It is a testament to the Washington Nationals’ dysfunction that the dugout fight between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper almost made sense compared to everything that came after. A team’s for-hire closer trying to choke the league MVP is one thing, but it’s absolutely inexplicable that manager Matt Williams then sent Papelbon out for the next inning. Williams would finally admit long after the game was over that he did it because he had no idea what had happened. You want a metaphor for a manager who’s lost his clubhouse? Try a manager who doesn’t see what happens in his dugout, unless that’s a little too spot-on.
Players fight. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. Papelbon jawed at Harper for not running out a fly ball. Harper jawed back. Hands went to throats. The two were separated. No one can say the Nationals didn’t know what they were getting in Papelbon, who was only available to play because he’s appealing his three-game suspension for being a dick. The two said all the right things after, with Papelbon admitting “I’m in the wrong” and both players likening it to brotherly fights. All well and good, right up until the moment Papelbon, who had gotten one out to end the eighth, went back out for the ninth (and promptly surrendered five runs and the game).
Matt Williams, why on earth would you keep Papelbon in?
Williams would later explain that the Papelbon-Harper scuffle had taken place at the opposite end of the dugout from his usual spot, and after the final out he had gone directly to a jersey-giveaway event for season-ticket holders, and from there to his press conference. And through all that time, apparently no one explained to him what had happened.
It was only after the press conference that he caught a television replay of the brawl, and he took the unusual move of summoning reporters to his office. There, Williams admitted that he wouldn’t have left Papelbon in if he had known.
“Now that I’ve had a chance to view the videotape, I would absolutely not have sent him back out there,” Williams said on Sunday night. “I didn’t have the luxury of viewing that at that time, with one out in the eighth inning. And I’m livid about it.”
This is a stunning admission. Williams is a major league manager who was unaware of a fight involving his best player that took place maybe 20 feet away, and couldn’t be bothered to find out anything about it, couldn’t ask one of the many witnesses for details, couldn’t or wouldn’t get informed enough to offer anything better than a robotic “he’s our closer” explanation.
Well, maybe Williams won’t be a major league manager for very long. It’s been a rough season for the Nationals, and much of it hasn’t been Williams’s fault, but during the late-season flop he has shown a knack for making the wrong decisions and for being singularly unequipped to realize baseball is bigger than the sum of its discrete parts. Williams has demonstrated a lack of context as glaring as his inexplicable bullpen moves, and is now getting around to punting on the whole leadership aspect of his job.
It would be one thing if it were just this fight; it’s not. A number of Nationals players, who declined to give their names to the Washington Post, have questioned Williams’s strategy and personality, and openly wondered if he’s the right man for the job. They describe Williams as tense and inflexible, with no ability to go off-script when his meticulous planning falls apart. They don’t enjoy having him around, which was fine when the team was winning, but is exactly the sort of thing to turn a season like this from a disappointment into a disaster.
“It’s a terrible environment,” one player said. “And the amazing part is everybody feels that way.”
The Nationals exercised Williams’s 2016 option already, but it’s looking increasingly likely that he’s got just seven days left on the job. Things have become untenable, and the Nats are too talented to let something as replaceable as a manager hold them back.