Five months after his dugout altercation with Bryce Harper, which resulted in a four-game suspension that, combined with a three-game suspension handed down by MLB for a hit-by-pitch up high on Manny Machado, brought an end his eleventh season as a major league reliever, Washington Nationals' closer Jonathan Papelbon met with reporters on Friday after arriving at Viera, Florida's Space Coast Stadium for the start Spring Training.
Before fielding questions from the media, the 35-year-old closer expressed a desire to move on from the ugly incident with his then-22-year-old teammate.
"Let me first start off by saying, I will sit here as long as you guys want, if it's all day, and I will answer any questions you guys want to ask me about last year or anything along those lines, but as soon as we are finished here today," he said, "I'm not talking about it again, I'm going to move on and prepare for my season."
As heard in audio provided by the Washington Nationals, Papelbon was contrite and apologetic to Harper, the Nationals, fans in the nation's capital, Mike Rizzo and the Nats owners, even as he struggled at times to explain how what happened happened.
Rizzo too spoke to reporters and explained the decision to bring the closer back even after Papelbon challenged and throttled the player who would go on to win the National League MVP.
He stressed the fact that inside the clubhouse and within the organization, they had all moved on from the incident and were looking to put it behind them.
"I think with the team, with the clubhouse and with the two players it was done at the time," Rizzo explained.
"Now there was the offseason that we had to consider and there was the fan base that we had to consider," he said.
"So we were, [Papelbon] and I were, in contact quite a bit and had a lot of discussions on how he felt and kind of took it from there and we're looking now to put 2015 in the rear view mirror and look forward to 2016."
Rizzo reportedly listed to offers for Papelbon this winter, but didn't trade the veteran reliever, though he did end up trading Drew Storen, who was bumped from the closer's role following July's deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
One year of team control of Storen and cash went to the Toronto Blue Jays in return for two years of team control of outfielder Ben Revere and a player to be named later.
Rizzo said he never considered dumping or unloading Papelbon to get him off the Nationals' roster, and never considered accepting a deal just for the sake of making a trade to move the reliever.
"I never considered, as you call, 'dumping him' or 'unloading him', no," he told a reporter who asked.
"We always consider if there's a baseball trade to be made, as we've shown with the Drew Storen [trade] -- same thing went for [Papelbon] -- we would consider it, but we weren't going to unload him. He's a National and we support all our players and we had a lot of conversations with him from the end of last season through the offseason and I know how he felt and he expressed his regret [about] the situation and that type of thing. He's a veteran player who has had a lot of success and his teammates like him and he's a winner and we need winning players on the club."
What, Rizzo was asked, should fans think of the fact that Storen was dealt and Papelbon is returning?
"I think that the fan base has to trust that we're doing what's best for the baseball team and both in the clubhouse, chemistry-wise and for performance on the field," Rizzo said.
"And like I said, we felt that the deal we made for Drew, was a deal that we couldn't pass up. We thought that deal fit all the needs that we were looking to acquire in a trade. And you have to give a good player to get a good player and we thought that was a good baseball trade."
"What I would is expect," he continued, "is [for] the fan base to judge our performance on and off the field. We hold our athletes to a high standard and we realize that at the end of last year we didn't fulfill 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 [Papelbon] is on the club and he's embraced by his teammates."
He said he thought the closer could still work with the rest of the Nationals and fit in with the team without any further issues.
"I got the pulse, I'm around the team a lot, so I've got the pulse of the clubhouse fairly good, so I knew the feelings of the players, feelings of ownership and took into account the feelings of the fans and we felt like we were going to do what's best of the ballclub and we think we did," Rizzo said.
Papelbon told reporters that he never thought too much about whether or not he would be back with the Nationals this season after he saved seven of nine opportunities for Washington following the pre-deadline deal and 24 of 26 overall on the year, finishing the season with a 2.13 ERA, a 3.70 FIP, 12 walks (1.71 BB/9) and 56 Ks (7.96 K/9) in 63 ⅓ IP in a 0.4 fWAR campaign.
