There was a minor hubbub in the baseball universe on March 12—anything qualifies compared to the insufferably boring World Baseball Classic—when ESPN and The Boston Globe, cribbing from an article in Esquire, disclosed that Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was tickled to see Sox slugger/troublemaker Manny Ramirez dispatched to the Dodgers at the trading deadline last season. Breaking the Kremlin-like silence of Boston’s management, Papelbon actually said what most his teammates felt. “It takes just one guy to bring an entire team down, and that’s exactly what was happening… It’s like cancer. That’s what [Ramirez] was. Cancer. He had to go. It sucked, but that was the only scenario that was going to work.”
As it happened, when I got home from work on Thursday the April issue of Esquire had been delivered, and I opened the slimmed-down monthly for the first time in six months. It was just as dreadful as I remembered—Ben Affleck on the cover, a list of “50 Songs Every Man Should Be Listening To” and a really, really stupid short essay, “Who’s a Tough Guy Now” by Stephen Marche. It’s not my intention to burden you with this over-written, insipid first sentence, but what the hell, why not share?
Marche: “The one silver lining to the collapse of the world as we know it, the one bit of bright in all that money sublimating into a dark, putrid smog of despair, is that the era of the douchebag is over.” The writer goes on to say that now Bush is back in Texas, a new kind of Man—he cites Rahm Emanuel—has taken over, and “douchebags” are as dated as Donald Trump. Okay, I’m fairly inured to repetitive Bush-bashing, but since when does a deep recession rid the world of “douchebags”? Just last month I got ripped off by a roofing contractor—during the Obama administration!—and there's no real reason to think the country is suddenly rid of douchebags.
Anyway, the Papelbon story was the hook and that’s why I embarrassed myself into soiling my hands with this awful magazine. I should admit, that as a lifelong Sox fan, “Paps” is my favorite player on the team—followed by Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury—but he’s one obnoxious, cocky player whom I’d undoubtedly hate if he were in the bullpen for another team. I don’t care for showmanship on the mound (or at the plate) and I wince when Papelbon yelps like a caveman after he’s retired the side in the ninth inning and saved a game for the Sox. On the other hand, although I despise the Yankees, it’s hard to think of an athlete with as much grace, stoicism and humility as that team’s future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera.
The story, “Jonathan Papelbon Grinds His Teeth,” by Chris Jones, was more buildup than delivery, and the author, a prize-winning writer from Ottawa, is no threat to legendary sportswriters like Ring Lardner, Red Smith or, today, Tim Marchman. One excerpt and you get the drift of how hard Jones is trying, and failing:
It’s the only time Papelbon excuses himself all afternoon, disappearing down the hallway for five minutes, his voice a muffled echo in the vastness. Ashley finishes giving Parker her bottle; Boss keeps chewing on his toy. When Papelbon returns, there’s no outward sign that he’s just received one of the great phone calls of his life — no smile, no leg jitters, no stealing a peek at Ashley on the couch, Honey, we did it. He doesn’t even deem it worth mentioning. Later that evening, it’s reported that Papelbon has agreed to a one-year, $6.25 million contract to close for the Red Sox, a more than $5 million raise for him and a record for a pitcher in his first arbitration year. That was that phone call. But now, in the moments after, a twenty-eight-year-old man digests the reality that he’s set himself up for life in silence, with an almost impossible serenity. He celebrates, not with his trademark histrionics or with the Dance, but with a tuna-fish sandwich and a can of Diet Mountain Dew. 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.
I’m not a quarter the economist Tim Geithner is, but Jones doesn’t know his dollars from his pesos. Yes, $6.25 million is a lot of money, but how does that “set” Papelbon “up for life”? Consider that the Feds will confiscate a large portion of that sum, add in his agent’s fee (probably about 7.5 percent), his expenses for a trainer, and he’s left with a most pleasing nest egg. Not exactly, as a friend said, “Fuck You money.” And, God forbid—at least if you’re a Sox fan—Paps blows out his arm this season, or suddenly loses his fastball, and next year’s negotiations with Boston’s brass won’t be so cordial. Now, should Papelbon excel for another five-eight years, earn a long-term and lucrative contract, then he might be sort of set up for life. If, of course, his financial advisers don’t steer him into bad investments and he doesn’t live beyond his considerable means. Some athletes are smart and canny with their money—Ty Cobb became extraordinarily wealthy after his illustrious and infamous career—but there are more examples of sports superstars pissing it all away.
None of which is my concern. I just hope Papelbon continues to dominate as a closer in the next decade, help the Sox win one or two more World Series and then, hey, see you at old-timer’s day.