WASHINGTON — Nationals General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo concluded one of the strangest 24-hour news cycles in Washington baseball history with a press conference Monday addressing Jonathan Papelbon’s suspension.
From Sunday evening, when Papelbon lunged at and grabbed the throat of Harper in the Nationals’ dugout (on live television), to an inning later, when Matt Williams sent Papelbon back into the game, all the way to the explanations and meting out of punishment to both players, the whole thing was weird.
Team officials began sorting through the red tape before Monday’s game, when, after more than an hour delay, Williams addressed the incident for the second time publicly.
One of the manager’s primary objectives was to clarify comments he made immediately following the incident when, asked why he sent Papelbon back into the game in the ninth inning, he explained it was a tie game and “he’s our closer.”
Williams clarified Monday he hadn’t seen the extent of the dust-up as it unfolded, that it was only after the game, after his post-game press conference remarks, when he had a chance to review the footage.
“I was upset, I was appalled,” he said of reviewing the tape. “I think the punishment we’ve announced today fits and reflects the feeling we have about the tolerance of issues such as this, and the standards we hold all of our players and our organization to.”
“We hold our players at a high standard,” Rizzo began his press conference after Monday’s game. “I always brag about the fact that you don’t see our players’ names in the newspaper except in your sports columns. So holding people to higher standards is what we’re all about.”
“Every player acquisition we make, makeup and character are a big portion of the evaluation process,” he said. “And we felt that what happened in the incident in the dugout was unacceptable and we acted accordingly.”
Papelbon was suspended four games by the team for his role as the aggressor in the incident. Paired with an earlier suspension from Major League Baseball, administered for throwing at Manny Machado last week, Papelbon’s season is now over. He will not travel with the team for its final road trip.
Harper was punished, as well, by being left out of the Nats’ lineup for their final home game, denying him the opportunity to take a curtain call in front of Washington fans after an MVP-caliber season.
“Bryce had some accountability in the issue,” Rizzo said. “We felt that to discipline Papelbon the way we did, and not Bryce, was unfair. You could see by the type of discipline that we placed on both players that we thought which was weighed the most, and we felt that they were both equal and equitable ways to handle the situation.”
Harper was asked after Monday’s game what the club expected him to do differently once Papelbon’s hands were on his throat.
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “It’s something that, if you’re in a bar or if you’re in the dugout, or if you’re anywhere, if someone grabs your neck your first reaction is to do what I did, I guess. Like I said, though, it happens in the game, it happens in life and there’s nothing I can do about it now. It’s just what happened.”
“He was held out of the lineup for one game because he was involved in a dugout fight with Jonathan Papelbon,” Rizzo said. “That was the reason he was involved in it and you could see by how we weighted the disciplinary actions that we felt who was more at fault than the other.”
Harper didn’t seem fazed by missing the final home game.
“I think I have three more years at Nats Park, so I think I’m okay,” he said. “Being able to play in front of these fans has been a lot of fun for me. I have three more years to play here and hopefully a lot longer. It’s somewhere I love to play. It’s somewhere I love to be and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Rizzo says the club did its due diligence before acquiring Papelbon at the trade deadline, part of which consisted of speaking to the closer’s former teammates, many from Boston.
“I think for the most part he has fit into the clubhouse culture fine,” he said. “You could ask the players in there. I think they respect what he’s done in the game and the way he prepares and goes about his business, but I’m not going to judge his whole career by this one incident. It was unfortunate and unacceptable, and I think the suspensions says that.”
Rizzo spoke with Papelbon over the phone that day about his forthcoming suspension, noting Papelbon was upset about the disciplinary decision.
“He was upset with the suspension,” Rizzo said. “We discussed about the nature of the incident and how I felt it was an unacceptable way to handle yourself as a Washington National. We parted amicably and I left it with we will see him shortly after the season.”
Papelbon remains under team control through the 2016 season, prompting a reporter to ask whether he will be back with the team next season.
“He’s under contract,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to evaluate every moving part that we have after the season, and we’ll make all those decisions once the final out is made in 2015. ”
Rizzo was also asked whether Williams will return as manager next season, for that matter.
“We’re going to make 2016 decisions after we finish 2015,” he said. “He’s under contract to be the manager next year.”
Rizzo took a subtle jab at local media when asked to assess the job he’s done as general manager of the club this season.
“You know, I could say that the roster we put together in the preseason, we felt it was a strong roster,” he said. “You guys felt it was a strong roster. I think 17 of 18 of you picked us to win the World Series. So I think you guys thought we created ourselves a good, balanced, high-character high-quality lineup.”
“A lot of things went wrong, and when things go wrong, you find out where your deficiencies are,” he added. “And things went wrong quickly, and they went wrong very often, and probably, I would say that looking back at the season, when I look back at it, I’ll probably see some things that I should have done different, that I didn’t do.
“Like I said, everything rolls down from the General Manager and President of Baseball Operations’ office. I take full responsibility for the quality of players that we put on the field. That goes from the 2009 season when I took over to after today’s win.”