VIERA, Fla. — After walking into the clubhouse for the first time at spring training, Jonathan Papelbon smiled and laughed as he embraced former Boston Red Sox teammate Bronson Arroyo and joked Gio Gonzalez about his haircut.
When he sat down to address grabbing Bryce Harper by the throat late last season, the man who’s still the Washington Nationals‘ closer was straightforward and contrite.
Papelbon expressed remorse and apologized for going after Harper in the dugout during the Nationals’ Sept. 27 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, an outburst that led to the team suspending him for the remainder of the season. He said he patched things up with the reigning National League MVP and already apologized to Harper and the rest of his teammates.
"Me and Bryce, we’re good," Papelbon said Friday in his first interview since being suspended. "I was in the wrong. Should have never went down that way, and I understand that. I had a lot of time this off-season 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."
No one, from Papelbon to Harper to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, is arguing that one player trying to choke another is a good situation. Papelbon attributed it to competition and frustration boiling over.
The altercation happened in the dugout with cameras rolling. Papelbon couldn’t explain why he didn’t try to resolve his problem with Harper in a more peaceful way behind closed doors, but later wished he had.
"I think it was just spur of the moment," Papelbon said. "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."
At the time, it would’ve been just as confounding to imagine Papelbon back in a Washington uniform this season. Papelbon said he didn’t worry much about that over the winter.
It was Rizzo’s job to determine his fate, and ultimately after talking to Papelbon and others he decided to keep the 35-year-old All-Star and traded reliever Drew Storen to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Ben Revere. Even if the incident was no longer a topic internally, fan reaction to Papelbon still being on the team has not been positive.
"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 hold our athletes to a high standard and we realize that at the end of last year we didn’t fulfil 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’s teammates seem to have forgiven him. He hopes results get fans on board with him, too.
"I’m an imperfect person living in an imperfect world," Papelbon said. "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."
First Papelbon has to get on the mound. He expects the grievance he filed against the Nationals for the suspension to get taken care of, and Rizzo doesn’t anticipate it affecting Papelbon’s pitching.
Except for a couple of rough outings, Papelbon’s pitching hasn’t been the issue. He only blew two saves last season, each one in September, and had a 2.13 earned-run average in 59 appearances for the Phillies and Nationals.
"I look at my year as a success," Papelbon said. "The way it ended, I don’t look at that as a success. One of the big things I want to do is come in this spring and put it behind me and show everyone that look, nothing’s bigger than the team. No player’s bigger than the team."
Harper is a biggest piece of the team, though, and Rizzo said he knew the pulse of the clubhouse enough that Papelbon returning wouldn’t be a problem. Citing feedback from former teammates of Papelbon’s, Rizzo said the Nationals "feel he’s no more prone" to another outburst than anyone else.
More than four months after the very public incident, Papelbon isn’t worried about any tension lingering with Harper, either.
"I’m a firm believer that Bryce and my relationship will be better, will be greater because of what happened," he said. "I’ve been in many altercations with my younger brothers, and it’s been great. We’re like brothers."