An Unethical Photo And Caption, And The Ethics Fog Of A Baseball Fight

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals is grabbed by Jonathan Papelbon #58 in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on September 27, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 538595765 ORIG FILE ID: 490330798

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:

The Combatants

  • 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.

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.

The Background

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.

43 thoughts on “An Unethical Photo And Caption, And The Ethics Fog Of A Baseball Fight

  1. Harper has a long history of questionable behavior, but not to hustle? Paps did EXACTLY what a vet is suppose to do and call out a player and not give a crap who he is. Harper should know better after being in the league a few seasons. My problem is Paps attempting to choke the life out of Harper – that is where the line was crossed.

  2. Sometimes the discussion just reaches a point where words won’t serve anymore, sometimes someone just gets on your last nerve, and sometimes the other guy really IS needling you to see how far he can push before you lose it. Part of me believes that it’s ok, once that point has been reached, to just let the other guy have it, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s the part of me that thought it was great when a Jewish Brit confronted renowned extreme leftist George Galloway in the street, called him out for the anti-Semite he is, and proceeded to hit him in the mouth and break his jaw. It’s also the part of me that regrets not hitting a disrespectful co-worker in the face for overreacting during a conversation we probably shouldn’t have had. Unfortunately as an attorney I can’t go slugging other attorneys without consequences.

    Papelbon was being an ass, no one died and left him in charge, and it would have served him right if Harper introduced his head to the dugout wall. That said, fighting it out in public is not appropriate nor legal, and appropriate penalties need to be assessed.

  3. When I saw that picture and read the accompanying article I was looking for a video or some other photo because I was more shocked that this occurred in view of fans/media than I was that an altercation happened. I couldn’t tell if the arm shown belonged to Papelbon. Now I understand why the article did not include a link to a video – it would have discredited that photo. I wonder if it is a video capture from a different angle or perhaps it is not even of this particular incident or of Papelbon at all?

    You did not disappoint here. When I am looking for an ethical analysis of some baseball event in the news I always come to your blog because you know the history and rules of the game as well as have knowledge of the players and staff. Thanks.

  4. Harper reached first base as the ball was being caught so hustle or no hustle he was where he needed to be if the ball was misplayed and dropped.

    If Harper had been running full speed he wouldn’t have made it to second given the position the player who caught the ball was in.

    Paplelbon had his hands on his throat long enough to get both hands on it and push him into the dugout wall before he was pushed off of Harper and Harper was pulled away.

    Paplebon should worry about his own play and keep his mouth shut , Harper is having a historic season and Pablebon has been horrible.

    • 1. If you are pushing him by his throat, you aren’t choking him.
      2. Consequentialism. Harper didn’t know what would happen on the fly. Maybe it would have been kicked. Maybe it would be overthrown. The fact that his lack of hustle made no different in that case is irrelevant.
      3. The fact that Papelbon hasn’t pitched as well as Harper has his is also irrelevant. Good hitters don’t get to play by more lenient standards than losing pitchers.

      Your comment just exemplifies the slanted attitude that the post was about.

      • Sorry Jack, but let me grab you by the throat and push you into the wall and tell me there is a difference.

        If that ball had been dropped and he was on the way to second he would have been thrown out. Not going past first is the smart play, running too hard and too fast and getting thrown out at second is the dumb play. The reason that he is having a historic year is that he is playing smarter not harder like he has in the past.

        It has nothing to do to with him being a better hitter then Paplebon is a pitcher it has to do with Papelbon shouldn’t be correcting anyone when he isn’t doing his job. He should be worry about himself first.

        • Did you see that play, Bill? He barely ran at all, and it looks terrible. It’s a bad habit, and and as the team’s best player, he should be a role model.

          Papelbon hadn’t been stinking up the place. He blew two saves, and was horribly misused: most closers do badly when they aren’t pitched regularly. You’re still arguing that as long as Harper’s loafing doesn’t hurt, he shouldn’t be called on it. Papelbon may well have sensed that the manager wasn’t doing his job, and a veteran and star with credentials of his own, stepped in. I’m not defending Papelbon for what he did. I am saying he’s not the villain he is being made out to be because Nats fans are naive about baseball.

          • Yes I was watching the game when it happened.

            I do agree that its a veterans job to say something but considering that no other member of the team said anything and William’s didn’t say anything, and don’t forget that he has pulled Harper in the past for not running fly balls out, that maybe this time it didn’t need to be called out as he had already gotten to first base when the ball was caught. Plus its one thing if someone like Werth called him out but Werth would pull him aside and talk to him. But Pablebon is new to this club house and isn’t in the position to call anyone out. An example I would use would be if I was in a show you were directing and had missed an entrance or flubbed something and another actor who has worked with you as much as I have said something to me about being focused that’s criticism I would take but if some new guy right off the street who was making the same mistakes Id tell him to mind his own business and worry about himself.

