Nationals Park was supposed to be silent Monday, a scheduled day off before six final games on the road and then the playoffs.
Nothing in this season, though, has gone according to plan.
So as the park’s gates opened one last time, a general feeling of last-minute improvisation prevailed. In the stadium’s bowels, Manager Matt Williams delayed his normal pregame news conference for about 90 minutes before announcing closer Jonathan Papelbon had been suspended four games for attacking Bryce Harper the day before. In the team store, two racks of Papelbon jerseys were carried off to some hidden spot, where they were presumably hidden along with a season’s worth of bad memories and regret. And in the stands, fans sported anger at Papelbon and sympathy with Harper and frustration over a wasted season.
This forgettable season won’t end until this coming weekend, but the home schedule wrapped up with Monday’s makeup game in front of a tiny crowd of rubber-neckers. While Washington’s grab-bag lineup faced off against the Cincinnati Reds, the rest of baseball continued to dissect perhaps the ugliest incident in franchise history.
On Sunday afternoon, Papelbon flung himself at Harper, the likely National League MVP, in the dugout after the two exchanged heated words. On Sunday evening, the organization’s public stance was that boys will be boys, even as all of baseball gawked at images of the violent confrontation.
By Monday morning, this story led just about every national sports outlet. By Monday afternoon, the team had suspended Papelbon those four games without pay. Combined with his MLB-mandated three-game suspension for a previous incident, his season is done.
An odd mix of dark humor, curiosity and amusement greeted the team on a warm and breezy afternoon. One fan brought boxing gloves to the park and posed for photos with a friend’s hands around his neck. Another shouted at other fans that they weren’t hustling enough while returning to their seats. (Harper’s presumed sin Sunday was slowly jogging to first base after a popup, a pimple on the end of his elephantine breakout season.)
Harper is beloved by Washington’s kiddie baseball fans, so many parents had to explain why the new guy was attempting to strangle their hero on live television.
“That’s really sad,” 10-year-old Ava Bohinc told her father when he showed her the video Monday morning. “He’s a really good player, and people shouldn’t treat him that way.”
Was there another side to this issue? Some hardscrabble baseball lifers tried to make it so, with clichés about playing the game the right way. Finding Nats fans who agreed with that view was about as easy as finding Papelbon’s jersey in the crowd.
“We are 100 percent behind Harper,” said Scott Bohinc, Ava’s dad, and if he didn’t speak for the entire fan base, it was close.
Nats fans who fell in love with this team over the past three seasons often believed that the team was composed of not just good ballplayers but also good guys who cared about the community, cheerfully interacted with the fan base and turned a kid’s game into a shared communal enterprise.
When Papelbon — apparently unhappy with the speed with which Harper ran to first — placed his hand on Harper’s throat, that spell was broken. One fan who already had renewed her tickets for next season told her season ticket rep that she wouldn’t be back until Papelbon is gone.
“We don’t need a player like that on the team,” Patty MacEwan of Alexandria said, sitting in front of a sign asking the team to designate Papelbon for assignment. “That was assault; I don’t care what anyone else says.”
Another, Angela Halsted of Arlington, said she had trouble sleeping Sunday night because of the incident.
“I thought what he did was completely out of line, totally toxic, and the whole boys-will-be-boys response to it was really disturbing to me,” she said. “I don’t want someone like Papelbon on that team.”
After a third fan pledged to donate $100 to a charity of the team’s choice if Papelbon was jettisoned, fellow travelers promised thousands of dollars of additional donations.
“I just wanted to illustrate how I felt about the situation — that I would be willing to donate my own money to not see this guy in a Nats uniform anymore,” said Johann Tiamson, 28, of Fairfax. “I think the Nats’ fan base is just very nice in general, and they want that to be reflected in who’s playing on the team and who’s running the organization.”
Fans spent the latter innings Monday chanting, “We Want Bryce,” and, “Har-per, Har-per.” One woman near the home dugout waved a “Harper for MVP” sign. Papelbon, on the other hand, was roundly booed Sunday by a fan base that rarely turns on its own. Jocelyn Dorfman had never before jeered a player on her favorite team; she said she would have reconsidered her fandom had Papelbon been in uniform Monday.
“I think he’s just horrible, and I think he will have a despicable impact on this team,” she said, while pledging an entire paycheck to charity if Papelbon is removed from the roster. “I still am not able to process what happened. I have two master’s degrees in psychology, and I can’t process that behavior.”
The skirmish was the talk not just among Nats fans but throughout baseball and, indeed, throughout sports. Wizards Coach Randy Wittman and Redskins Coach Jay Gruden were both asked about the incident, and even Redskins players — more accustomed to dealing with their own dramatics — weighed in.
“That was pretty weird to see,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “You’d hate to see an MVP getting choked out, but those kinds of things happen.”
Fortunately, no one fought Monday. The star of the day was pitcher Max Scherzer, who didn’t allow a hit until the eighth inning and helped the Nats to one last home win, 5-1, and several farewell ovations. Then the stadium’s ushers — wearing special fan-appreciation T-shirts with hearts on the backs — said goodbye until the spring.
The final few fans at the final home game surely spoke for a great number of Washingtonians when asked about Sunday’s unpleasantness. Papelbon?
“The people I know will never forgive him for the stain he put on the franchise,” said Hugh Kaufman, the man known for staging rubber chicken sacrifice rituals to change the team’s fortunes.
“I love him,” said James Stoup, age 13. “He hits dingers.”