March 12, 2009


Jonathan Papelbon Grinds His Teeth: You would, too, if you had his strength and intensity and unguarded rage. But now that he has a big contract to go with that rage, will the Boston Red Sox closer still be able to summon it? (Chris Jones, Esquire)

Jonathan Papelbon has a few days left before his summer begins, before he becomes the character in a comic book. He has a few days left to summon the rage.

It will threaten everything around and about him, including his teeth. It will surface when he makes his annual drive to spring training, his mid-February blood rite. He will throw a bag with his gloves and cleats into his trunk and turn out his driveway; Ashley will be safely removed in the car behind him with Parker and the dog. Except for a brief pit stop in Jacksonville to see his parents, he will spend the next fourteen hours listening to Metallica, to Tupac, full blast. “Sometimes, I’ll roll down my windows and just start yelling,” he says. He will feel his heart begin to flutter, and his eyes begin to pulse, and he will begin grinding his teeth, peeling back the enamel in layers. “I’m going to have them down to the gums pretty soon,” he says. “But I’m willing to sacrifice my teeth for this game.” By the time Papelbon arrives in Fort Myers, Florida, he will be fully gone under, a man possessed. He will start sleeping badly, and he will sometimes not even see the hitter he’s trying to murder — won’t even register who’s at the plate — and he will feel the tension take hold in his spine and neck muscles and crawl up the back of his skull. That’s when the headaches will come.

The Red Sox, like interventionists, have tried to protect him from the burdens of being Papelbon. Two years ago, they decided to make him a starting pitcher, after he nearly threw his shoulder out of its socket during his rookie season in 2006, and so he could take vacations from himself, three or four nights off between the frenzies. They also offered him the number 21, Roger Clemens’s old number, because they thought the favorable comparison might help Papelbon take to the idea. But the role didn’t sit right with him, and neither did the number. He kept 58, the nobody’s number that had been randomly assigned to him by the clubhouse attendant, just another rookie destined to flame out. That’s the sort of slight that motivates him. Hate is gas. Before spring was over, he had asked to be returned to his cage beyond the outfield fence.

Failing there, the Red Sox tried next to fit him with a mouth guard to cut down on the gnashing, but Papelbon decided it didn’t feel right, either. He chose the headaches. The mouth guard didn’t dull the rage; it trapped it, and Jonathan Papelbon is the sort of man who would be doomed without release. He needs outlets. He needs winter.

Papelbon needed this winter especially. It came one series too soon, after the Red Sox lost the American League Championship Series to the Tampa Bay Rays in seven games. “I’m not afraid to call that what it was: a failure,” he says — but he was relieved for the exit all the same. “I came down here as soon as I could,” he says. “This is where all the hot air gets let out of the balloon.” By his measure, it took about a month, most of November, before he could feel his jaw unclench, before he felt almost human again.

Even by Papelbon’s standards, his summer had been hotter than most. After he and the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series in four games — after he had thrown the final pitch past Colorado’s Seth Smith and squatted and screamed like an angry sumo wrestler, after he had worn a box on his head and broken out his pseudo-Irish jig on the field, after he had confessed shortly thereafter that Boss had nosed out the winning baseball and eaten it — he emerged as the latest Boston folk hero, a lightning rod in a city that attracts black clouds. Papelbon found himself at the center of a season-long storm. It reached one of its peaks at the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, when he let it be known that he felt he deserved to close the game — never mind that the hosting Yankees had a pretty good closer of their own in Mariano Rivera.

“That was really just my competitive nature coming out,” he says. “I understand all about paying dues, I really do, but if I went there and I told everybody I didn’t want the ball, who’s going to want to have that guy on their team? I don’t think I said anything that crazy. If I pitched anywhere but Boston, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.” Except that he does pitch in Boston, and it was a big deal. papelbum! read the headline in the next day’s Daily News (Papelbon had it framed), and something as benign as the pregame parade became a horror show. Ashley, then pregnant with Parker, heard death threats yelled at her, and Papelbon is so enraged by the memory that today, months later, the new millionaire eating a tuna-fish sandwich turns crimson. “I should never have taken Ash to that damn parade,” he says.

Suddenly, it’s as though his last days of cool have passed in an instant, a memory having done something even the offer of millions of dollars couldn’t: After months of dormancy, Papelbon’s pilot light is once again naked and aflame. There’s something about him that’s strangely open that way, even vulnerable, as though his nervous system runs on the surface of his skin. He has no defense. In this age of athletes-turned-automatons, he remains unguarded enough to admit that his dog ate a million-dollar baseball and then wonder why everyone made such a fuss. (“The worst thing is, he ate another one,” Papelbon says, almost as an aside. “The one we clinched the American League with. I was like, Boss, what did you do?”) Curt Schilling famously suggested Papelbon was stupid — “not exactly a charter member of Mensa,” was how the Red Sox Republican nominee for president described his teammate to Sports Illustrated — but Papelbon’s not stupid. He just hasn’t acquired professional mechanisms, an understanding of consequence: He says all the dumb things most of us probably think but keep back. [...]

He is less a vessel, more a conduit: Everything that goes in has to find its way out.

Witness Papelbon’s take on last summer’s Manny Ramirez drama — the endless cycle of love and hate that culminated in Ramirez being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in July — unedited: “The beautiful thing about our team is, we don’t let anybody get above the team. He wasn’t on the same train as the rest of us.” And here Papelbon starts banging his kitchen table for emphasis, the punctuation marks in his sentences changing: “He was on a different train! And you saw what happened with that. We got rid of him, and we moved on without him. That comes from the manager, and it comes from guys like Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield and David Ortiz. Nobody is ever going to be allowed to do that. Even a guy like me, just heading into my fourth year in the big leagues — if David Ortiz gets a little, you know — I’ll tell him what’s up! I’m not afraid to do that. I’m not afraid to put him in his place, because I think everybody needs that. And if somebody does it to me, I understand that. I most certainly understand that. Varitek tells me all the time, ‘Just shut up. Do what you’re supposed to do.’ So Manny was tough for us. You have somebody like him, you know at any point in the ball game, he can dictate the outcome of the game. And for him not to be on the same page as the rest of the team was a killer, man! It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that’s exactly what was happening. Once we saw that, we weren’t afraid to get rid of him. It’s like cancer. That’s what he was. Cancer. He had to go. It sucked, but that was the only scenario that was going to work. That was it for us. And after, you could feel it in the air in the clubhouse. We got Jason Bay — Johnny Ballgame, plays the game right, plays through broken knees, runs out every ground ball — and it was like a breath of fresh air, man! Awesome! No question.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 12, 2009 12:29 PM
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