            • I agree with that point, Bill, and should have noted it myself. Papelbon may be a veteran but he has no standing in that clubhouse yet (and it looks like he’s not going to have a chance to build it.) That also is one more reason fans are 100% behind Harper.

              Papelbon is, after all, an idiot. This nuance would never occur to him.

          • And Im insulted that you would even ask if I was watching the game. I watch or listen to every game I can. I grew up watching the Senators and was distraught when Bob Short, may he burn in hell, moved them to Texas when I was ten. I wasn’t one of those people around here that became an Orioles fan after they left, hell I followed the Hiroshima Carp more then MLB because I spent so much time in Japan. But once the Nats came here Ive been a huge supporter. Asking me that would be like asking a Sox fan if he was watching the game. lol

            • No insult intended, Bill, honest. I asked because Harper really was jogging to first base; it wasn’t that he wasn’t running full out, he was dogging it. I watched Ortiz do exactly the same thing the same day, and get excoriated by the O’s announcers (so they could ignore the fact that Adam Jones dropped an easy fly.) There’s a big difference between not running full out and barely running at all.

      • I’d like to (respectfully) push back on #2.

        You could apply that logic to any routine single hit to the outfield, that the batter should take 2nd, b/c the ball might be overthrown. At some point, playing the odds takes precedence. Very, very rarely, can a routine single be tuned into a double due to an overthrow by the outfielder, and very rarely, is a shallow fly (not far from 2nd) dropped and kicked/overthrown so badly that a runner can take 2.

        Harper knew that he hit it to shallow left, and only a fool would have gone for 2nd in that situation, regardless of how hard he left the box.

        • Of course, going all out to 1st may buy precious seconds of observation, thought and decision making that could have swayed choices to go to 2nd IF the conditions had been right (as unlikely as they may be).

          Part of why in sports (and war) you ALWAYS go all out, because you never know what opportunities may present themselves for victory that would be unavailable to exploit if you DON’T go all out.

          • WWPRD? (What Would Pete Rose Do?) I would bet one bottle of beer (at a price at retail from a store outside the ballpark) that Pete would have run to first, and halfway to second, before that pop fly came to earth. But I can’t guess what Pete would have done, if he had been in the dugout watching Harper in Papelbon’s place. If he had been the manager, Pete probably would have made a bet with someone that Papelbon would be suspended.

          • I’m not quite sure how you meant that last part. Tactically, within a given action, it makes more sense to commit fully than not. But strategically, taking a broader view and shaping the conflict, it makes sense to withhold reserves until choosing to use them. Grant famously spoke of “feeding the fight”, and Churchill recorded his astonishment on asking the French generals in 1940 where their mass of manoeuvre was, only to be told that there was none.

            • In the context of individual actions (such as a batter running to 1st base) and individual tasks that combine to the greater effort, not analogous to the grand strategy of a general deciding where his resources are best applied.

  5. The lack of hustle by a star player is inexcusable. Some are notorious loafers and some are not. Paps being a pitcher is meaningless since he knows the responsibility of what a player should do since he has played baseball all his life. . Same with the season he is having – good or bad is irrelevant. Even a guy who is #25 knows you finish every play. When I coached kids that was instilled – Finish every play!

    Paps should also be aware that when you have an issue with someone you take it into the clubhouse and not a public scrum. The Nats are a wreck and the tempers are flaring and fuses are short after a miserable and disappointing season.

    And where is Matt Williams?

    Personally, this is no where as entertaining as Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin.

  6. I’m torn. As much as I despise the “everyone does it” argument, and know that being paid millions to play a sport means it’s not asking too much for a player to hustle on every hit ball, I also recognize that the large majority of baseball fans could not care less if Harper was hustling on a lazy fly, and (yeah, I’ll go there), there’s not a single player currently playing, who hasn’t gone half speed on an obvious out, not always out of laziness, but, as I suspect in Harper’s case, out of frustration. (Yay, for run on sentences!)

    However, the Ortiz point smashes that argument, and Harper is not the first or only player to get frustrated with his personal performance….it’s still not an excuse. However, I still maintain that not all vets are created equal, and Papelbon had no business doing the correcting, because he was not the “right” vet to do it.

