The participants could not have been more perfectly selected. Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper have always been uniformed Rorschach tests, inkblots that allow you to explain how you feel about baseball. You probably formed opinions about them after watching them play for 15 seconds, and they've only became more calcified over time.
Papelbon is pure id, someone who grabs his crotch or your throat because the chemicals in his brain told him to, and his ego and superego like to take naps under the desk.
Harper is pure arrogance, but it's an entirely justified arrogance. If he thinks he's better than everyone, it's because he is better than everyone. That's either the most acceptable or unacceptable kind of arrogance. Your call.
On Sunday, one of them tried to choke the other one for not running hard.
Here's the offense, the unwritten rule that was broken. Are you ready? Get the kids out of the room.
You've seen players do that in just about every baseball game you've ever watched. It's a four-step process: outcome, disgust, realization that they need to make a token effort, token effort. Some players do it more than others and Harper's disgust lasts two beats longer than normal. In a tie game, on the kind of ball that has been dropped before and will be dropped again, a hitter should probably put himself in position to take second base if the ball is booted.
On the other hand, there isn't a manager in the world who would want Bryce Harper to run that pop-up out like he's trying to score from first on a single, especially not from a player who's already dealt with wonky knees and hamstrings. Not only that, but teammates and opponents might even think it would be a sign of arrogance to run that hard on an obvious out. Pete Rose wasn't booed in every opposing ballpark because of his haircut. He was booed because his maniacal style of playing stood out.
So there's a fine line between running it out and running it out. Don't do the first one, and you're breaking an unwritten rule. Do the latter, and you're breaking an unwritten rule. Two innings earlier, Clint Robinson popped out to the second baseman. He jogged to first.
No one in the ballpark had a problem with it. The difference is that he didn't stop for those two beats that Harper did. So that's the unwritten rule, then. Start jogging earlier. Don't stand for a second and then jog. Make that token effort immediately.
If that distinction seems silly to you, that's because it is. Baseball is an unwritten legislative session with unwritten congressmen yelling over each other and making the laws up as they go along. Before Sunday's game, I'll guarantee you that Papelbon had never quantified how quickly a hitter needs to start his token jog.
That's the secret, though: This isn't about jogging to first. It's about Bryce Harper being better at baseball than everyone else. It's about Harper being talented from the very beginning of the play. Robinson doesn't expect to hit a home run in every at-bat, so when he pops the ball up, he starts that token jog right away.
Harper expects a home run. He's a T-1000 that's been programmed to hit home runs in every at-bat, and I'm not sure if there's been a moment since he was six or seven years old when he didn't expect to be the best baseball player on the planet one day.
Harper was shaped and formed to be that player, his entire life dedicated to that end result, and guess what? He's here. He's it. So when he missed his pitch, he sulked for a second, and then he did what normal hitters are supposed to do.
C.J. Nitkowski, a former major leaguer and current Fox Sports columnist, wrote that it's impossible for fans to understand what it's like in a clubhouse. It's an easy point to concede. Fans have no idea what it's like to work in a testosterone farm in close quarters, under physically strenuous conditions, for months and months and months, traveling, traveling, traveling and hardly ever getting a day off. We should be reminded of just how surreal and inapplicable that lifestyle really is to us.
The you-don't-know-what-it's-like card can be played everywhere, though. With Harper's unspeakable talent comes privilege and attention and resentment and perks and pressures. It's impossible for most players to understand what it's like to be the guy, the star, the lightning rod, the cover of the media guide, the MVP, the best player in the majors, the scapegoat if everything goes wrong. It's a position that a few dozen people have held in the history of the sport.
Those players are different. They're not like you, they're not like me and they're certainly not like other baseball players, which can piss the regular players off something fierce. Managers don't approach their superstars in situations that would get utility players in trouble. Superstars have their agents wonder openly about an innings limit. Superstars eventually get a recliner in the clubhouse, or maybe they get two lockers, side by side. More is asked of them. More is given to them.
One of the major leaguers that Nitkowski talked to said as much:
As much as I hate to say it, Albert (Pujols), Papi (David Ortiz) and Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) have earned the right not to run out every ball. Partly age, respect and risk of injury. Harper is 22, he hasn't earned it.
Like Harper should have a punch card that he gets clipped with every at-bat. When he fills it up, he gets to trade it in for a free sandwich or the right to jog up the line. That's just weird. And he didn't forge a filled-up punch card in an attempt to get out of working hard or shagging fly balls. He turned it in early so he could stand at home plate for two extra seconds to be disgusted with himself.
The you-don't-know-what-it's-like card can be played with Papelbon, too. His job description is to grunt and throw as hard as he can in five percent of every other game. He's never had a plate appearance as a professional baseball player. He has no idea what it's like to be an outfielder with soggy legs in Game 154, at the end of a game in which he's hit into a double play and just missed a home run. Mark DeRosa said as much, pointing out just how different closers are from the rest of the team. There's no way that Papelbon looks anything other than lousy in this.
This is only about the unwritten rules of running out a pop fly, mind you, not about how Papelbon responded. There are written rules about choking people.
Don't choke people.
Yeah, that's the one. And those written rules are taken pretty seriously. We don't need to get into those.
No, this is about being upset with Harper's effort in the first place, with those extra two seconds of disappointment. He gets those two seconds. He's earned it by being better than everyone else. They're coming from his own unrealistic expectations of himself, and those unrealistic expectations are powering his stunning, unrealistic season. Harper is above your stupid unwritten rules, at least in this case.
In conclusion, Jonathan Papelbon looks like this:
Like Bobby Flay's DNA was spliced with Moose from the Archie comics. It's an unwritten rule that I take the other guy's side almost every single time. Sorry.
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SB Nation video archives: Baseball's unwritten rules (2013)