The trouble with a story like yesterday’s Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon fight in the Nationals dugout is that it does not contain much—any—ambiguity. It is unambiguously wonderful, that oh-God-this-is-so-fucking-stupid kind of wonderful, and also Jonathan Papelbon unambiguously is a belligerent tool whose decision to attack his own club’s best player was unambiguously stupid, and the Nationals are, unambiguously, a disaster, not least because manager Matt Williams is, unambiguously, an ineffectual boob.
This is to say that this none of this left a lot of room for diversity of opinion. By my count, “Ha ha oh Christ look at the fucking Nationals, what a catastrophe” and “Probably Jonathan Papelbon should not seize his teammate by the throat because of slightly inefficient jogging or whatever, in the eighth inning of a seven-run loss at the end of a wasted season, or any other time for that matter” are the reasonable analyses, and they can get all the expounding they need from a single paragraph. They just did!
You can see how this puts, say, Fox Sports in a tough spot. After all, the Un-ESPN flag must be borne aloft by contrarian takes if anyone is to see it—this is a truth we at Deadspin know intimately! How do you set your sports shop apart from others when a fall weekend’s most noteworthy sports development allows only one measly pair of reasonable takes, each harmonious with the other?
The answer: With stupid takes. Fox has a couple of those today, courtesy of former big-league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski and formerly reasonable baseball writer Rob Neyer.
Neyer—who I swear to God was once upon a time not a crazy person—takes issue with the notion that Matt Williams and Jonathan Papelbon should be jettisoned from the Nationals. Or, well, probably they should be jettisoned from the Nationals—“Hey, I might fire Williams, too,” and “I might release Papelbon,” Neyer writes—but, uh, only if we live in this universe, and not some other one in which a manager whose rental relievers are strangling his star outfielders in the dugout can be said to have a firm hand on the tiller, and in which the possibility of 65 innings or so of good relief pitching is a good reason to keep an expensive 34-year-old shithead who thinks throttling the club’s best player is cool and good. Rob Neyer is sick and tired of all these clowns limiting their perspective to the world as it actually exists, man.
Here’s my favorite bit, concerning Williams:
I’m a big believer in stability, but on the other hand the Cubs don’t seem to have missed Rick Renteria much. The problem is that Joe Maddon’s no longer available, and I don’t know that there’s another Joe Maddon out there. So if you’re just going to hire another Matt Williams, then why not keep the one you’ve got?
Truly this is a rollercoaster of reasoning, my friends. Stability is important, but not as important as finding a good manager, but since baseball’s best manager isn’t available the only alternative is the kind of paste-munching dolt who will have one of his best hitters try to bunt on a 3-1 count with runners in scoring position, and so the Nationals might as well stick with the paste-munching dolt they have, even though his response to a rental reliever trying to choke his best player in the middle of the game was to run that rental reliever back out to the mound and watch him blow a ninth-inning lead. Seven loops. 9,000 G-forces. A burning track. And a 400-foot leap over a pit of real lava. This fall, at Six Flags, dare to untangle ... the False Binary.
Nitkowski, for his part, wants us to know that actually, Papelbon was in the right to attack the likely National League MVP—the one player on the Nationals who has lived up to the club’s astronomical expectations in this disappointment of a season—because “players” say so. Here’s a selection of what “players” “told” C.J. Nitkowski:
- Pap did what should have been done three years ago. Veteran players should be doing this across the league.
- Bryce is a great player. He’s a true superstar. But he’s not above playing the game the right way. I’m glad someone finally told him that.
- 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.
- I agree with Pap calling Harper out — hustling and continuous work ethic creates champions. He got the response most players would have probably given from the exchange. Should have been handled in the clubhouse.
Got that, laypersons? “These quotes are the most objective and knowledgeable viewpoint you’ll get on this matter,” C.J. Nitkowski says, about these un-quoted non-quotes from nameless “players” who all sound exactly like C.J. Nitkowski. Players do not like: Bryce Harper; loafing; youths; quotation marks. Players do like: Jonathan Papelbon; veterans; being C.J. Nitkowski; starting fights over perceived effort.
My personal favorite of the bullet points C.J. Nitkowski attributes to nameless baseball players is the one about how “hustling and continuous work ethic creates champions,” which is intended to grant Papelbon, winner of a World Series ring with the Red Sox in 2007, implicit authority to judge—with extreme prejudice!—the hustle and work ethic of Harper, who has not won any championships. Leaving aside the fact that Harper, leader of the NL in damn near everything worth counting, clearly has not been hindered in any way by his hustle or work ethic in the two months Papelbon has been his teammate ... Papelbon won his ring as a bumper sticker on a Red Sox team whose best player, David Ortiz, was and remains one of the most relaxed baserunners who ever lived. And he’s a designated hitter! Literally the only opportunity David Ortiz has to exert himself for more than a microsecond on a baseball field is when he runs the bases, which he does with the enthusiasm of a teenager ordered to kiss Great Aunt Phyllis. Papelbon himself is a champion not created by hustling and continuous work ethic.
“These are from current and former players who don’t have a bias and come from perspectives closer to the current game than anything else you’ve read,” says Nitkowski. Meaning ... what? These guys know what works? I suppose we’ll see. Who thinks this was the last time Bryce Harper will ever fail to sprint out a dead-on-arrival pop fly? C.J. Nitkowski’s confidantes are silent on that point. Maybe they preferred not to be un-quoted on the matter.
Jesus, man, the strain of these takes. Their mean and meager scaffolding. Just reading them is nerve-wracking, like watching a drunk try to tightrope-walk the second-deck railing at a baseball game. It’s a terrible idea, but damn if you don’t find yourself hoping he makes it down okay. And you can imagine how Neyer and Nitkowski—tasked with carrying Fox’s contrarian banner along that narrow, precarious length—might have found something to defend in an angry old fart who couldn’t stand the sight of an easy, unencumbered stroll.
Photo via AP