The Nationals are bad. Everyone and their mother expected them to be an exceptional ballclub before the season, yet here we are. The pitching staff from heaven imploded, three of their best position players missed significant time with injuries, and Ian Desmond forgot how to play defense for a while.
In the midst of this perfect storm is Bryce Harper, who has done nothing but have one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory. Harper entered today with a wRC+ of 200, meaning he's 100 points better than the league average. That score is the 6th best in the last 20 years. The only players with better campaigns were a 205 wRC+ effort in 1998 by Mark McGwire, and four seasons from some guy named Barry Bonds. That's how much better than the competition Harper has been this year. He's lapped the field.
Enter Jonathan Papelbon. We all know what happened on TV yesterday. In case you missed it, here's a brief refresher.
Papelbon takes issue with the perceived level of effort Harper puts into running out a can of corn pop fly, and Harper takes issue with Papelbon yelling at him. Harper, being a little brash, says something about fighting him. Papelbon then lunges at Harper and goes straight for his throat.
It's generally unacceptable behavior to assault another human being regardless of how fast they jogged to first base on a routine fly ball. You wouldn't get that impression if you asked former ballplayers, however. Here are the reactions of Joe Magrane and Mike Lowell on MLB Network.
The TV analysts are quick to pin it on Harper before saying both players are at fault. CJ Nitkowski (a former reliever) of Fox Sports gunned straight for Harper in the article he posted this morning. Both discussions of the incident make reference to an incident involving Manny Machado. Papelbon intentionally hit Machado with a pitch, and Harper told the media after the press that he would probably get plunked in retaliation. That may have contributed to some underlying resentment that Harper and Papelbon felt towards each other before yesterday.
When that's taken into account alongside the fact that Papelbon has historically been a raging maniac, none of what happened yesterday is surprising in the least. It's easy to lay the blame for the whole confrontation at Harper's feet for the whole confrontation if you stop watching the video right before Papelbon lunges at him. Harper is not blameless, of course, as it's not a good idea to pick a fight with someone like Papelbon. Harper should know better than that.
Assigning blame pales in comparison to the actual reaction of the ex-player arm of the media, however. Harper is always going to be a polarizing figure because he speaks his mind and he's mind-bogglingly talented. Yet if we look through these reactions, and the defense of his column that Nitkoswki posted, we see a concurrent theme and narrative. Bryce Harper, despite being in the league for as long as he has been, doesn't "play the game the right way" and needs to be kept in line by any means necessary.
The reactions to the fight also don't use the word "choke" until Nitkowski's rebuttal. Magrane was quick to characterize Harper as a "petulant child," and Nitkowski's second piece finishes by wondering if Harper's ego will prevent him from "learning anything" from the incident. Even LaTroy Hawkins, who's still in the game, offered his support for Nitkowski's column by claiming that those who don't play the game are members of the "entitlement generation."
The degree to which the baseball community exonerates established veterans of any wrongdoing is remarkable. What Papelbon did would be worthy of assault charges if it took place outside of a baseball stadium and out of uniform, but because of where the attack took place he's applauded for grabbing Harper by the throat and slamming him into the wall. This is to say nothing of the lunacy of getting so worked up over how long it took someone to jog to first place on a routine out. If Harper is entitled to anything, it's the right to not get choked in his workplace.
Papelbon is not only supposedly in the right, but the intensity of his actions is also apparently fine. We can talk about Harper's ego until the cows come home. Yet whether or not Harper is too full of himself is irrelevant when the root of the problem is baseball's worship of machismo and brutal frontier justice. These men are playing a game. There is most likely a right way and a wrong way to play this game beyond one's inherent skill level. There is nothing about the way one plays a game that justifies assault.
It's easy for those in the game to claim that because outsiders haven't spent time inside a big league clubhouse and been a member of a team, they don't have the right to criticize the way that veteran ballplayers conduct themselves. There's an element of tribalism to all of this to be sure. However, to claim that violent actions like Papelbon's are above reproach is laughable. To flip it around and blame Harper for the violence brought against him is irresponsible and narcissistic. Grown men are displaying schoolyard-level mentalities and essentially declaring themselves above the law.
We shouldn't be surprised by what happened yesterday. Placing Harper and Papelbon in the same dugout was bound to cause some sort of uproar at some point, and the ensuing arrogant defenses of the veteran player involved were also inevitable. Veterans are okay with violence to keep younger players like Harper in line. To quote Nitkowski, "Kick, punch, choke, same to me." That might be the most disturbing part of all.