Choke’s on them

The Harper-Papelbon fiasco has reduced the Nationals to a laughingstock of a team

Getty Images

There’s a Hal McRae story I think about now. At the end of the 1972 season, McRae was traded (along with Wayne Simpson) from Cincinnati to Kansas City for pitcher Roger Nelson, who had led the American League in WHIP the year before and Richie Scheinblum, who had played in the All-Star Game. The deal made no sense to anyone. Up to that point, McRae had been a utility player, filling in here and there for the ascending Big Red Machine. Everyone was convinced that the Reds had robbed the Royals blind. “We’ve given the Reds another pennant,” Royals general manager Cedric Tallis conceded to the press.

But, quietly, Tallis was one of the shrewdest baseball men of his time, architect of an almost incomparable series of trades that brought in the core of a team that would win the American League West seven times. This was one of his best deals. He’d seen that McRae, while he’d played sparsely during the regular season, had hit .450 in the two World Series he’d played. There was something about McRae, something powerful, that he believed in. And McRae would go on to become one of the best hitters in the team’s history and, probably, the singular leader.

The Royals’ star at the time of the trade was a 24-year-old, loud-talking, big-swinging first baseman named John Mayberry. There are a million fantastic Mayberry stories, but this isn’t about him — OK, maybe one story. In 1974, Big John had his season interrupted for three weeks when he was hit by a Frank Tanana pitch; Tanana was one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the league at the time. Not long after that, as Mayberry tells it, he saw Tanana jogging in the outfield. Big John chased him down (“You better stop running,” he yelled), grabbed him, and threw him up against the outfield wall. “If you ever hit me with another pitch,” he told Tanana. “I will kill you.” Let the record show that Mayberry faced Tanana 36 more times and hit .387, never again getting hit by a pitch.

Mayberry gave everyone on the team a hard time, but especially Hal McRae. This was in the time when American Leaguers and National Leaguers truly did not like each other — you didn’t need homefield advantage then to get players to want to beat each other in the All-Star Game — and McRae came to Kansas City determined to spread the gospel of the Big Red Machine to the Royals. Run everything out. Break up double plays. Never back down. He’d learned his craft from Pete Rose and Tony Perez and Sparky Anderson. Unfortunately, McRae only hit around .230 that first year in Kansas City, and Mayberry let him have it every chance.

“Tell us a little more about National League baseball there, Hal.”

“Awful lot of talk for a .230 hitter, Hal.”

One day on the team bus, Mayberry was really going hard at McRae, who everyone could see was seething. Finally after a long time, Hal McRae looked up at Big John — who was four inches taller and outweighed him by 40 pounds — and said this: “I’ll probably get killed. But here I come.”

And with that, McRae went flying over the seat at Mayberry, and the two went round and round until it was broken up. And from that moment on, Hal McRae was the unquestioned leader of the Kansas City Royals, the force behind the team, the man who gave them their toughness and their fury.

I bring this up because THAT is a family issue. That — on a team bus, away from the public eye, in a private setting — is how people on a team and family can cut through tension and overcome division and reach an understanding. It can be violent. It can be harsh. But it’s family.

What happened Sunday in Washington between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper (and, by extension, GM Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams), well, that was not a family issue. That was not even a dysfunctional family issue. No, that was a PDS — public display of stupidity — and peek into the inner workings of a collective nervous breakdown.

People all around baseball sensed that Mike Rizzo must have had some sort of personal nervous breakdown when he traded for Papelbon at the trade deadline. It was such an odd move, so counter to common sense, that the only way to explain it would be: Panic. The Nationals were everyone’s choice as the best team in the National League when the year began. And even though they were underachieving, well, they were still in first place at the trade deadline, and they had a home-grown closer in Drew Storen who was having a dominant season. Meanwhile Papelbon — the Phillies couldn’t get rid of him. He was having a good year and they STILL couldn’t get rid of him. There was no mystery why. “On the field, I trust him,” one baseball executive told me. “Off the field, I don’t.”

MORE: What should Nats do with Papelbon?

Rizzo’s cockamamie plan was to move Storen into the eighth inning, and this backfired. His plan was to have Papelbon be a traditional one-inning closer, and this backfired. His plan was that the trade would not only solidify the team for the stretch run (backfired) but that it would also give his manager Matt Williams more bullpen options (backfired) and give the Nationals some added fire (backfired) and would make the Nationals more dangerous come the playoffs (REALLY backfired).

