In the moment that Jonathan Papelbon placed his hand around Bryce Harper’s neck in the Washington Nationals dugout on Sunday, a once-promising season that had already proven disappointing, devolved into an unmitigated disaster.
How else to describe a team whose players are throwing punches over in a meaningless September game? Maybe a swirling commode of fetid diarrhea? But let’s not get carried away.
The explanation for this fight starts with one of the dumbest parts of baseball: the unwritten rule. These are the standards by which old-school oriented players and fans expect the game to be played. One of those rules is the notion that a player should always run to first base at a full speed regardless of how obvious it is that they’re going to be out.
In the play in question Harper jogged after popping up to left. This didn’t sit well with Papelbon, so he yelled at Harper. Up until this point, there’s not a lot to get riled up about. Older players are dicks to younger players all the time. In sports, it’s called veteran leadership. Outside of sports, it’s called being an asshole.
It’s what happened next that propelled this moment into the farcical. Papelbon choked Harper and tried to slam his head against a concrete wall. Not a good idea for a host of reasons. First, there’s the commonly held belief that internal disputes like this should be handled internally, which is to say, where cameras can’t capture them and idiots on the internet don't writing about them. Second, and more importantly, there’s the fact that Harper is the Nats’ best player, the face of the franchise and the obvious 2015 National League MVP. If Papelbon had actually hurt Harper, he'd be impaled on the Washington Monument. And third, this is assault. the kind of thing you could get arrested for if you did it anywhere but a dugout. But when baseball players are morons and hide behind the unwritten rules, we give them rope.
The only good news is all this mess? The Nats only have six games left before their season comes to a merciful end.