WASHINGTON — Being an adult is often not fun. There are bills to pay, and obligations to be met, and meetings to sit through. Also, there are times when you have to round up the children in the room and tell them to grow the hell up and be real human beings. You don’t do this because you want to; you do it because you have to.
In the world of sports, there are plenty of overgrown children masquerading as adults. After all, athletes are paid grandiose sums of money to play a child’s game for a living. That means, sometimes, the children will go off the rails a bit and someone has to step in and be an adult.
On Sunday, a misguided Jonathan Papelbon turned into a big, angry baby and selected a particularly poor opportunity to attempt to lean on one of baseball’s “unwritten rules” to justify some incredibly childish behavior. He did so by prodding Bryce Harper for not running out a fly ball at max effort, on a routine play, in a game that literally did not matter. Harper let him know he wasn’t happy, and Papelbon lunged down the steps of the dugout, grabbed Harper by the throat and slammed him into the concrete wall.
Since we’re all (presumably) adults here, let’s call this what it is: assault. It certainly wasn’t the first time a player has assaulted another player, and it certainly won’t be the last. That doesn’t mean the act wasn’t childish. And it certainly doesn’t absolve the litany of childish responses defending it that has leaked out from all corners of the sport in the days since.
Let’s be clear: Papelbon didn’t yell at and provoke Harper because he didn’t run out a routine fly ball fast enough. He did so because of the perceived slight of not taking Papelbon’s side one week ago following another childish act, when the latter fired a baseball, twice, at the head area of Manny Machado, the second one hitting him in the shoulder (and not higher) thanks to some preternaturally quick reflexes. That was in response to what he thought was too slow of a trot by Machado on a home run two innings earlier.
C.J. Nitkowski, a former baseball player and current writer for FOX Sports, admitted as much in his obligatory players’ side piece about the Harper-Papelbon confrontation, in which he appeared to shed some light on the retrograde culture that persists in the game. According to Nitkowski, not one of the players he spoke with (anonymously, by the way) “fully backed Harper.”
Nitkowski claimed that these views were “the most objective and knowledgeable viewpoint you’ll get on this matter” from players who “don’t have a bias.”
Never mind that two of Harper’s former teammates, Mark DeRosa and Dan Haren, who are well known in the game as thoughtful, cerebral clubhouse leaders, both backed the mature and correct side of the argument. DeRosa did so by pointing out that Papelbon has no right to question Harper’s hustle given what he does every day of the season (as both Jeff Passan at Yahoo! Sports and Aaron Gordon at VICE Sports pointed out Tuesday, all Harper does is hustle). Meanwhile, Haren congratulated The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore for his column on Harper, in which Kilgore correctly asserts that any resentment toward Harper in the game is based on a perceived “version of Harper [that] does not exist anymore.”
Back over at FOX Sports, Nitkowski further claimed that “Papelbon is everybody’s favorite punching bag” while flatly demonstrating through his research that Harper clearly holds that title, at least among those with whom he spoke. Then, Nitkowski placed himself in the same category as the rest of those overgrown children by showing his true colors, constantly contradicting himself in the aftermath, proving he is not objective at all, but rather of the same obstinate cut as everyone mentioned by Kilgore, unable to be the adult in the situation.
Then there’s Lee Judge and the Kansas City Star. In case you missed it, Judge admitted Tuesday that he doesn’t know Bryce Harper, but that (emphasis Judge’s) “he certainly seems like a young man who needs choking” (that was later amended to “needs an attitude adjustment”). Judge went on to say that “if you want to choke Bryce Harper — and I suspect if you played with him, you might — ask him to come up the tunnel and then choke him.”
This is a journalist advocating for one person to assault another, but to make sure it’s done somewhere out of view, where society can’t hold him accountable for his violence. Imagine that scenario taken into any other context in life. The Star’s sports editor, Jeff Rosen, took to Twitter, admitting that Judge’s post was never seen by an editor. But the paper ran a response from its public editor blaming Twitter and the Internet for its response, and included Judge standing by his pro-choking stance, saying “there’s a right way to do it and that’s what today’s column was about.”
One more time, so we’re clear: the right way to choke someone is to do is where nobody can see it. That is Judge’s clearly articulated, double-downed upon opinion.
Since the public editor of the Star isn’t going to be an adult, where else can we turn?
When your elders act like petulant children, they don’t need to be respected. Major League Baseball said as much, with its three-game suspension for Papelbon for the Machado incident. And the Nationals, after bungling the situation in the moment by leaving Papelbon in to pitch after the assault, at least did so by levying their own team suspension to keep him off the field for the rest of the year.
And yet …
Matt Williams claimed that Harper, who was already scheduled for an off day, was being benched Monday for his role in the altercation.
“He played a part,” said Williams when the suspension was announced. “He played a part in it. That’s why he’s out of the lineup today.”
When asked on 106.7 the Fan Wednesday morning — three full days after the incident — to explain what Harper could have done to avoid such a punishment, Williams admitted that he had no idea.
Matt Williams, asked on 106.7 how Harper could have avoided punishment: "I don't know. I don't know what he could have done differently."
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) September 30, 2015
Where is the adult in the Nationals’ organization? It’s clearly not Williams, whose “I just work here” attitude will be just one reason the club will likely terminate his contract at the end of the week, something they should have done seven weeks ago when the season was still salvageable, and when, at the very least, their best player hadn’t yet been choked on television.
Three years ago, when former Papelbon teammate Cole Hamels “welcomed” Harper to the big leagues by drilling him in the first pitch of his first at-bat against the lefty, how did the then 19-year-old respond? By hustling from first-to-third on a single to left field, then swiping home on Hamels’ lazy pick-off throw to first. He beat him on the field, the most mature way to handle such childish idiocy.
(Quick aside: How is it that in football, where testosterone-fueled tempers flare the strongest of any of the Big 4 American sports, players don’t routinely feel the need to put players in their place for celebrating? There is a celebration on nearly every play — for first-down receptions, on tackles for loss, even on tackles for short gains sometimes — and the players just take it to the next huddle and try to prove themselves again on the next play. It feels crazy to say it, but maybe baseball could learn a thing or two about sportsmanship from football.)
And yet, here we still are, three years later, with a man-baby trying to teach a player a dozen years younger a lesson in subservience.
All of this brings us back to the field, and to Harper himself. His original comment about Papelbon plunking Machado, that ostensibly sparked this entire saga, was dead on.
Bryce Harper: "Manny freakin hit a homer, walked it off and somebody drilled him. It’s pretty tired…I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow"
— Chris Johnson (@980cj) September 24, 2015
It is tired, or, rather, tiresome, to watch a bunch of people who are supposed to be adults act like petulant children, endangering the physical safety of those around them, whether by headhunting or by actually assaulting them. To watch them blame the one acting the most mature. The one who removed himself from the situation after the moment boiled over. The one who said all the right things in the aftermath. The one who took his non-punishment punishment without a word.
It’s absurd to act like Harper deserved to be choked by a player who has done little to help the team Harper has carried on his back all year.
The only real adult in the entire ordeal has been Harper. Maybe all the children in the room could learn something from him.