Keith Strudler: Brothers In Arms
Anyone who listens to this commentary regularly, and I say thank you, knows that I have two sons, currently aged 5 and 8. And more than anything, they like to fight with each other. They fight over pretty much anything. Yesterday they fought over a game of war. They often fight over Pokemon cards, which I still don't fully understand. Sometimes they fight out of mere habit or proximity. It starts as a hug and turns into a wrestling match. If you have kids, you likely know what I mean.
So it resonated when Washington Nationals superstar outfielder Bryce Harper referred to pitcher Jonathan Papelbon as his brother. Harper did that to explain, or at least contextualize the dugout skirmish between himself and the feisty newcomer to the Nats pitching rotation, who's already like family. See, Papelbon didn't like the way Harper ran out, or didn't run out a fly ball. And, as brothers are want to do, Papelbon let him know just that when he got back to the dugout. Words were exchanged, challenges were made, and next thing you know, Papelbon has Washington's best player by the neck in the dugout.
It hardly escalated from there. As it usually goes in sports, teammates broke up the skirmish long before it amounted to much. No punches were thrown, no one lost a tooth, no tears were shed. Relatively speaking, that would be a pretty calm morning in my house. And to be honest, it didn't seem like Harper wanted to tango anyway, a reminder that bluster is sometimes just that -- especially in the ego driven posturing that constitute sports.
The two made up, publicly at least, in post-game media interviews. Harper sat out the last inning of the game, while Papelbon returned to the field -- to the grand pleasure of the Phillies, who lit him up like a blow torch. And that will be his final stanza, as collectively the league and his own team have suspended him through the rest of the season -- a season where the Nationals have underperformed even the the most pessimistic outlook. So your final memory of Jonathan Papelbon is choking the team's meal ticket before throwing a series of meatballs down the plate.
Surprisingly or not, depending on your perspective and likely your age, the majority in the baseball world seem to support Papelbon in this almost fight. The reasoning goes that players need to hustle all time, and if they don't, it's up to veterans to teach this ethos to the youngsters, even those that generate money like a mint. This process is what keeps the game in order and ensures it's not overrun with spoiled brats. So even if Papelbon is a bully and a jerk, at least he's not a diva. He'll make sure the game stays the same. And if baseball fans care about one thing, they care about the historical integrity of the sport that feels even older than it is. It's not clear if younger athletes, and fans for that matter, might side more with the greener, more robust Harper.
But really, the question isn't young vs old, or even sprint vs jog on an obvious out. This isn't about how baseball is supposed to be played -- although if you ask me, it should be played more quickly. This is about how teammates regard each other, and what that means anyway. In NFL training camps, coaches tend to laud skirmishes in practice, since, as the narrative goes, it brings them closer together. They bond not on their collective politeness, but rather their aggressive conflict resolution. There may be some credence to that. There's nothing harder to understand, for example, than a married couple that never argues. As far as I'm concerned, than how in the world are you supposed to communication with your partner? And no offense to my wife, of course.
But there's a difference between a lovers quarrel and an all out brawl. Arguing is one thing. Choking is another. While you can get your point across either way, one's a whole lot more constructive. And more legal.
Right now, the Washington Nationals are still brothers even if Papelbon is in time out. I'd say it's in his, Bryce Harper's, and everyone's best interest to find ways to communicate that keeps hands on their own body. They may be brothers, but for now at least, they better stop acting like family.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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