According to USA Today and many other reputable news sources, Washington Nationals pitcher Jonathan Papelbon “choked” team mate Bryce Harper in a dugout altercation in full view of fans and TV cameras during yesterday’s loss to the Phillidelphia Phillies. The photo above, freezing the moment in which Papelbon’s hand touched Harper’s neck, was presented full page width in the Nats’ home town paper, the Washington Post.
Now here’s the video:
Papelbon’s hand was on Harper’s throat for less than a second, as opposed to the impression given by the still, in which you can almost hear Harper gagging ACK! GAH! LLLLGGGGHHH! The USA Today headline “Bryce Harper was choked by Jonathan Papelbon in Nationals’ dugout fight” is pure sensationalism and an intentional misrepresentation. I’m not even certain Papelbon was trying to choke Harper, but if he was, he failed immediately because Harper backed away.
This incident transcends its context for ethical interest, because it demonstrates how much context and biases influence public and media assessments of right and wrong.
First, some context:
- Bryce Harper, rising superstar rightfielder. He is still only 22, one of the youngest players in the game, yet already in his fourth season as a regular. He leads the National League in runs scored, home runs, batting average and .OPS ( on base pct. and slugging), and is earning deserved comparisons with immortals like Ted Williams and Micky Mantle. He is almost certainly the year’s MVP.
Harper is also one of the most disliked players in the game. Though he is getting better with age, he is arrogant and cocky. He has been disciplined in the past for lacking hustle; he also is prone to making annoying comments.
- Jonathan Papelbon, veteran star closer. Papelbon is one of the most consistent and effective late innings relief specialists in the game. He was a star in the Boston Red Sox World Series win in 2007, and his July trade from the Phillies to the Nationals was supposed to put the D.C. team over the top and into the play-offs.
Papelbon is a renowned loud-mouth and jerk. Red Sox fans, which is a group dominated by college kids, enjoyed his sophomoric antics when he was younger. They have grown up, Papelbon hasn’t.
Papelbon has a huge contract with another year to run. His acquisition was questioned by many at the time, because the Nationals had an effective closer, Drew Storen, who was bumped to a set-up role by Papelbon’s requirement that he would only agree to the trade if he became the closer. Storen is well-liked; he has also shown a tendency to lose confidence, which some felt the undeserved demotion would prompt again. For whatever reason, Storen’s effectiveness declined steeply once he was moved out of the closer’s role, contributing to a general bullpen collapse that was a key factor in the Nationals poor performance in August and September, eliminating them from play-off contention. The pitcher ended his own season by injuring himself in a post-game tantrum. In a classic example of the logical fallacy Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (“After this and thus because of this”), many fans blame the Nationals’ collapse—they were widely considered to be the best team in the NL on Opening Day—on Papelbon.
The altercation began when Harper jogged to first base after hitting a pop-up to left field. As he came back to the dugout, Papelbon appeared to tell him that he should run hard to first. Harper did not take the criticism well, and after words were exchanged, may have said, as a final provocation, “Bring it!” or something similar.
The Ethics Issues
The Violence. I have a good friend, a lawyer and Nats fan, who insists that Papelbon should be prosecuted. The precedent is, and it is very old and very strong, that fights involving uniformed personnel occurring on the field, in the dugout or anywhere in the stadium or baseball park are considered part of baseball and not matters for law enforcement, but rather related to the sport and to be punished (or not) by the sport. Attacking someone is never ethical, of course. Papelbon was clearly in the wrong here. Still, both Harper and his attacker later compared the fight to scuffles between brothers, and family quarrels that looks worse to outsiders than to those not in “the family.” I think that’s a fair analogy.
Papelbon’s criticism. Papelbon was right: Harper should have run hard. Players are paid millions, and fans deserve to see them give their full effort. Though he has played for four years, Harper is still a kid in baseball terms, and veteran players are supposed to teach “kids” how to play the game “the right way.” Papelbon did not deliver his critique the right way, however: he did it in full view of Harper’s team mates, embarrassing Harper, who could be counted on to be resentful. The criticism was ethical, the manner of delivering it was not. It was inconsiderate, disrespectful and unfair.
Rationalizations in defense of Harper: F.P. Santangelo, an ex-player and the Nats cable broadcast color man, argued during the game’s broadcast that while Harper might have listened to a fellow position player’s admonition, Papelbon was just a guy who “comes in every couple of days and pitches and inning,” and who therefore doesn’t have standing to criticize a player who is “grinding it out every day.” This is just anti-pitcher chauvinism. Several sports columnists tried to excuse Harper’s lack of hustle by saying that it was late in a long season and since the team had been eliminated, the game was meaningless. What? If it’s that meaningless, why are fans paying up to a hundred bucks to watch it? Why is Harper being paid to play it? What are advertisers paying to have it broadcast? Why keep score? There is no excuse for a healthy professional baseball player not to hustle.
Whatever Papelbon’s faults, not giving a complete effort every second he is on the field isn’t one of them. He has seen the harm a lack of hustle can do (he played with Manny Ramirez, after all) and he had every right to make the point to Harper…in private.
The Star Syndrome: The way “The King’s Pass” operates in sports is to allow a team’s best players to skirt rules and violate standards of conduct that lesser players would be punished harshly for. The same day this incident occurred, I watched the Red Sox star David Ortiz lose a de facto double because he was jogging, Harper-style, to first on a lazy fly to left that the fielder dropped. Running hard out of the box, Ortiz would have been standing on second base; as it was, he was thrown out trying to get there. Ortiz has been doing this ever since he became a star, and obviously no manager has had the guts to confront him. They did him or favors, nor the team, not the young players who take their cues from him. Harper, who has demonstrated a penchant for selfish play, is being allowed to exploit the Star Syndrome, and that should be blamed on manager Matt Williams.
The Setting and Timing: Allowing the fight to take place in open view was unforgivable: irresponsible, a show of disrespect to the team, the game and the fans, and stupid. (I have it on expert authority that Papelbon is as dumb as they come.) Doing it as the team and manager are under fire for the disappointing season was similarly damaging. This is all Papelbon’s fault.
In summation, Papelbon was wrong, and he should be punished. For reasons related to rationalizations, loyalty to Harper, and anger flowing from events beyond Papelbon’s control, however—as well as misleading photos and headlines—his vilification has been excessive and unfair.
UPDATE: The Nats announced that Jonathan Papelbon has been suspended for four games, with a week left in the season. I have no problem with that.