Fans don’t always get it right. They got it right with Jonathan Papelbon.
Washington Nationals supporters were aghast at last summer’s bullpen addition from the moment he arrived. They were skeptical because of his boorish reputation, because of years spent rooting against him on the Philadelphia Phillies, because the move displaced the popular Drew Storen (and appeared to prompt Storen’s latest disintegration), and because of worries that the veteran reliever was in decline.
These were all theoretical concerns. Then Papelbon — in full view of cameras — attacked Bryce Harper: the MVP, the kid who grew into adulthood here in D.C., the player most beloved both by Washington youngsters and Capitol Hill legislators. Physically attacking the team’s most popular player in public? That was akin to a mayoral candidate coming out against D.C. statehood, or a Washington restaurateur complaining that all the food is better in New York, or a Redskins player screaming “How about those Cowboys!” And it led to a reaction normally reserved for big-money stars like Jaromir Jagr and Albert Haynesworth: pure disgust.
“I would be willing to donate my own money to not see this guy in a Nats uniform anymore,” one fan told me last fall, after launching a crowd-funded effort to ditch the reliever.
Fans spent the final few days of the 2015 season hammering Papelbon. “We don’t need a player like that on the team,” a fan named Patty MacEwan told me at the home finale. “I don’t want someone like Papelbon on that team,” said another fan, Angela Halsted.
Several threatened to cancel their season tickets over Papelbon, and while I never found anyone who followed through on that threat, the choke meant that Papelbon’s reputation had descended several floors below basement level. The most enthusiastic Nats fans have always wanted to believe that their division-winning teams have been as likable as they were successful. And whether you agree with that approach or not, it wasn’t clear how Papelbon could ever make himself appear likable again, even for those who don’t demand that.
“I will certainly not be cheering for him when he comes out to pitch,” promised Mindy Moretti, who had thought about canceling her tickets after the wrenching end to 2015. “Quite frankly I don’t care whether I like [athletes]. I don’t need to go have a beer with any of them. I do think choking someone in front of other people shows you’re unstable, and what is that bringing to the rest of the team?”
My friend Sarah Larimer, who is constitutionally opposed to booing players on the home team, waived her stance in Papelbon’s honor; his behavior “was so egregiously wack, it has forced me to abandon my lifelong position,” she wrote. And fans did boo him at this year’s home opener, even if it wasn’t quite as vociferous as I would have guessed. Having Jonathan Papelbon on the Nationals made rooting for the Nationals a little less enjoyable.
Now maybe players don’t, or shouldn’t, care whether the home fans like them. If a Nationals player did care, though, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to wear a T-shirt reading “Obama can’t ban these guns” to his let’s-make-amends spring training news conference. Nor would he have, on multiple occasions, played a political anthem while reporters were inside the Nats clubhouse.
The ditty was called “Vote For Trump,” and it included promises that “the wall will get built by Mexico” and that Trump would “bring back country [and] get rid of rap,” also noting that “if you don’t like it you can all just kiss our ass.”
Should fans judge athletes on their political beliefs? Probably not, unless you’ve given up on the idea of sports-as-escapism. Should fans judge athletes on the lyrics of their personal musical choices? That’s a terrible idea, too, unless your goal is to be forever miserable. You could argue that there’s courage in standing for your political beliefs even when they won’t play well in your home stadium — and my impression is that the Nats’ fan base leans more left than right.
But it all contributed to the impression that Papelbon wasn’t particularly interested in reversing his local unpopularity. It’s an impression that didn’t change after he lost his closer role and was shown sunning himself in the bullpen late in a recent game. Maybe that was silly, too, but it all felt like a man completely indifferent to salvaging his reputation in the stands.
Some will say that everything would have been forgiven if Papelbon could still make batters swing and miss, or if he hadn’t endured that disastrous stretch shortly before the acquisition of Mark Melancon. And sure, there would be less visceral distaste in that case, and maybe even grudging acceptance. No one wants to boo the guy who records the last out of the World Series.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, we have a player who arrived in a cloud of skepticism and unease, whose most memorable action here led to one of the worst stretches in franchise history, and who will depart as among the least popular figures in the last decade of Washington sports. Fans didn’t want him last summer, and they’ll feel better now that he’s gone. He’s forever joined with Jagr and Haynesworth, men who did their best work elsewhere, and whose tenures here are remembered as nauseating if predictable failures.
The gut of a fan is about as reliable as forecasting the weather with your ears; just because there are a few rumbles doesn’t mean a storm is coming. In this case, though, the rumbles were right. Papelbon was a dark cloud for Washington’s fan base, and his release adds a bit more blue sky to what was already a bounce-back season.