The Dysfunction in Washington Kinda Makes Me Think of the Cubs in 2004

Evan, you have control of the board.

I’ll take 8-Letter Words for two thousand, Alex.

This is a sense of unrest brought about by the devolution of a preseason World Series favorite into an incendiary chemical spill of a team.

What is Natitude?

On July 30th, the Washington Nationals had a 76.8% chance to win the NL East and an 80.1% chance to make the playoffs. Just two days prior, they had traded for premier closer and charismatic dude-bro Jonathan Papelbon to hold down games in which premier outfielder and equally charismatic dude-bro Bryce Harper had given them leads. By the end of August, the Nats had a 6.5% to win the East and a 7.3% shot at the playoffs. They completely flat-lined this past Friday. It’s Dude, that’s pretty bad, bro.

I’m not inside the clubhouse to know what’s going on in there, but I’m guessing grizzled old-schooler Matt Williams hasn’t been encouraging guys to share their feelings. So it didn’t really surprise me when frustrations came to a head in the dugout when Pap took umbrage with the way Harper lazily ran out a pop-up in the bottom of the 8th.

I’m a really bad lip-reader and Papelbon’s back is to the camera, but I think Harper’s saying something like:

Shut the bleep up. I’ll bleepin’ bleep you up. You wanna go? Come at me!

Well, the closer came at him all right. But maybe it wasn’t really the heated exchange we all thought we saw. Maybe the two noted characters were just sharing strategy through a boisterous game of charades.

Harper: Sorry bro! You deserve bleeping better than that! Bleep me and my dogging it, man. You gotta bleeping pick me up, bro!

Papelbon: You know I got your back, bro. Thinkin’ I’m gonna just head out there and, you know…(performs choking gesture on Harper).

Harper (muffled): Bro, don’t muss the coiffure.

Papelbon (between heavy breaths): Sorry, chief, I know that’s a trademark. It’s totally on fleek though, kid.

Harper: For reals? Thanks, man, that means a lot coming from you. I’m gonna let the bros pull me away now. Good talk. You were just playin’ about that choking part though, right?

Papelbon (under his breath, almost unintelligible, but sadness still apparent in his voice): Bros for life.

And then, true to his (fake) word, choke he did. After striking out Brian Bogusevic to open the 9th, Papelbon walked Freddy Galvis and then gave up the go-ahead home run to Andres Blanco. The next batter reached on an error and Papelbon walked a man and induced a fly out before hitting the last batter he would face. So maybe he had showed his red ass because he knew he would poop the bed. Or maybe he figured it was going to be too overcast for many of us to see the blood moon later in the evening.

Listen, I’m not here to assign or absolve blame for the incident in any way. Personally, I think both guys were in the wrong: Harper for being a bit of an entitled loaf and for publicly calling his closer out the other day, and Papelbon for lighting his star hitter up both verbally and physically in clear view of the cameras. There’s a time and place for this stuff* and it’s not in front of the cameras, as CJ Nitkowski lays out in his post on Just A Bit Outside.

It seems to me that most of the reaction has been colored by peoples’ preconceived notions of the players involved, which is to be expected. Harper is definitely a darling of the blog and social media sets but isn’t always appreciated by the newspaper and box score crowd. The opposite is largely true for Papelbon. While I’m firmly entrenched in the former camp, I’m choosing to stay largely neutral on this, other to say that it’s something that shouldn’t have happened, especially not where those of us without access to the clubhouse could see it.

I was really more interested in what this dust-up says about the general environment in DC. Does seeing the above incident remind you of any Cubs teams of the past? Some of you might think of the little kerfuffle between Carlos Zambrano and Derrek Lee in June of 2010 after the former accused the latter of not going all-out for a hard grounder. That little event in and of itself is pretty similar to what we saw in DC: star pitcher vs. star hitter, perceived laziness, fake baseball fighting. But in terms of the pervasive sense of disappointment and the physical manifestation of players’ frustration, the Nats are the 2004 Cubs.

There’s really no need to re-hash the whole boombox-smashing and premature walk-out that led to Sammy Sosa becoming a pariah, but that’s what came to mind for me when I watched video above. A lot of ego under a lot of pressure from a lot of unrealized expectations. I think I know how Nats fans are feeling right now. My memories of 2004 have been largely wiped away, but some ghosted images remain like grape juice stains on cheap counter tops. And until they come up with a psychological version of Bar Keepers Friend, it’s going to have to stay that way.

People love to talk about the Cubs and their century-plus of futility and whatever other unoriginal digs they regurgitate, but the truth is that most of those seasons didn’t hurt because of expectations. I can’t think of too many years the Cubs actually disappointed me; the pain typically came from them doing exactly what I thought they were going to do. After finally seeing the Cubs win a playoff series in ’03, the following season was really supposed to be kind of a coronation.

Alas, the closing month or so of that season was just about as enjoyable as having a pre-cancerous mole on my back removed. Easy to joke about now, but it kinda sucked at the time. The Nats are in a much better position now than the Cubs were then, though. Sosa was the clear star and primary offensive force for his team at the age of 35. Harper won’t turn 23 until he’s watching this year’s version of the Cubs play for the National League pennant. And since music is pretty much all digital these days, the clubhouse attendants in DC won’t have to clean up the shattered remnants of a gutted ghetto blaster.

Maybe at some point down the road, fans around the Beltway can look back at this waste of a season and laugh about it. I’ve got to imagine there’ll be quite a bit of fallout from all this, though. And I don’t just mean this one incident. We’ve already seen Max Scherzer yelling at Williams and refusing to leave the game, and it appears to me from my arm’s-length observation that he’s basically lost his team. Whether that’s the case or not, he’s a very convenient scapegoat for the wet fart masquerading as baseball in our nation’s capital.

I’m just glad I can write about this mess by comparing someone else’s team to a past version of mine. Chemistry is one subject this version of the Cubs has passed with flying colors and that’s not something we should ever take for granted. It’s easy to look back now, but I think at least a few of us have been saying all season that Joe Maddon’s value to the team has been greatest during the slumps they’ve encountered. He keeps them loose and prevents them from pressing, or worse, from allowing frustrations to build between teammates.

So basically, the Nats just need to hire Joe Maddon, which we know isn’t going to happen. The Cubs took care of their issues with Sosa by trading him away, so perhaps Washington would like to do the same. You think Mike Rizzo would like to add a few redundant infielders? It’s a pipe dream, I know, but sometimes those are the best kind. Of course, 95 wins and a playoff spot was a pipe dream for the Cubs too.


*Not advocating violence or endorsing all of Nitkowski’s views, but rather looking at the heated discussion of issues between teammates taking place behind closed doors.

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