Last Saturday, Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper got into an argument. Harper, who by all accounts has been far and away the best player in baseball this year, did not run hard on a routine popup. Lots of players do the same. This is Major League Baseball, after all, and the outfielder catches the ball 99 times out of 100. Papelbon chirped at Harper as he was returning to the dugout, apparently criticizing Harper for not running harder. This came shortly after Harper criticized Papelbon for intentionally plunking a Manny Machado.
At that point, it was more or less a simple spat between two frustrated teammates on an underachieving team. Things happen, especially among intense competitors. But then this occurred:
If Papelbon and Harper got into a shoving match, it would have been embarrassing and infantile, but, again, things like this happen every once in a while. But that's not what took place--Papelbon, standing in an advantaged position on the steps in front of Harper, lunged forward to grab Harper's throat in a chokehold. Harper promptly freed himself from the attack because Harper is strong enough to stop trains with his beard, but they continued to scuffle before teammates ripped them apart. It was a good thing they did so, because we can only assume that Harper was going to crush Papelbon like a dandelion under his feet.
Papelbon promptly went to the mound in the next inning to blow the Nationals' lead.
The reaction was, of course, swift and negative towards Papelbon. Twitter went predictably nuts, producing some great gems:
I worry this incident could damage the lovable, fan-favorite image of Jonathan Papelbon.— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) September 27, 2015
The Nationals' season in six seconds: Idiot closer tries to fight the MVP who's too good for this garbage. https://t.co/aYBIOnzfGL— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 27, 2015
Papelbon choked twice today.— Todd Zolecki (@ToddZolecki) September 27, 2015
Elsewhere on the internet, one lone journalist took time to ponder, and then asked a simple question:
Should Jonathan Papelbon have choked Bryce Harper? http://t.co/jk199trylN— Lee Judge (@leejudge8) September 29, 2015
Well, no. The answer is no. Choking is an unacceptable behavior in civilized society. That, and the fact that any article that asks a binary question in the title can be answered with a 'no.' Still, there's no reason why you can't ask the question and gauge opinions from a diverse group of people on Twitter. Why not?
Trudging further into the cave of Lee Judge's thoughts can be dangerous. In this case, unsurprisingly, the journey leads to horrors:
Any time you can put your name on something saying someone needs to be choked, you really have to. pic.twitter.com/Nsp1kfbOmn— David Lesky (@DBLesky) September 29, 2015
Oh. That's something. If you're playing Jeopardy and the answer is 'man who deserves to be choked' the correct question would probably only be 'who is Adolph Hitler?' But let's take a look at Judge's entire opinion about the deal in the article itself, because context is vital in order to avoid sensationalism and poor journalism.
I don’t know Bryce Harper from Adam, but he certainly seems like a young man who needs an attitude adjustment. Unfortunately he was choked by the wrong guy in the wrong place.
In baseball culture, pitchers — especially relievers — do not get to criticize position players for lack of hustle. Guys like Jonathan Papelbon play every once in a while, guys like Bruce Harper play all the time. So if you spend a fair amount of time sitting in the shade eating popsicles, you don’t get to criticize position players for failing to run out a fly ball.
The second problem was location: if you want to choke Bryce Harper — and I suspect if you played with him, you might — ask him to come up the tunnel and then choke him. You don’t do it in the dugout for everyone in the world to see; you keep that stuff private.
So you can blame either guy for what happened, but you should probably blame both.
Two things should stick out here. First, the text has been edited to say that Harper deserves an attitude adjustment instead of choking. Second, the editorial process for the Kansas City Star probably has room for improvement. Leaving in a phrase whose meaning is 'Bryce Harper deserves to be choked' in the initial publishing of the article as well as leaving in 'Bruce Harper' even after you've edited it post-publish is, ah, not exactly good execution (just like Papelbon's failed execution of Harper, really).
Even with the profoundly incompetent editing, Judge's point comes through clearly. That is this: Harper deserved to be attacked for his actions, but not publicly, and not by the pitcher.
That's an awfully hot take--solar take, more accurately in this situation--and something that, at its face value, is clearly ridiculous. One coworker should not choke another coworker, regardless of situation regardless of the workplace. Furthermore, if this hypothetical event happens, you probably wouldn't blame the victim for it.
Now, Lee Judge is not the brightest bulb. His prose is clear and his writing can be charmingly self-effacing. But Judge has few of his own ideas, instantly deferring to authority while deriding stats and learning with glee. I wrote this about him a few months ago when he gloated about stupid things and attacked the Royals Review community:
Lee, surely you can imagine that some fans who didn't like a deal would be angry. To classify an entire group of fans as a 'dim' group of humanity is somewhat harsh. Nay, very harsh. And here we come to the main objection of your recent work, Lee, and most of your other work for that matter:
You have an obsession with appeals to authority and a resulting arrogant attitude that pervades your writing.
Despite his self-awareness as a fish out of water (he is a political cartoonist by trade), he adopts the frame of reference that, since his sources are all players, coaches, and front office members, he is always right. Nobody is always right. But that's the source of his arrogance.
Predictably, Judge is getting completely skewered by this. Deadspin picked up the article, calling it 'the worst of bad opinions on Bryce Harper,' as well as labeling Judge's opening paragraph (the original one that was edited out) as 'psychopathic.' When Deadspin covers your article in such an extremely negative light, there is no squirming away. In these types of situations, all you can do is own up and apologize.
Yesterday, Judge wrote a rebuttal owning up . . . and doubling down on what he said.
It's a masterful work of idiocy.
