Had Sunday afternoon’s dugout fracas at Nationals Park been a purely isolated incident, it might be easy to shrug it off as one of those unfortunate things that happens every once in awhile in sports. Teammates get into a heated argument, one goes after the other, everybody else rushes in to break it up. This certainly wasn’t the first time that scene has played out, whether in public or private view.
Trouble is, this wasn’t isolated. In hindsight, it kind of feels like it had been brewing for awhile. And worse, the manner in which it was handled — both at that moment and then throughout the rest of the evening — spoke to an even larger problem: The Nationals as an organization are out of touch with reality.
Everyone’s at fault here. Of course it begins with Jonathan Papelbon, who was completely out of bounds in confronting Bryce Harper about a perceived lack of hustle and then in physically attacking his teammate. But it also extends to the Nationals’ clubhouse as a whole lacking in a leader, someone who already would have set a tone for how things should be done.
And then it moves on to Matt Williams, who clearly has to know he’s fighting for his job at this point yet has failed through both his words and actions to display the kind of leadership qualities that would give the front office valid reason to retain him.
But it doesn’t stop there. Keep climbing up the ladder to Mike Rizzo, who made the trade for Papelbon despite obvious red flags that gave just about every outside observer reason to question the deal, and who has too often prioritized individual talent over roster cohesion while building his ballclub.
And then take that final step up to the top, to an ownership group that despite learning many things in its near-decade at the helm still comes across as tone-deaf in matters of both major and minor significance.
Maybe the best word to describe it all is this: Arrogance.
The Nationals have accomplished great things over the last four years. Say what you want about the disappointment of missing the playoffs in both 2013 and 2015, but what qualifies as disappointment around here is 83-to-86 wins. That’s markedly better than any of the franchise’s first six seasons in the District, when the mere notion of a winning record was cause for celebration.
Yet this organization, from top to bottom, too often acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has. The Nationals fly the largest division championship banner in baseball, high above the scoreboard in right-center field. (The 2012 NL East champions banner still resided up there throughout the 2014 season, long after they had ceded the title to the Braves.) They boast no fewer than three highly visible reminders to the world that they’ll be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game, an event that won’t take place for another 34 months. They spent the entire first half of this season playing intentionally annoying slow-jams over the PA system when the opposing team took batting practice, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the rest of the league. They continue to show replay after replay after replay of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS — an admittedly wonderful baseball moment — while completely ignoring what happened only 24 hours later to render that moment a mere footnote.
Rizzo has a sterling track record as a front-office exec, and he single-handedly is responsible more than anybody else for turning a 100-loss joke of an organization into one of baseball’s most-competitive franchises. But he also has let ego get in the way of sound baseball decisions at times, whether in trading away Jerry Blevins for taking the club to arbitration over a $200,000 difference in salaries, in assuming a roster of productive-but-oft-injured veterans would somehow be able to stay in one piece all season or in ignoring the domino effects of acquiring big-name players who would bump popular rank-and-file guys from their roles. Yes, the additions of Max Scherzer, Rafael Soriano, Edwin Jackson and Papelbon made the Nationals’ roster stronger, but what ended up happening to Tanner Roark, John Lannan and Drew Storen (twice) as a result? What message did any of those moves send to the rest of the clubhouse?
Williams, meanwhile, has attempted to maintain a veneer of steadiness throughout his tenure as manager. He refuses to look back, look ahead or put any situation into a larger context. But it’s impossible to do that in reality. Every individual situation fits somehow into the bigger picture. What happened last night does impact what happens tonight and tomorrow. Some wins are bigger than others. Some losses most definitely are worse than others. And a manager has to be able to convey that, to recognize that sometimes you bring in your “eighth-inning guy” to pitch the seventh, that it’s OK (actually, it’s necessary) to acknowledge when you’ve been eliminated from the pennant race and admit how disappointing that is to you.
And above all else, a manager has to understand that when your closer physically attacks a teammate in the dugout, he simply can’t be allowed to take the mound again the next half-inning. No matter the score. No matter how many games back you are. No matter how much of the incident you actually saw with your own eyes or not. If Williams truly didn’t see the full extent of Sunday’s incident, he has no excuse for not getting a full and immediate report from one of his coaches (several were right in the thick of it, separating Papelbon and Harper).
If these last few weeks served as an opportunity for Williams to prove himself worthy of the job, to prove himself the kind of leader Rizzo has believed for more than a decade he would be, he hasn’t come close to making the most of it.
As for Papelbon … well, the short-term answer should be simple. He needs to drop his appeal of his 3-game, MLB-imposed suspension for intentionally throwing at Manny Machado’s head. Now. And then he needs to not appear in any of the Nationals’ four other remaining games this season.
The long-term answer isn’t nearly as simple. The Nationals already were facing a major bullpen overhaul this winter before this incident. Now they have no choice but to consider dumping Papelbon, who is under contract for 2016 and owed $11 million. Trouble is, he still has the same no-trade clause that made it difficult for the Phillies to deal him in the first place. His value obviously has diminished. And $11 million is a whole lotta money to flush down the toilet.
Yet how do the Nationals move forward with Papelbon as part of the equation? Can they really expect to make another run in 2016 with him holding a prominent position, carrying this kind of baggage?
Here may lie the ultimate test of the organization’s aforementioned arrogance. Can Rizzo, Ted Lerner and Co. admit the colossal mistake they made this summer, no matter how much it stings their pride and their bank account?
If so, perhaps it will serve as the first evidence of a franchise truly committed to changing how it operates. No more arrogance. No more bragging. No more inviting derision from the rest of the baseball world.
It’s time for the Nationals to admit they have not accomplished great things yet. They’ve taken plenty of big steps over the last decade. But they haven’t taken the final step. And until they do, they’re just another franchise trying to join the big boys’ club, required to show some much-needed humility for once.