A public viewing was held at Nationals Park on Sunday for one of the worst professional team failures in D.C. sports in a generation. It began as the baseball version of a wake for a disastrous season. Then, to prove the Washington Nationals could make a total team collapse even worse, the wake turned into an earthquake: Jonathan Papelbon started a dugout fight with Bryce Harper.
Only 23 more and you’ve got a team photo.
Less than 24 hours after being eliminated by the New York Mets in the National League East, the Nats ensured there will always be photos — and GIFs galore — to eliminate any dignity they might have hoped to keep.
As preseason World Series favorites who now won’t even make the playoffs, they have been cut some slack for injuries, a shattered bullpen and novice managing. But for four consecutive years, they also have been accused of choking, sometimes by other teams, after each season ended in tatters. Now, photos for that caption.
Of course, the ruckus started in the Nats’ favorite inning for disasters involving relievers: the eighth. Why rewrite a polished script? The bullpen’s trashed everything else this year; why not fight the likely NL MVP? Fan Appreciation Day, indeed.
After the game, the Nats had their annual “Shirts Off Their Backs” promotion with each player handing his game-worn jersey to a contest-winning fan. The Nats should make sure two fans receive the first authenticated brawl-used jerseys ever.
An hour after the game, the outfield was filled with fans who took instruction in “Yoga in the Park.” Yes, to improve their serenity. No Nationals participated.
Because neither Papelbon nor Harper was hurt or even noticeably marked and because multiple Nationals sources confirmed that Papelbon was deemed to be entirely at fault, this probably will not end up as a debate about who was guilty in a brief baseball brawl. Instead, it will be a symbol of an entire season when everything went wrong and every hidden structural weakness in the franchise was exposed.
After a closed-door meeting with Manager Matt Williams, a chastened Papelbon met with media at length. “I’m in the wrong there,” said Papelbon, who then explained how he and Harper will . . . you know, become blood brothers, or something, next year.
This has been a terrible week for Williams, who almost certainly will be fired — with total-loss-of-kindergarten-discipline added to the list. But if you saw the expression on Papelbon’s face as he entered Williams’s office after the game and you saw the look on Williams, too, this was probably the one day you really would like to have “The Big Marine,” with the put-somebody-in-a-locker reputation, as your manager.
After the fight, Williams took Harper out of the game but left Papelbon in to continue pitching — unusual in a moot post-elimination game. Even more pointed, Williams left the foundering Papelbon in the game to take a beating: five runs and a loss.
While Papelbon looked forward to a glorious fully bonded future as Harper’s teammate next season — “I fought with my brothers. Bryce probably did, too.” — Harper still didn’t look pleased, though Papelbon had apologized to him. Asked whether he had ever fought a teammate, Harper said, “[I’m] usually fighting the other team.”
One respected Nat, defending Harper, said seriously, “I don’t know if Bryce has ever been in a fight. I think it’s a safe bet that Papelbon has been in a few.”
On Wednesday, Papelbon threw at Baltimore’s Manny Machado twice, both times near his head, the second hitting him in the shoulder. Papelbon was ejected and subsequently suspended for three days pending an appeal. Harper’s comment then: “It’s tired. Now they’ll probably hit me tomorrow.” The Nationals’ consensus was that Papelbon was out of line. But the fuse had been lit to a tinderbox player.
On Sunday, Papelbon yelled at Harper, accusing him of not running out a ball even though Harper had reached first base and was actually playing in a day-after-elimination game — when many 150-game-plus regulars rest — for the sake of the fans. Papelbon followed Harper, yelling, essentially giving him little choice, until Harper said (according to lip readers), “Let’s [expletive] go.” So they went.
This incident may ultimately serve a purpose. A baseball franchise that has brought joy and anticipation to the D.C. area for the last four years has, in recent weeks, had difficulty facing, much less digesting, the reality of their spectacular flop. Will it learn and rise in the aftermath of a collapse that it still barely acknowledges, much less fathoms?
On Saturday, after elimination, Williams encountered a century-old ritual for every manager — face the music. What does it all mean, Matt? Now that it’s over, own up: share your analysis or feelings. Or just change expression.
“We have to win tomorrow,” Williams said.
No, you don’t. You’re mathematically dead. Would the captain of the Titanic say, “We have to put that iceberg behind us and get ready for tomorrow”?
Now the 2015 Nationals take their place in a dark D.C. corner with the 2000 Redskins, who boasted of their Super Bowl chances after signing future Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith. Also in that dunce-cap row sit the 2009-10 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, who lost in the first round of the playoffs to the team with the 16th-best point total in the NHL in the regular season.
Williams has become the symbol of the season. But the Lerner family, which owns the team; General Manager Mike Rizzo; and $168 million worth of players must bear most of the brunt.
If a team ever needed to look at its issues honestly while not forgetting its strengths, it’s the Nats now. Organizational culture — whether one of accountability and candor or merely of best-face rationalization — has enormous cumulative impact that can last decades, as Dan Snyder’s NFL team has shown.
The Nats should not pretend 2015 was a fluke, just a product of injuries, of bad seasons by good players that can be fixed by a 2016 reboot and retool. Then more will go wrong. However, if they forget that, under Rizzo, they have established one of baseball’s best-built franchises, they may fix what’s not broken.
Wakes, even for a baseball season, are sad by their nature, but they can prompt reflection, too. Here are a few starting points.
Owner Ted Lerner still makes deals (like the $210 million one for ace right-hander Max Scherzer) directly with mega-agent Scott Boras with little more than an okay-by-you nod to his front office. That can work; the Detroit Tigers got to a World Series stacked with Boras clients. Having so many Boras stars — also Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth — causes valid concern about where power lies. But Boras also has a powerful incentive to have those teams win and maximize the “brand” of his men.
However, when one hand never totally knows what the other hand might do, how does that help? This year, it left a clubhouse with Nationals stars like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, who almost certainly will leave as free agents this winter, to wonder where their money went and who influenced the Nats’ last-best offer.
The Lerners also set sufficient yet inflexible budgets. Bizarre? This leads to budget pinches in other areas, like signing little-wanted Casey Janssen to replace Tyler Clippard to save a few million dollars.
Also, the Nats wanted to get in talks for strong left-handed hitter Gerardo Parra at the July 31 trade deadline, but they never had the chance because they didn’t have the budget flexibility to pick up any of Parra’s contract.
In what now seems toxically ironic, the Nationals’ ownership didn’t want to add 2015 payroll to get a quality reliever at the trade deadline, so they got Papelbon by guaranteeing his 2016 option year — an $11 million obligation. How penny-wise does that look now? What return could you get for such damaged goods?
Did former closer Drew Storen just become future closer Storen? Probably not. Rizzo has many gifts as a talent evaluator, but he can be stubborn, even anger prone, with a long memory once relationships with players, even key ones, start to sour. Now he must repair an entire bullpen, home of “firemen” that are now aflame.
Before Sunday, some of the Nationals’ internal problems — and depths of their raw feelings about this deeply disappointing season — were still kept somewhat under wraps. Now they’re as obvious and hard to ignore as fingers clenched around your neck.