That decision has led to a rather "flippant" or "facetious" writing style. (Is it obvious I still use a thesaurus?) So when I said Bryce Harper needed choking I was probably only 97 percent serious. (See? More of that flippant attitude that tends to gets me in trouble with people who like to get their Fruit of the Looms in a twist.)
97%? Whew. That 3% truly makes a difference.
Judge illustrates why Harper is disliked--he's really good, and he's an ass. It's a fair point, as those two things invite dissent. Nobody likes that guy in the workplace. But saying he deserves being attacked for it is the direct equivalent of "but she was wearing provocative clothing, and she's hot."
Then Judge gets into the real reason why this is a problem. Judge isn't specifically it, though he is part of the issue. Judge is a conduit. Granted, he is a conduit that's not funny and refuses to incorporate new information because it's too difficult for him, but he is still only a conduit.
The real problem is the macho, old-school approach where 'playing the right way' involves community-sanctioned violence.
As is Judge's style, he attempts to disarm criticism with poor arguments and deferral to old-school, close-to-the-dirt baseball guys.
If every NFL player who got in a scuffle with a teammate was charged with assault, you couldn’t field a team. And if you’re thinking football is a contact sport and baseball isn’t, you probably haven’t played much baseball.
If Papelbon putting his hands around Harper’s throat was assault — and I’ve seen a third-grader’s birthday party with more actual violence — then what do you call hitting an opponent with a hard object thrown at 97 mph?
Baseball players sometimes throw baseballs at each other, knock over infielders trying to complete double plays, slide into bases spikes up and charge the pitcher’s mound. Like it or not, it’s the way the game is played at the big-league level.
Do you see the quip inference that 'you don't play baseball and therefore don't know anything about it but I do because I talk to people who play baseball' in the second sentence? Fantastic.
But, anyway, Judge's argument in this situation seems to be directed towards the opinion that Papelbon's actions were assault, a felony, crime, or misdemeanor. That's really an argument at nothing--nobody is saying that legal action should be taken towards Papelbon. People get into fights all the time without being convicted of a crime. But it was definitely an assault of Harper.
The substance of his argument is predicated on faulty bedrock. Judge's use of a rhetorical question backfires on him, probably because he doesn't understand how rhetorical questions function in a logical argument. Stripping away format, he's making a simple statement: If A is true, B, which is similar, is also true. Or, to put it another way, A is true because B is true.
Unwittingly, Judge spells it all out for us: if assaulting a teammate is bad, then purposefully throwing a fastball to hit a batter is also bad.
If assaulting a teammate is bad, then sliding spikes-up to injure an opponent is bad.
If assaulting a teammate is bad, charging the mound to physically attack a pitcher is bad.
Traditional baseball says that all of these events are part of the game. Baseball is special, and these types of actions are okeydokey because they are part of the unwritten rulebook. Never mind that the idea of throwing a five-ounce baseball at almost 100 MPH towards a hitter with intent to hit them is utter insanity. Even within the realm of sports, that kind of physical retaliation is heavily penalized. Late hits are called personal fouls in football. Ugly tackles are called yellow cards or red cards in soccer. And in both of those sports, the ugly plays aren't considered to be 'old-school' or 'good' ways to play.
Unfortunately, that's not the way that it happens in baseball. Former pitcher CJ Nitkowski interviewed a dozen former and current baseball players to find out what they thought.
I don’t play the "I played and you didn’t" card unless I think it is warranted; this is clearly a situation where playing experience matters. The clubhouse is like no other place. It’s not like an office, and it’s not like your weekend softball team. Don’t compare a clubhouse to where you work, it’s completely different. But even with my experience I have a checks-and-balances system. It’s easy to lose sight of what the game was like the further you get away from it, so I polled well more than a dozen former and current players I know about what happened Sunday in Washington.Not one fully backed Bryce Harper...
...This is a game that governs itself; it always has and always will.
With respect to Nitkowski and his lack of regard for proper semicolon usage, that is completely ridiculous. Baseball shouldn't get a free pass on what is considered respectful workplace behavior because 'for reasons,' which is as deep as his argument goes.
Craig Calcaterra puts forward a fantastic rebuttal to Nitkowski and the kind of insanity that goes on:
Most of what’s wrong with sports and sports discourse is rooted in the idea that sports have different rules, ethics and implications than all other walks of life. That a clubhouse is 100% different than an office (note Nitkowski’s citation to that). That, in other jobs, people are totally OK with slackers. That there are no other means of policing bad behavior than the way athletes police such behavior. I’ll never claim to know how a baseball clubhouse works or what challenges athletes face — I have no ability to do that at all and never will — but the notion that the world of sports is somehow wholly alien and separate from every other walk of life is an unsupportable conceit and reference to it as nothing more than an appeal to unchallengeable authority.
The problem is bigger than Judge and Nitkowski. The problem is that baseball has insulated itself such that its unwritten rules are above reproach despite their violence and failure to grasp the basics of human ethics.
Last night, I showed my wife, who is not a Kansas City native and became a Royals fan through my influence and the excitement of recent seasons, the Bryce Harper/Jonathan Papelbon video. She was appalled that Papelbon would attempt to choke Harper. I showed her Judge's initial article. She was bewildered that Judge would take such a position advocating choking and violence.
Finally, I showed her Judge's response to the criticisms. She was unmoved by his arguments. Obviously, she said, throwing fastballs at other players is bad, and so are dirty, cleats-up slides (see Lawrie, Brett). She noted Judge's arrogant tone before I even offered my opinions on Judge.
The unwritten rules are terrible more often than not. They promote hazing, violence, and stupidity. Judge's comments were terrible, but they are merely a symptom of a larger disease. There will be more Bryce Harpers. There will be more Jonathan Papelbons. There will be more Lee Judges.
Baseball needs to grow up.