the Mets. Instead, Papelbon pushed Drew Storen out of the closer’s role (again) and drove him out of his mind, and became a noisy but little-used albatross as the Nationals capitulated.
Remember the last time Phillies fans saw Papelbon, and imagine being Bryce Harper in that moment. You’ve carried this team on your back all year, amid mountains of undeserved criticism. You’ve been the one constant point for a team that was supposed to beat wholesale ass all year, and had instead proved itself to be grossly inept in all things. And in the moment of your final, futile failure, there stands Papelbon, with his terminal case of mouth-like-anus, standing on the top step of the dugout heckling you.
How could you do anything in that moment but conclude that God hates you, and has sent his plagues, in the form of Jonathan Papelbon, to visit you in service of an as yet unrevealed purpose? That’s what Harper concluded, and it is as fitting a memory as we could ask for of one of the most distinctive Phillies in recent history.