At the time, I wrote that it was the worst trade of the year and one of the worst in recent memory. Even then, I badly underestimated the havoc and destruction it would cause. Storen blew up and then hurt himself by hitting a locker. Papelbon hardly pitched at all and when he did pitch he was spotty.

And then last week Papelbon, well, Papelbonned. Early in the week, he hit brilliant young third baseman Manny Machado in the shoulder with a pitch (after almost hitting him in the head earlier in the at-bat) and got himself ejected and, later, suspended and fined. Papelbon denied that he threw at Machado intentionally (Machado had just homered and perhaps not run it out at full speed). He probably thought he was doing some good. Papelbon’s teammate Bryce Harper didn’t seem to go along with the reasoning.

“I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer,” he said. “Walked it off, and somebody hit him. I mean it’s pretty tired. It’s one of those situations where it happens and, I don’t know, I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

You will notice that Machado is “Manny” in this retelling while Papelbon is “somebody.”

Should Harper have publicly called out a teammate like that? Maybe not. But Harper is part of a new generation, one that doesn’t believe you should throw baseballs at people’s head in order to teach them unspoken rules. My daughter just read me this short story, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” about a town where everyone gets together once a year, has a lottery and — not to ruin the ending for you — stones the “winner.” Some of the people in the town tentatively ask, “Um, is this really a good idea?” and “You know, some towns have stopped doing this lottery.” But an old guy grumps that the kids today just don’t get tradition. Papelbon is that guy.

So, you won’t convince me that the Machado incident had nothing to do with Sunday’s main event, where in the eighth inning, Harper flew out to left field. Papelbon decided that Harper did not run out the fly ball quite as hard as he should have (replays suggest Harper was perhaps sluggish out of the box, though this seemed a bizarre time to play hustle police), and he began screaming at Harper. And he kept screaming. And he kept screaming. Harper — the one player who lived up to expectations in this disaster film of a season and who was playing a day game after playing all 12 innings on Saturday when Washington was eliminated from the playoffs — finally turned around and shouted, “Let’s go.” At this point Papelbon pounced, shoved Harper back into the dugout bench and grabbed for his neck before the team jumped in.

MORE: Ugly incident points at Nats’ deeper problems

Then, for reasons Matt Williams still will be explaining to complete strangers after he gets fired in the next week, Harper was pulled but Papelbon was sent out to pitch the ninth inning. He gave up a walk, a homer, a stolen base, another walk and hit a batter before he was finally yanked to the boos of everyone.

Oh yeah, by the way: It was fan appreciation day at Nationals Park.

This was, to paraphrase Bryce Harper himself, a clown show like few we have seen in baseball, and it was made all the better afterward when Williams explained his reasoning for sending Papelbon out to pitch the ninth. “He’s our closer,” he said, quoting Shakespeare.

When the question was clarified — with new emphasis on the words “wait” and “he” and “CHOKED” and “teammate” — Williams elucidated the matter by saying: “He’s our closer.”

Yes, all those people running for president are right: Washington really is broken.

But the craziest part of all — if there can be one craziest part — was how people kept trying to make this sound like the sort of thing that just happens on teams. Just family stuff, you know. Ballplayer stuff. Things that only people in a clubhouse can understand. Papelbon said that he did not expect to get disciplined (“I fought with my brothers, Bryce probably did too,” he said). Williams said that this family issue would be handled privately. Rizzo said, well, nothing — he was nowhere to be found for comment.

And Harper somehow became the adult in the room. Sure, he played along with the whole family thing for a while, until someone asked him if he’d ever fought with a teammate before. Then he could not hold back the obvious. “Usually fighting the other team,” he said.

Yes, that’s how fights usually go. When there are fights within teams that are like families, they are usually behind closed doors and they stay behind closed doors until years later when everyone laughs about them and they serve some positive purpose (clear the air, bring people closer together, get across a message).

But the Nationals are not a family, nothing close. They are a failed experiment, and soon Washington will be broken apart and another team with different players will be built in its place. When Hal McRae went over the seat at John Mayberry, he was saying this: “I will be respected. I will lead this team.” And he did. It’s not at all clear what Papelbon was saying with his choking or what Williams was saying with his bizarre handling of the fight or what Rizzo was saying by making this catastrophic trade in the first place. All that is clear is that there will be changes. Lots and lots of changes. And the sooner the better.