Sixteen-plus years ago (wow, I’m old), I was the Opening Day starter for my Pony league baseball team (an honor, I know). My team was matched up against my best friend’s team. We were both the best player on our respective teams, and the trash talk had been flowing for weeks leading up to the game. In the first inning, my friend Sean came to the plate and we stared each other down. He singled sharply off me and did not hide his elation as he ran down the line to first. This obviously riled little ten-year-old me up quite a bit. Two innings later, my friend strode back up to the plate with a little extra swagger. Two straight fastballs whizzed behind him. I knew what I was doing. I eventually got the strikeout as my friend’s knees turned to Jell-o, and we ironed out our differences the next day at school.
This brings me to two players who are not best friends — Manny Machado and Jonathan Papelbon. They are also not ten years old, but sometimes you do wonder. Papelbon is a soon-to-be 35-year-old, six-time All-Star, but his mindset on the mound is not far removed from that of a ten-year-old.
If you’ve somehow been out of the loop the past few days, let me provide a little context. With two outs in the top of the seventh inning on Wednesday night, Manny Machado absolutely unloaded on a 98 MPH, 2-2 fastball from Max Scherzer. For Machado, it was a special home run. It was his 30th of the season and gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead over the Nationals. The home run also came two innings after Machado was rung up on a fastball right down the pipe as he attempted to call time.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the way Machado rounded the bases. He did not bat flip or David Ortiz his way to first base. Machado barely paused to admire his blast. He pointed skyward while approaching home plate as is customary for many players in the league. As Machado approached the dugout, it was evident that he was fired up, and he celebrated the go-ahead home run with his teammates.
Apparently, none of this sat well with Papelbon who threw not one, but two pitches in the vicinity of Machado’s head in the ninth inning.
After the game, Machado called the act cowardly. Bryce Harper called it “tired,” and expected to be hit the next game. The Orioles handled the situation with class, and surprisingly Harper was not beaned in yesterday’s contest. Machado’s beaning comes less than two weeks after Chris Davis was beaned in the midst of a ten-run eruption against the Kansas City Royals.
Unfortunately, despite many of the advances made in the game of baseball, it is far too commonplace to see a pitcher dispense some misguided form of vigilante justice as he or his team gets smacked around. Holding a baseball with the ability to throw it 95 MPH wherever one so desires, it is far too easy to seek revenge when an immature, me-first attitude takes over. Many of the players on the field were never forced to grow up, constantly passed along in a state of suspended maturation thanks to their obvious athletic talents. Certainly, this characterization applies to only a tiny minority of professional baseball players, but a few bad apples spoil the entire bunch.
Let’s try and go inside the head of Papelbon (the guy who once received a seven-game suspension for crotch-grabbing in Philadelphia) as he stared down Machado. The former World Series champion came to Washington with the hopes of adding another ring to his collection. He’s not going to get it this year, and probably won’t get it next year. At the Trade Deadline, Papelbon could have forced a trade to either the Chicago Cubs or the Toronto Blue Jays if he really wanted to. Instead, he hitched his horse to the wrong wagon, and hasn’t even pitched all that well while riding said wrong wagon. Frustration emanates from his pores.
When you throw at an opponent’s head, it becomes all about you. This was not some sort of retaliation for a perceived slight. Papelbon was not taking up the cause of a teammate who had been wrongfully plunked. He was taking out frustration on the best available target — the guy who had just hit the go-ahead home run. If the Orioles really wanted to, they could have fired back at Harper in Thursday’s game. Harper, not Papelbon, would have been on the receiving end of a fastball to the ribs.
When I threw at my friend, I knew what I was doing, but I was a child, without a fully developed moral compass. It is painfully obvious that many professional baseball players have not moved on from this stage of life. Playing the game with a little fire is perfectly acceptable, but what occurred on Wednesday night in Washington is not. Papelbon will be suspended or fined for what he did, but it will hardly have an effect. His actions are still viewed by many as just a part of the game. Violating any one of 25 “unwritten rules” (or more, it’s hard to keep track because they are held in such secrecy) can get you a fastball to the back. Throwing at someone is an accepted and defensible practice in certain situations. Someone is going to get injured — severely — and it will forever be a black stain upon the game.
I faced my friend several more times over the course of our baseball careers, never throwing at him intentionally again. I had learned that a baseball is not a weapon to be used to extract revenge or release frustration. I knew this by the age of 12. Somehow, in nearly 35 years of life, Jonathan Papelbon has not learned the same thing. There are teachable moments every day of our lives, and this is a big one for Major League Baseball. Papelbon must be made an example. There is no place on a baseball field, be it Pony league or big league, for this type of behavior.