VIERA, Fla. - Jonathan Papelbon knew his first appearance in the Nationals’ spring training clubhouse, plus his first appearance with reporters, since his final-week suspension last September was going to be his first - and best - opportunity to make amends for the event that led to his premature trip home to Mississippi.
So over the course of 10 minutes in the locker room with teammates Friday afternoon and then 12 minutes seated behind a table in the makeshift news conference room at Space Coast Stadium, the Nationals’ volatile closer made sure he covered every base necessary toward (he hopes) putting this entire matter behind him.
A contrite Papelbon took full responsibility for the Sept. 27 dugout fracas he initiated with eventual National League MVP Bryce Harper and then went out of his way to work on making amends with fans who appear to be having a tougher time forgiving him than his teammates.
“I’ve apologized to him,” Papelbon said, referring to Harper. “I’ve apologized to my teammates. I want to apologize to the fans and the coaches and everyone included. I think that with what happened last year, I was in the wrong. Should have never went down that way, and I understand that. I had a lot of time this offseason to reflect on that. I’ve had three months to think about it. I’ve done a lot of reflecting, and I think sometimes in life, good things can come out of bad situations.”
If anyone wondered whether Papelbon could adequately address the situation that came to define - for better or worse - the Nationals’ chaotic 2015 season, he did just about everything possible to alleviate those concerns during a lengthy session with reporters that came across as nothing but sincere.
Papelbon, who opened the session promising to answer as many questions as needed while making it clear he wouldn’t address this topic again in the future, offered reflections on the choking incident itself, the week-long suspension he served after it, his offseason conversations with Harper, new manager Dusty Baker and others, and the challenge he still faces trying to win back fans.
“I think the fans will see from me that I play with a great deal of pride,” Papelbon said. “And with that pride comes ... I’m not a perfect human being. I’m an imperfect person living in an imperfect world. I don’t claim to be (perfect). So for me, I realize that what I did was wrong. And the fans see that. And I see that. But my whole point is that good can come of this. I can redirect this, and we can go out and win 95 games this season and go into the playoffs and be hot and go win a world championship still. That does not deter from that.”
Asked about the dugout incident in which he chastised Harper for not running hard on a routine fly ball, then grabbed the star right fielder by the neck and slammed him against the bench, Papelbon expressed regret.
“I wish I could take it back and go talk it out in a more peaceful way,” he said. “I don’t know, it just happened. Kind of like when you shake up a bottle and you open up the top, it explodes sometimes and you don’t know why. I don’t know why. That’s a tough question.”
Papelbon did apologize to Harper and the entire Nationals clubhouse after that game. He was suspended four games by the team the following day for his role in the incident, then also waived his appeal of another three-game Major League Baseball-imposed suspension for intentionally throwing at Orioles third baseman Manny Machado’s head the previous week.
It was an abrupt and unceremonious end to an eventful season for Papelbon, who was traded from Philadelphia to Washington in late July, successfully converted his first 23 save opportunities before giving up nine runs over his final 8 2/3 innings and then watched from home as the rest of the club played out the string.
“I was just with my family, more or less, at that point, trying to be with them and be around my support group,” he said. “My family’s my No. 1 support group. It was a tough time, probably one of the toughest points of my career.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo felt like the matter was closed at that point, confident after talking to players that Papelbon would be welcomed back in 2016. He did field trade offers from other clubs over the winter but insists he only would have made a deal if presented with a proposal that made baseball sense.
(Rizzo did wind up trading popular reliever Drew Storen, who was bumped from the closer’s role following the Papelbon trade, to the Blue Jays for center fielder Ben Revere.)
“I think that the fan base has to trust that we’re doing what’s best for the baseball team, both in the clubhouse chemistry-wise and for performance on the field,” Rizzo said. “We felt that the deal that we made for Drew was a deal that we couldn’t pass up. We thought that deal fit all the needs that we were looking to acquire in a trade. You have to give a good player to get a good player, and we thought that was a good baseball trade.
“What I would expect of the fan base is to judge our performance on and off the field. We hold our athletes to a high standard, and we realize that at the end of last year we didn’t fulfill those standards. But we feel that this is a team that we give second chances to, and we feel that we’re very comfortable with the fact that Pap’s on the club and he’s embraced by his teammates.”
Papelbon said he never really thought about the possibility of being traded or released. The players’ association did file a grievance on his behalf over the team-issued suspension; a hearing with MLB officials has not yet taken place.
Harper reached out to Papelbon shortly after the season ended, and the two emerged insisting there was no lingering issue between them. Papelbon also spoke over the winter with Baker, who is confident his veteran closer is ready to go do his job without further incident.
“We had a long conversation,” Baker said. “He’s excited. He’s very excited.”
When he strolled into the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse after taking his physical Friday, Papelbon had a wide grin on his face and immediately embraced teammates, cracking jokes and looking very much at ease with his situation.
He insists this matter is closed. His teammates insist the matter is closed. His manager and GM say likewise. Now he faces the final hurdle: winning back fans while trying to help lead the Nationals to a level of success previously unattained.
“I didn’t feel like I got to say and apologize the way I wanted to apologize to the fans and everyone the way I wanted to last year,” Papelbon said. “Because I think the fans will see that I come here for one reason: I came here to bring a championship to a city that’s never had a championship. And that’s my No. 1 goal. That’s the No. 1 thing that I want to do this year. To be a part of an equation that has a team that’s great. To me, that’s the ultimate satisfaction.”