Evaluating the Papelbon/Harper fight

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals

By Edward Overend

There is nothing that sets tongues wagging quite like a fight. Whether it be a drunken brawl down at the local bar at closing time, a lovers’ tiff or a high-profile boxing match, a fight appeals to the human being’s latent animal instincts.

We might well disapprove and sneer at the lack of class or decorum in those involved but, by God, underneath we lap it up.

Much as men like to accuse their wives and girlfriends of enjoying a good gossip, they are just as guilty of revelling in tittle-tattle. The subjects might well be different but the premise is identical. A bit of “he said she said,” a rumour, a villain; they are all that is required, just like the plots of a daytime soap opera.

Many males would vehemently deny this is the case but it is one, among many, explanations as to why sports are so popular. Sure, the games and matches themselves provide an escape from a mundane and humdrum everyday existence but fans want to know more about the players, their team and what’s going on ‘behind the scenes.’

Often it’s matters off the pitch or field that keep the sporting narrative in the national consciousness. Sports radio shows, television and the Internet thrive not exclusively because of actual sporting events but the nonsense that accompanies them too.

Instead of Bobby Ewing or Blake Carrington we have Tom Brady, LeBron James and Derek Jeter, larger than life figures who we can judge and opine on without it all really being that important.

Baseball tends to get more coverage than normal when a fight happens. A bench clearing set to between two whole teams and a mass of bodies with arms swinging wildly at nobody in particular is perfect fodder for gasbags searching for column inches or internet hits. Who was right, why is it always them, aren’t baseball unwritten rules antiquated?

On Sunday we had a variance on a theme. Instead of a pitcher/ batter disagreement or a Latino pimping out his home run trot, we had two teammates going at it, Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. That they play for the Washington Nationals, one of, if not the, biggest disappointment of the season made it all the more juicy and glorious. That they happen to be two guys about whom there unquestionably are strident and definite views, even more so.

It would be very easy to jump to a conclusion that here, for the world to see, was absolute and undeniable proof that there is something very wrong within the Nationals clubhouse. By common consensus, manager Matt Williams has been an abject failure and not being able to control his own players could be interpreted as verification that rubber stamps that unanimity.

However, had the Nationals been top of their division, this fight might be pointed at as a very reason as to why. Here were two leaders, two competitors, showing just how much they cared about the business of winning, not satisfied with what they saw and seeking to rectify matters any way they could.

Winning and success excuses many faults. A salesman can be an absolute pain around the office, come and go as he so pleases,  if he can point at the board at the end of the month at the business and revenue he has generated for his company. Instead of being an outcast he is lauded by the bosses as the example to his peers rather than the opposite.

In sports, this is also true. Barry Bonds was famously selfish and distant in the clubhouse but how could he possibly be criticised when his numbers were other worldly? Kobe Bryant has always been difficult and aloof but just look at all those rings….It’s only now as his skills decline, predictably with age, that is persona his seen as a major issue for the Lakers. Winning trumps all.

So who was at fault in this latest example of Washington being a disfunctional shambles?

Let’s look at the two protagonists, nay pugilists.

In the blue corner, we have Bryce Harper, the 22-year-old phenom having a historically great season by many metrics even amongst the overall disarray of the team. Without Bryce, the season would have been infinitely worse.

Opposite, we find Jonathan Papelbon, newly arrived in Washington, having been acquired at the trade deadline from Philadelphia. Papelbon has been less good as a National than Harper, unsurprisingly. It would be hard not to be. However, he has also been a big disappointment when compared to what was expected from him.

As the new guy, and an underperforming new guy at that, it is very easy to point at Papelbon and apportion most, if not all, of the blame squarely on him. The rest of the problem, it’s easy to conclude, is that the clubhouse as a whole has serious issues, a disease.

This is by no means the only instance of teammates fighting, however. In 1997, Michael Jordan, for example, is supposed to have punched Will Perdue in practice after Perdue set an illegal screen against him in practice. That the Chicago Bulls went on to win the NBA title that year is neither here nor there. These things happen in sports, where you have some of the most competitive and testosterone fuelled people in the world.

A fight does not have to be the indicator of anything sinister or meaningful. Sometimes they just appear out of nowhere.

Papelbon and Harper have one characteristic or trait that they share. Both are renowned across the league for being, shall we say, assholes. This is not the first time either have been involved in a less than salubrious incident. It almost certainly won’t be the last either.

In soap operas, everything has to have meaning, otherwise what would be the point of including it in the plot at all. In our own sporting version, it’s facile to interpret each and every episode as being reflective of the overall. However, it doesn’t have to be.

There doesn’t always have to be a good guy and a bad guy. This is not a Spaghetti Western. This is real life.

Perhaps yesterday was simply two dickheads being two dickheads.

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