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My random thoughts that don't really matter on Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon

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Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon had a brouhaha yesterday. I have some thoughts on it, though I'm not sure why you should care what I think.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

So, there was drama yesterday between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon.  If you care enough to be reading this, you've probably already seen the video.  Harper popped out to left field, and as he headed back to the dugout, Papelbon yelled at Harper for not hustling.  Harper mouthed off back to him.  They exchanged words, with Harper saying, "Let's fucking go," forgetting that he was dealing with a crazy person who was looking for an excuse to throw down with him.  Papelbon reacted by grabbing Harper by the throat (as shown in the photo illustrating this story), and then teammates got in and separated them.

Harper stormed out of the dugout and to the clubhouse.  Papelbon, remarkably, was sent out to pitch the top of the 9th (he had recorded the final out of the 8th), and was shelled, with a 4-4 tie turning into a 12-4 Nationals defeat.  Twitter erupted, and there was much anger directed towards Papelbon, who is generally perceived by folks (including me) as a giant jackass, whereas Bryce Harper is either the best or second best player in baseball, depending on your feelings on Mike Trout.

Then former major league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski wrote a piece for Fox Sports which included anonymous quotes from current and former players, and those players were generally supportive of Papelbon.  A couple of representative quotes:

Kid has been allowed to loaf for the past two years. Williams got crucified for benching him last year; media and fans took Bryce’s side so he kept doing it and wasn’t getting punished. Veteran finally said something; kid ran his mouth at the wrong guy and got beat up.

He quit on his team after the fight, just like he does on popups.

The reaction to Nitkowski's piece has largely been negative, with players being painted as a bunch of backwards, jealous neanderthals who need to grow up.

And I suspect there's an element of jealousy here.  Bryce Harper is having one of the greatest seasons of all time, is dominating the National League, and is doing it as a 22 year old...an age where most of the players Nitkowski quoted were probably in AA, riding a bus and making peanuts.  I don't doubt that they see a player who is incredibly gifted, who they think hasn't had to pay his due like they did, and who isn't being kept in check like other players his age -- or, for that matter, like they were when they were his age.

And I have no doubt it rubs them the wrong way that Bryce Harper seems to act like he should be treated differently than everyone else.  Remember, Harper got his G.E.D. as a high school sophomore, and then went and played junior college ball for a year during what would have been his junior year in high school, so that he could become eligible to go pro early.  In doing so, he essentially made a statement that he was special, and shouldn't have to go through the process every other player goes through.  He was represented by Scott Boras, who, of course, is demonized by so many around the game, an agent who seems to look for loopholes and ways to get his clients treated differently from everyone else.  He insisted on a major league deal once he was drafted.  He and Boras made it clear that they didn't want Harper to continue to be a catcher -- his position as an amateur -- but that he should play the outfield, because that would get him to the majors more quickly.

Now, you can reasonably argue that Bryce Harper should be treated differently, because he's a generational talent.  But you can also see how older players, or former players, would be rubbed the wrong way by that, would see Harper as someone who didn't pay his dues and hasn't acted in the "right way" coming up.

And then you've got the whole culture of the game, the attitude that young players have to run everything out, have to show more of an effort -- ESPECIALLY someone like Harper, who is perceived as having everything handed to him on a silver platter.  I have no doubt that, for a lot of veteran players, they are going to be more critical of Harper than of some other random 22 year old, and going to hold him to a higher standard, because of the perception that he hasn't had to suffer and ride the busses and sacrifice and eat ramen noodles and do all the things that the common player has to deal with.  I tend to think that the culture of the game is such that veterans are going to be harder on a golden boy like Harper, when it comes to those things, than a former 6th round pick who is trying to carve out a role in the majors.

That being said, I get the sense that this particular episode runs a little deeper than that.  I criticize people all the time for psychoanalyzing players from their couch, so feel free to dismiss what I'm about to say...but I certainly get the feeling that Jonathan Papelbon was looking to instigate a fight with Bryce Harper yesterday.

Remember, Harper publicly criticized Papelbon after Papelbon threw at Orioles shortstop Manny Machado, and got ejected:

"I mean Manny freaking hit a homer," Harper told reporters after Wednesday's loss, according to The Associated Press. "Walked it off and somebody drilled him. I mean, it's pretty tired. It's one of those situations where it happens and, I don't know, I'll probably get drilled tomorrow."

I suspect that Papelbon felt like Harper just violated the code and threw him under the bus, and I suspect that some of the players Nitkowski talked to agree with Papelbon there.  I suspect there are veterans who think Papelbon handled himself properly, and part of Harper's job is to accept it if the O's retaliate, rather than whining to the media about it.

And I suspect that Papelbon knew that an area where he could pull rank on Harper, and have some support, was to jump on him for not hustling -- a common complaint, although a strange one, given how Harper generally plays the game.  As Adam Kilgore writes today:

Jonathan Papelbon remains a relative outsider to the Washington Nationals but is a self-appointed flame bearer of baseball code. He attacked Harper because he subscribed to the outdated, lazy perception that Harper is a young punk who should know his place. Let us be clear about Harper’s place: He is the best baseball player in the world, the surefire Most Valuable Player of the National League and a 22-year-old who handled a sea of dysfunction with grace and professionalism. During a rotten season for a franchise in crisis, he was the very best thing about the Washington Nationals.

The notion that Harper is a malcontent or a cocky hothead or a threat to the game’s integrity is, to borrow a phrase, tired. He plays as hard as any teammate would expect – with the apparent exception of Papelbon, a guy who’s played about 1,200 fewer innings than him this season.

One insane thing about Sunday is that Harper did run out that pop-up. He muttered in frustration, tossed his bat, shook his head and trotted down the line. He reached the base. In Game 155 of a mathematically dead season, that constitutes running it out. That counts.

It counts, that is, unless you are looking for a reason to vilify Harper. In the aftermath of Sunday’s fracas, a small chorus of former players have risen to back Papelbon. They, like Papelbon, are castigating the obsolete idea of Bryce Harper rather than reckoning with the MVP who is the only reason the Nationals season cannot be considered a total waste.

After the game, manager Matt Williams said he didn't have a problem with Harper's hustle on that play -- that he ran to first base, and did what he was supposed to do.

But here's the thing...I'm willing to be that this was the first time Harper came to the plate with Papelbon in the dugout since calling out Papelbon publicly.  Papelbon, remember, is generally in the bullpen...he was only in the dugout yesterday because he came in to pitch in the bottom of the 8th.

If you go back and look at the video, Papelbon was standing on the front rail.  I would wager that he was waiting for Harper to pop up, to ground out, to do something so that Papelbon could then chastise him and make a scene.  In that case, one of two things happens:

Either Harper keeps his mouth shut, in which case Papelbon has put the disrespectful kid in his place, or

Harper challenges Papelbon, in which case Papelbon has an excuse to beat the disrespectful kid's ass.

Again, I wasn't there...I could be wrong.  But it certainly looks to me like Papelbon knew what he was doing.  And when you see how he was acting right after the fight:

To me, that's a guy congratulating himself on everything going according to plan.

Anyway, in the time I've been writing this, it has been announced that Papelbon has dropped his appeal of his three game suspension for throwing at Machado, and that the Nats have suspended him for four games without pay for the Harper dugout incident, which means Papelbon is done for the year.  Then the Nationals probably trade him this offseason, and everyone moves on.