The Aftermath: Final Observations On The Papelbon-Harper Incident

Jonathan Papelbon in another career highlight...

Jonathan Papelbon in another career highlight…

More on the aftermath of the incident that has the baseball world talking and the sports ethics world cogitating…

1) The Nationals punished the right player, suspending reliever Papelbon for four games, which combined with the three games the league suspended him for intentionally throwing at a player in an earlier game, ends his season in embarrassing fashion. The four lost games will cost the closer about $280,000 in salary, and his total loss, with the additional three games, will be close to a half-million dollars.

2) The word out of the Nationals clubhouse is that many players agree that Harper was dogging it to first base (the impetus for the criticism that started the fight) and that Papelbon was within his rights to call Harper on his lack of hustle. This indicates that Papelbon was reacting to a perceived lack of leadership on the team. In fact, the team does lack leadership, as manager Matt Williams is neither respected nor listened to, and this was one of the reasons the heavily favored Nats collapsed down the pennant stretch. Thus it seems that Papelbon, a recent acquisition who was new to the Nats culture, may have been trying to fill a leadership vacuum and botched it. Still, he engaged in his unethical conduct for an ethical reason; that only places him in “the ends justify the means” territory, however.

Moreover, any team whose leader is Jonathan Papelbon is in big, big trouble.

3) Incredibly, manager Matt Williams, who left Papelbon in the game after the fight to pitch the ninth and get clobbered, claimed that he wouldn’t have done so if he was aware of what happened. Williams said that he was at the other end of the dugout, and didn’t understand the import of the commotion that had players shouting and separating two combatants, including his best player and his current pitcher. Wow.  The Nats dugout isn’t that long. He wasn’t curious? Didn’t he feel, as the man in charge, a need to investigate? Worse still, none of his coaches felt that he needed to be informed, even considering that this was happening in full view of the fans and TV cameras. 

4) Most observers believe whatever remaining doubt there was that Williams was in his final season as Nats manager was obliterated by this incident, to which the only rational reaction is “Good!” Hence this is an example of why consequentialism is an invalid way to assess ethical conduct. Papelbon’s excessive zeal has had a good result, but that doesn’t make his conduct any less wrong.

5) Williams was asked about Harper’s lack of hustle to first base the precipitated the conflict, said, “Could he have ran harder? Yes. But there’s many instances that many could during the course of the season.” Fascinating. This is an “everybody does it” rationalization, and a confession. As manager, why does Williams tolerate those “many instances”? Maybe this was what sparked Papelbon’s actions.

6) The ethics pressure is on Harper now, ironically enough. The Nats will dump Papelbon if their superstar and likely NL MVP wants that, and it will cost them. the pitcher has a contract obligating them to pay him $11,000,000 next season, and after this ugly mess his trade value will be close to zero. Yet Papelbon is one of the most reliable elite closers in baseball. He has never had a truly bad year, and he has never been hurt. Nor has he ever been regarded as “clubhouse poison”; he’s just a bit of a jerk, in a sport that has many of them. The Nats need a closer, they don’t need to pay $11 million dollars for nothing, and the best for all parties would be for Harper to take Papelbon out for a beer and agree to a truce, then to tell the team that he wants the reliever to stay.There are plenty precedents in baseball history for star players who hated each other’s guts playing well together on the field and leading their teams to championships: heck, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig couldn’t stand each other. We will see if Harper, 22 and a bit of a jerk himself, can rise to the challenge.

7) The sports media is determined to embed the myth that Papelbon “choked” Harper, even the usually reliable Craig Calcaterra at NBC. Post scribe Tom Boswell, an unprincipled hack, wrote that “[Team GM] Rizzo felt he had to say something that makes your head explode, like, ‘For the most part Papelbon has fit into the clubhouse culture fine.’ Presumably, the “other part” is trying to strangle a 22-year-old MVP.” Papelbon didn’t choke Harper, and it is highly unlikely that he was trying to strangle, as in murder, him. This is how sportswriters make it clear whom they want to be regarded as the villain.

8) None of which is to say that, all things considered, Papelbon isn’t the villain in this case. Among baseball’s unwritten rules are “Don’t attack your own team’s franchise player, except in self-defense.” Unlike a lot of such rules, it is both ethically and practically sound.

12 thoughts on “The Aftermath: Final Observations On The Papelbon-Harper Incident

          • Harper is gone in three years anyway. He is a huge Yankee fan and Mantle was his idol. The Nats will have to win it all at least once over the next three years and go to the NLCS one time also for there to be any chance he stays. And I don’t think that’s going to happen.

            • If they don’t sign him this winter to a Trout-style contract, I agree he’s gone. He’d still be a fool not to take it, with his injury record and cautionary tales like Grady Sizemore, Pete Reiser, Juan Gonzalez, Darryl Strawberry, Tony Conigliaro, Allen Craig, Nomar Garciaparra…the list of players who suddenly lost it while still in their primes is long and depressing.

                • That’s still 25 million a year. I don’t think Bryce is going to sign a long term 13 year contract now. He may sign an extension for a couple years but if not when he signs with the Yankees I don’t think he will sign a 13 year deal.

                  • Harper will sign a contract well in excess of 25M per season. The Stanton deal essentially buys out arbitration at low numbers and then inflates.(13/325). Those figures will increase for Harper who may bag 20M+ in his arbitration (2017).

                    What will Happen with Harper is a Boras specialty in that an opt out will exist after a certain number of years. That is the smart thing to do., since it protects Harper against the whims of the market and allows him an exit strategy in case he is disenchanted with his employer or realizes he can get more dough. Stanton also has an opt out at age 30.

  1. Jack….you remember those great columns by Jimmy Cannon? He would do a not what they say and what they meant column. Things like: Manager says “He didn’t have his best stuff today.” What he means: “This guy is a pitching pinata who will cost me my job. Our GM was loaded when he traded for this stiff.”

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