"I didn't really think about that a whole lot," he said of the possibility he might not be back. "I didn't. I just let it unfold the way it's going to unfold. I didn't worry about it."
Asked if he was worried about fan reaction or winning over the fans in the nation's capital after a rough end to the season, he said he hoped he would show them what he's really about from the mound.
"I think the fans will see from me that I play with a great deal of pride," Papelbon said.
"And with that pride -- I'm not a perfect human being. I'm an imperfect person living in an imperfect world. I don't claim to be. For me, I realize that what I did was wrong and the fans see that and I see that, but my whole point is good can come of this and I can redirect this and we can go out and win 95 games this year and go into the playoffs and be hot and go win a world championship still, that does not deter from that."
Harper, as reported earlier this winter, did reach out to Papelbon after the season was over. Papelbon apologized then and did again today, to Harper, to his coaches and to Nationals fans.
"Me and Bryce, we're good. Like we've both said. I've apologized to him, I've apologized to my teammates and I want to apologize to the fans and the coaches and everyone included and I think that with what happened last year, you know, I was in the wrong, and it should have never went down that way and I understand that and I've had a lot of time this offseason to reflect on that. I've had three months to think about it, so I've done a lot of reflecting and I think sometimes in life, good things can come out of bad situations and so I've been in contact with Bryce and 'J-Dub' [Jayson Werth] and [Max] Scherzer and all these guys and I think the main goal is to know that everybody here has each other's backs.
"We're all a band of brothers and I think that nobody was happy the way the season ended last year and nobody is happy about what transpired in the dugout that day but we all understand each other, we all get each other and we're all the best competitors in this game of baseball that you can ask for.
"I love playing on the same field as Bryce. I love playing on the same field as J-Dub, Scherzer, all these guys. And so, when it all boils down to it, we're all different and competitive in our own nature and I think in my situation it just spilled over to frustration and a bunch of different things, but like I said, I didn't feel like I got to say and apologize the way I wanted to apologize to the fans and to everyone else that I wanted to last year, because I think the fans will see that I come here for one reason, I came here to bring a championship to a city that's never had a championship. That's my no.1 goal. That's the no.1 thing that I want to do this year and to be a part of an equation that has a team that's great and to me that's the ultimate satisfaction. That's the no.1 goal and I don't think going into this year, nothing has changed. None of that has changed because of what happened with me and Bryce last year. I'm a firm believer that Bryce and my relationship will be greater and will be better because of what happened. I've been in many altercations with my younger brothers and it's been great. We're like brothers."
[ed. note - "Papelbon clearly forgot the 1924 World Series. Sorry, Senators."]
An obvious question for Rizzo, considering the incident wasn't the first hot-headed moment of Papelbon's career, was how he could be confident that it would not happen again?
"We do all our due diligence whenever we bring a player into the organization," Rizzo said.
"We did a lot of due diligence when we brought Pap into the fold. We talked to his teammates in Boston and in Philly and players who knew him around the league and found no teammate that has a bad thing to say about him.
"He's a good teammate that wants to win and gives 110% every time. We feel that, as we brought him in we looked deeply into his career as far as how he fits into the clubhouse and we were extremely satisfied with what we found."
So he's not concerned?
"To me, these things happen," Rizzo said .
"If you've been in this game long enough, they've happened. They've happened to me as a player. They've happened to me as a front office executive with other teams. They happen quite a bit behind closed doors and we feel that he's no more prone to having this happen [again] than anybody else."
Papelbon didn't have an explanation for how things boiled over that day and why he didn't approach things differently, behind the scenes if he thought there was really an issue worth discussing, but definitely not in the dugout, in front of cameras and a good portion of the crowd in Nationals Park and definitely not physically.
"I think it was just spur of the moment," he said. "I can't go back and rewind the tape, you know what I mean. I did what I did and like I said, I wish I could take it back and go talk it out like you said, in a more peaceful way, but I don't know.
"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 -- I don't know why. It's a tough question, man."