Here to weigh in on Harper v. Papelbon is my real-life friend and big baseball fan/coach, Wright Way. (It’s a pen name. Get it?)
Note that I disagree with him, but I think it’s important to get this view out there as it doesn’t seem to be commonly shared by Nats fans.
There is a lot to be said for respecting your team, teammates and opponents. Respect on a baseball field is shown in a number of ways, from the way you take the field to the way you play the game. Additionally, respect is earned in as many ways as it’s shown.
One common misconception is the overlap between respect and fear. Many respected players earn the respect they are shown for the way they play the game; conversely some players are feared because of the way they play the game.
Is it possible to be both? Sure. There are current and historical players who have earned and lost respect for various reasons. There are also players who are feared for their capabilities as well as their antics.
Some examples that immediately come to mind are Derek Jeter and Ty Cobb. Both were exceptional ballplayers. Both had wonderful careers that are still doted on to this day. That is where any comparison should end.
Jeter was world class on and off the field. He was respected as well as respectful. He played the game hard every pitch of every inning of every game he participated in.
Cobb was the opposite of everything Jeter stood for. Was he a great player? Absolutely! However, it was how he played the game that kept him alienated from teammates and fans alike. Cobb was most definitely a feared player (especially to anyone covering second on a steal) for reasons far beyond what he was capable of showing in a stat line.
Fast forward to modern day and there are a number of players in the bigs who follow similar paths as those two. Do they play at the same superior level as Jeter and Cobb? Well, that’s to be determined, but when playing in today’s game of constant coverage both on and off the field it’s better to be remembered as a respected player rather than a feared one.
There are quite a few players that come to mind in the modern respected-feared conversation:
Mike Trout — Respected for the the way he plays the game, going hard every play to the point of self-inflicted injury. Feared because of what he can accomplish at the plate. Simply amazing.
Manny Ramirez — Once feared by any opposing pitcher who would face him in October, yet never respected by anyone who wasn’t a teammate, and often times by those who were.
Alex Rodriguez — Typically only feared by pitchers from April through August, and once respected by everyone until the truth of his PED scandal came to light.
Jonathan Papelbon — Now this is a tricky one. Papelbon, once known to throw hard and to be as selfless as any player in Majors, has had a change of heart. After departing from Boston his attitude changed significantly. He was no longer a team guy in Philly, and he alienated teammates and opponents alike. However, he is still and should be a feared opponent, capable of high velocity and not shy about throwing it high-and-tight to anyone he feels deserves it.
Bryce Harper — Another Tricky one. Is Harper respected? Surely by some, fans and teammates alike. Is he feared? Without a doubt. He was quite possibly the best player, statistically speaking, in Major League Baseball this season. But there’s another side to Harper that isn’t shown as much now as it was prior to 2015. It’s his unwillingness to perform when it doesn’t benefit Bryce Harper.
In one recent event the last two guys on that list were intertwined in a respected-feared incident in which they both showed exactly how two players can be a little of each, yet none of either all at the same time. Harper is still a young player who, at this stage in his career, should be doing everything possible to earn the respect of teammates, opponents and fans alike. He already has the fear of the opposition, because he can do it all on a baseball field. We know he can hit baseballs to the moon, we’ve seen his speed in the outfield and on the base paths, and he shows moments of having one of the best arms in baseball. What he doesn’t do, however, is respect anyone who doesn’t worship him.
Harper has been this type of player since he was a teenager in AAU ball. I distinctly remember a 16-year-old Harper berating an umpire over a called strike during a game that, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t a hill of beans. It’s because of actions like that that Harper has a long row to hoe before becoming a respected player in the Majors.
Papelbon is headed in the other direction. Once a force to be reckoned with in late-game situations, he has fallen from grace. He still produces flashes of brilliance, but it’s Papelbon’s well-documented loose screws and cannon of an arm that also leave him feared for the wrong reasons and respected even less. His unrelenting willingness to throw at opposing batters for little to no reason and his reluctance to bond with new teammates leave him alone and not very much appreciated.
One thing must me stated, though, is at this stage in his career Papelbon is very much a veteran and should be treated as such, whether or not you like him, hate him or agree/disagree on his point of view. As a young player (e.g., Harper), when a veteran tries to teach you unwritten rules of the game, your ears should perk up a little.
It could be on how to read an opposing pitcher without stealing signs (this earns you a pitch to the ear on your next at-bat), or the appropriate actions to take when you hit a ball into the parking lot (don’t stare at it; everyone hits one there at some point, keep your head down and run the bases). And if you hit a can o’ corn, run the damn thing out. Are you going to make it to base? Probably not, but be respectful of the pitcher who just out matched you and RUN IT OUT.
And when you fail to abide by these and other rules of the game, a veteran will and very much should call you out on it. The appropriate action of a young player when being called on this type of thing is to acknowledge what was said, nod your head and correct it the next time. The absolute wrong action for a youngster is to spark an argument about it, disrespect the veteran and throw a jab of their own back. Actions like these when spoken, screamed, shouted or yelled to a veteran who is known to be a loose cannon will and should get you CHOKED.
The moral of the story is: Until you have been there for more than a cup of coffee, don’t kick back and put your feet on the desk. You haven’t earned it.