When Dusty Baker is introduced as the new manager of the Washington Nationals on Thursday, he may have one fewer problem to worry about than most assume. Since the end of the season, Bryce Harper has reached out to Jonathan Papelbon to make sure their relationship as teammates is functional next season.
“Papelbon and Harper are fine together,” one person inside the Nationals said, referring to Harper’s phone call. “Harp just wants to win. All he cares about is that we have a 45-save relief pitcher who’s going to help us.”
Only time will tell to what degree Harper’s off-season olive branch improves the relationship between the two after their dugout fight in September, when Papelbon cursed Harper as he returned to the dugout. After a much-provoked Harper responded “Let’s go,” Papelbon jumped at the slugger and ended up with his hand around Harper’s throat.
As the aggrieved party in the fight between the two, Harper’s no-hard-feelings stance could be seen as a sign of emerging leadership skills from a 23-year-old. Of course, if they’re trying to suffocate each other with saw dust in a sliding pit during spring training, then maybe not.
Or it could be part eye-wash to facilitate a Papelbon trade. However, on a team that now has bristly Mike Rizzo as GM and Baker as manager, the Nats’ operating philosophy likely will be: Work-it-out-or-punch-it-out, but produce on the field.
Ironically, in Baker, the Nats hired a manager who in San Francisco successfully handled one of MLB’s legendarily bad relationships between two arrogant superstars: Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds. Of the pair it was said that “they’ve turned their lives around. They used to be abrasive and obnoxious. Now they’re obnoxious and abrasive.” And Baker had ’em both for six years together.
“Dusty was the manager when they had a fight in the Giants’ dugout,” Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo said this week.
Actually, Baker was in the middle of the screaming and shoving, breaking it up. Baker pulled away Kent and was overheard yelling in Kent’s face, “Don’t you ever talk that way to me.” The Giants trainer dragged Bonds away from the fracas.
Under Baker, a span during which they often batted in tandem, Kent won a Most Valuable Player award and drove in 115 runs a year while Bonds, in 10 years under Baker, won three MVPs and set the single-season homer record of 73.
What if Harper and Papelbon keep fussing or, perhaps, even lay hands on one another again? How might Baker respond? One possibility is that he’ll barely care.
“Add this [fight] to the half-dozen times we’ve done it before,” said Kent after their dugout dispute in June of ’02 — a time when they’d been back-to-back MVPs.
Ten minutes after their caught-on-camera F-bomb explosion, Bonds hit a three-run homer and Kent gave him a high-five at home plate — fitting, perhaps, because Baker and L.A. teammate Glenn Burke are credited with inventing the high-five.
“It ain’t a problem,” Baker said, after the umpteenth Bonds-Kent ruckus. “I went through the same thing in L.A. with a couple of guys. Now we see each other, and we’re partners. Usually this happens on good teams.
“Bad teams always get along.”
In a related note, Nats people also say the team’s current plan is to have both Papelbon and Drew Storen in the end back of their bullpen again next year with the expectation that they will work out a way to “play nice together.”
If they don’t, the old-school Baker, who’s not averse to running a ballclub that has an occasional brouhaha with opposing teams, too, can always hand out the boxing gloves in the bullpen and separate ‘em in the clinches.