    With regards to not all vets being created equal, no one would expect a vet with a history of not running out his own fly balls to be doing the correcting, would they? I know that’s not the case here, but just being a vet isn’t enough to criticize a player who’s typical effort is more than enough. Relative to the amount of effort that relievers have to give, Papelbon does 1/20th the work that Harper does, and this situation is akin to a kicker lecturing the starting RB to not fumble. The kicker almost never has to handle the ball, and doesn’t have the standing to lecture another player on how to do their job better. Harper was actually on 1st (from what I’ve heard) before the ball was caught; he simply took his time running out of the box. Wrong? Yes. Worthy of a lecture from a closer who’s never taken an at-bat? Nope.

    Lastly, part of this stems from Papelbon’s (unsolicited) purposeful hitting of Manny Machado last week, where he was inches away from hitting Machado in the jaw, and Harper understandably fearing retribution. I could very well be in the wrong here, but relievers who intentionally throw at batters (for admiring a HR) really should not be lecturing anyone, about anything, at any time.

    • This is the rock bottom issue: it’s completely implausible that Papelbon called out Harper for any purpose meant to benefit the team. It was entirely tit for tat with respect to Harper’s remarks about Papelbon and Machado.

  7. Papelbon is not exactly a stiff. He is a six time All-Star and was also an All-Star this season. Paps is also signed for next season (11M) and is having a very respectable 2015 season and remains a top of the line closer. His post season record is excellent and he was a key member of the Red Sox 2007 championship team.

    Paps is also a notorious PR hound and a highly competitive individual who is not above creating locker room board material for other teams. Paps will have no issue with doing some occasional head hunting versus just dusting someone, so he is real old school on “baseball justice.”

    I have no idea what goes on in the clubhouse regarding Harper? Maybe Paps was just playing out what others wished they could do? I know Harper can demonstrate all the petulant qualities that can turn off teammates. Plenty of possibilities with this flare-up.

    But the bottom line to me is that Paps has been around long enough to know the right and wrong way to approach a situation. Harper screwed up and Paps managed to match him and probably double it. Good luck to Matt Williams.

  8. Here’s the closest thing I could find where a player attacked a star team mate–on the Red Sox, naturally.

    During the hot summer of 1913, as the Red Sox were winning championships, the Red Sox players got buzz cuts to stave off the heat. Duffy Lewis, the Sox leftfielder, was sensitive about his shaved head and didn’t take his cap off in public. Star CF Tris Speaker thought it was hilarious to knock Lewis’s cap off his head during pre-game warm-ups.. Lewis finally told the future Hall of Famer that he’d kill him if he did it again.

    Speaker did it again, and Lewis threw his bat at him, hard, hitting him in the shins. Speaker had to be helped from the field. Reportedly, they never spoke to each other again, other than to call off the other when a fly ball came between them.

    • Seems like Speaker got off easy then comparing the threat to the execution…shoulda listened to his mom when she said “keep your hands to yourself”.

      A little joking and camaraderie building tom foolery is funny, but when a friend/coworker says “enough is enough”…well…enough is enough.

        • Oooh, I’ll have to think about it. The whole back and forth already starts with tit-for-tat, maybe some victim knew it was coming, plus some #22 there are worse things.

          It’s a complex one.

        • When Speaker violated the reasonable request of Lewis to cease knocking his hat off, the next time it occurred, the only ethical response would be for Lewis to appropriately chastise Speaker enough in public until he was shamed or until he threw the first punch, then Lewis could ethically let him have it. The choice he selected was tit-for-tat though an excessive one for one (killing him over his hat being knocked off).

          Instead he chose to bean him with well thrown bat (still tit-for-tat). But the argument that hey, at least he wasn’t killed, is a combo of #2 and #22, because yes, Speaker had some response coming to him, though the response chosen wasn’t ethical, and the response, though lessened from what it was originally threatened doesn’t alleviate that either. So yes, it’s a #2 & #22 combo…the rationalization I used. It’s a pure #7 from the perspective of Lewis.

          However, I don’t know if this is frequently used enough to warrant it’s own category, but I don’t know whether it ought to go under #2 or #22, though I’m leaning towards #2, since that’s the simple rationalization that starts off the complex rationalization.

          I do wonder if it is related (if only in a reverse sort of way) to the rationalizations we often use to turn a blind eye to extra judicial “justice” that especially heinous criminals receive at the hands of their fellow inmates.

      • No….not Cordero. This is Brett Myers of the Phillies who assaulted his wife in Boston while the Phils were visiting. And, naturally, you know who bailed Mr. Myers out. Plenty more in sports we could dig up, Jack.

  9. All that said, sometimes not hustling too much is really more for the benefit of the team; as a Cards fan, I can’t help but feel a little nervous now whenever Matt Holliday tries to run fast (given that we lost him and his bat to the DL for about 2 months this season due to a quad strain). And wasn’t Harper earlier told to *not* hustle so hard on defense, due to his tendency to knock himself about?

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