I have played competitive baseball for around 25 years, and I can’t possibly keep track of all of the sport’s unwritten rules. Here are a few that immediately come to mind:
- Thou shalt not steal a base and/or advance on a wild pitch or passed ball in a lopsided game your team is winning
- Thou shalt not admire your home run handiwork for too long
- Thou shalt not bunt to break up a no-hitter
These are just a few, but the most important, overarching unwritten rule — baseball’s “Golden Rule,” the one rule to rule them all — is far more nebulous yet enforced much more strictly: play the game “the right way.”
Now, no one knows exactly what “the right way” is, but those who claim to possess this elusive knowledge will stop at nothing to ensure the rest of us adhere to these stringent unwritten rules.
Just ask Jonathan Papelbon, the Washington Nationals closer who decided that Nationals star and presumptive MVP Bryce Harper was not playing the game the right way during Washington’s loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday.
For those who have not seen it, Harper was batting late in a tie game of a supremely frustrating Nationals’ season. Washington was the popular pick to win the division and the World Series, but the team had struggled with injuries, poor managing and under-performing players all year. A loss to the Phillies meant the end of the Nationals’ playoff hopes.
Harper, the lone bright spot for the Nationals this season, skied a pitch to short left field, a classic “can of corn.”
The 22-year-old Harper, clearly frustrated with himself, paused at home plate for one second to curse himself out before starting his jog to first.
By the time left fielder Jeff Francouer had caught the ball, Harper was safely at first base in case of an unlikely miscue.
Harper returned to the dugout, only to be greeted by Jonathan Papelbon.
The Kid vs. the Vet
Papelbon is best known as the fire-breathing, Neanderthal closer on the 2007 Red Sox title-winning team — the closer who unveils a comic-book “tough guy” stare at the batter before every pitch and will clutch his crotch and gesture at fans if they have the gall to boo him.
This “tough guy” shtick kind of worked when Papelbon was a young, elite closer on a championship team. Now, at age 34 with all his pitching stats trending in the wrong direction, Papelbon is less the all-star player than the old-timer at the end of the bar yammering about the good ol’ times back in his day.
The Nationals acquired Papelbon on July 28 to bolster their bullpen, and he’s been disappointing — both on the field and off, where there have been reports of Papelbon-fueled clubhouse dissension.
So, to set the scene: you have Harper, the 22-year-old face of the franchise and the best player in baseball this season, walking toward Papelbon, a 34-year-old, mediocre, mercenary reliever on the downswing of his career.
Can you guess who knows to play the game the right way?
If you guessed Papelbon, the man who’s pitched 22 1/3 innings for the Nationals over Harper, the man who leads the National League in home runs, runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+, you’d be correct!
Papelbon confronted Harper, yelling at the 22-year-old to run every play out, and it escalated quickly, as Harper didn’t take too kindly to being told how to run the bases by a man with zero career plate appearances in the major leagues.
As Harper screamed back at Papelbon, egging the veteran on, Papelbon showed his veteran leadership by lunging at Harper, putting his hands around his neck, and choking him.
Children, behold: the “right way.”
‘You don’t know how it is’
There is an important bit of backstory here: the week before last Sunday’s dugout incident, Papelbon again decided a young, more talented player than him — Baltimore’s Manny Machado — wasn’t playing the game the right way.
Machado had hit a monster home run earlier in the game and admired it too long, according to Papelbon, so Johnny Tough Guy took it upon himself to throw not one, but two 90-plus mile-per-hour fastballs near Machado’s head, finally hitting him in the top of the shoulder with the second one.
As the Nationals’ best player and a frequent home run hitter, Harper told a reporter after that game that he wasn’t too happy about the situation: after all, he was likely to bear the brunt of the “right way” response — i.e. a speeding baseball to the body.
In one of the most infuriating of the approximately one zillion articles written about the Papelbon-Harper affair, former major league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski declares that Harper’s public “call-out” of Papelbon was the true indiscretion.
And, after “polling” a dozen anonymous players, Nitkowski found that none of them backed Harper; most thought, at worst, Papelbon’s decision to choke a co-worker in broad daylight came down to “right intentions, horrible timing,” adding that it “needed to be done.”
Nitkowski claims that us non-major-leaguers could never understand what it’s like in a major league dugout. And that is certainly true.
But I have been in countless dugouts and seen numerous inter- and intra-team dust-ups — no chokings yet, thankfully — and I’ve had teammates like Papelbon.
Heck, in the middle of a tough, tight game with the competitive juices flowing, I often find myself saying Papelbonesque things that, later on, I can’t believe I said.
But we’re better than that: we’re not our basest instincts, and one would hope that a 34-year-old man like Jonathan Papelbon could separate his macho thoughts from violent action.
If our idea of playing baseball “the right way” is to violently hurl projectiles as hard as possible at a vulnerable person because we didn’t like the way he looked at us, maybe it’s time to rethink how we play the game of baseball.
And if a young player like Bryce Harper has the courage and maturity to stand up and point out the stupidity and danger of a veteran’s caveman mindset, he deserves a lot better than a choking.