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No choke, er, joke: Jonathan Papelbon an early leader in Nationals' clubhouse

VIERA, Fla. -- It’s way too early on a Saturday morning. Inside the Washington Nationals' clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, a bunch of grown men who are used to going to sleep in the wee hours of the morning and waking up in the wee hours of the afternoon pretend they’re not comatose.

In the far corner, veteran infielder Danny Espinosa sits on a stool in front of his locker and strokes his overgrown winter beard. Across from him, in the opposite corner, pitchers Tanner Roark and Blake Treinen engage in an impossibly quiet conversation that sounds like it escaped from the local library. At the long white table on the other side of the room, reliever Shawn Kelley and outfielder Matt den Dekker use plastic utensils to methodically transfer scrambled eggs from paper plates into their mouths.

Sensing the overwhelming need to change the energy, Jonathan Papelbon saunters over to a humble, black plastic cleaning cart with three shelves that sits in the middle of the room. The bottom two shelves are stuffed with spray bottles and various cleaning supplies. On the top shelf is a Sony boom box with a wireless receiver.

“Does this thing work?” Papelbon says to no one in particular.

He moseys back over to his locker, picks up his phone and starts tinkering. A moment later, country music fills the space. It’s loud, but not loud enough. Not for Papelbon. Not for this moment. He leans back to the receiver and cranks it up.

Four measures of twangy power chords, followed by two simple lines of poetry, courtesy of Cole Swindell:

I don’t care that you done me wrong

'Cause I already moved on

The following morning, the scene essentially repeats itself. Only this time, Papelbon dials up Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”

Say this much for the Nationals’ closer: The man knows how to stir the pot.

* * *

Everything about Jonathan Papelbon screams swag.

Just ask Gio Gonzalez, whose spring training locker is located beside Papelbon’s. Says Gonzalez: “When he walks around, there’s a presence.” Which is kind of like saying that when Amy Schumer talks, there’s laughter.

There’s the way that Papelbon struts into the clubhouse on the first day of camp with bro hugs and handshakes for all, preceded by the scent of cologne, rocking designer cowboy boots. The way that, within 60 seconds of entering the room, he simultaneously flaunts both his political views and physique, changing out of a snazzy teal polo and into a simple gray tank top that reads, “Obama can’t contain these guns.” The way that he clowns, telling a mangy-mopped Gonzalez upon arrival that he looks like a cartoon character, then piling on a couple of days later by taping a color printout of Prince Ali from "Aladdin" on the narrow strip of wall that separates Gonzalez’s locker from Papelbon’s. Even the way he enters the game.

These days, every closer has a walkout song. Papelbon’s is “Bout That Life,” by Meek Mill. Although the rapper has become something of a go-to choice for big leaguers lately, Papelbon uses it not because of Meek Mill, but because of Ric Flair, the pro wrestling legend whose voice is sampled in the song’s intro. “When I was a kid, he was the man,” says Papelbon, who’s such a big fan that he bought Flair’s championship belt. Although he’s not planning on keeping the thing in the clubhouse like he did in Philadelphia (“it started getting beat up a little bit”), Papelbon does have a vintage Nature Boy action figure, complete with turquoise shorts and matching boots, that he keeps in his locker wherever he goes, including here in Viera. He claims it’s his inspiration. “When I come into the game and the music’s blaring, it’s like I’m stepping into the ring and I’m Ric Flair. I’m not Dad or anybody,” said the 35-year-old father of two toward the end of last season, when he could be seen palling around the Washington clubhouse with his 5-year-old son, Gunner. “I’m trying to body slam you.”

Like any pro wrestler worth his salt, when things go Papelbon’s way in the arena, he rejoices unapologetically, such as when he recorded the final out of the 2007 ALCS and then proceeded to dance an Irish jig right there on the mound at Fenway Park. When things don’t work out, he has been known to whack out, like when he grabbed his crotch in response to hometown Philly fans who booed him as he walked off the hill after a rough 2014 outing. The gesture resulted in a seven-game suspension, the same length as the ban Papelbon served last fall after choking teammate Bryce Harper.

The sensational September incident with Harper had fans in and around D.C. calling for Papelbon to be traded. Failing that, a flat-out release would’ve been just fine, thanks. Simply eat his $11 million salary for the coming season and move on. Anything to get him out of the nation’s capital and away from the reigning MVP. Or so went the thinking.

After all, Papelbon was the poison pill that spelled the team’s downfall last season. It was his arrival just before the trade deadline, deemed by some to be unnecessary, that bumped incumbent closer Drew Storen into the setup role, sending both the bullpen and the team into a tailspin from which they never recovered. Or so went the thinking.

During the offseason, when Washington flirted with big-name free agents such as Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Darren O'Day, only to whiff on all three, there were whispers that Papelbon and the supposedly combustible clubhouse in D.C. were partly to blame. Or so went the thinking.

Meanwhile, all winter long, GM Mike Rizzo kept telling anyone who would listen that Papelbon was the team’s closer. That he and Harper had talked it out and bygones were bygones. That even though the team was open to the possibility of making a trade, the Nationals would be perfectly content heading to Florida with Papelbon on the roster.

Then a funny thing happened: Papelbon didn’t get traded. He didn’t get released. After a head-spinning, whirlwind makeover in which Washington released four key members of last year’s bullpen, signed four free-agent relievers, and traded Storen to Toronto, it was Papelbon who remained, raising the obvious question: Did the Nationals keep him because they had to, or because they wanted to?

If the first few days of spring training are any indication, it’s the latter.

* * *

On the first official day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, Papelbon was all over Gio Gonzalez. It started at 8 in the morning, when Papelbon blew into the clubhouse and saw that his next-locker neighbor wasn’t there yet. “Somebody call Gio and tell him he’s gotta get his fat ass in here,” said the Nats closer, half joking but half not.

Out on the field two hours later, Papelbon -- who, during workouts, was the captain of a foursome that included Gonzalez and fellow hurlers Stephen Strasburg and Bronson Arroyo -- didn’t let up. During a first-base-coverage drill, when Gonzalez, en route to the bag, yelled a singular “take it” to the fielder, it was Papelbon who reminded him that yelling it once isn’t enough. “Three times,” he said, in a Southern drawl befitting a drill sergeant, as Gonzalez trotted back to the mound. “Take it, take it, take it.”

While Papelbon’s act might not be for everybody, most if not all of this year’s Nationals seem to be buying in, including new manager Dusty Baker. “If he’s doing that it means I don't have to,” says Baker of Papelbon’s policing. "He's a leader. People listen to him." Among his disciples is Gonzalez, who can’t get enough of it either. “I love him,” says the 30-year-old lefty, who first met Papelbon at the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City. “I love him for the fact that he wants to tell you the truth. He doesn’t beat around the bush and he comes at you the right way. He wants the best for you, and he’s gonna bust your tail to make sure you become the ultimate ballplayer. The littlest thing in the world means the biggest thing to him.”

"I love him. I love him for the fact that he wants to tell you the truth. He doesn't beat around the bush and he comes at you the right way. He wants the best for you, and he's gonna bust your tail to make sure you become the ultimate ballplayer. The littlest thing in the world means the biggest thing to him."
Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals pitcher

Of course, it’s precisely that mentality that helped fuel last September’s dugout debacle with Harper, who didn’t run out a pop fly as hard as Papelbon would’ve liked. When he got in Harper’s face, the face of the franchise took exception. And we all know what happened next. The question is, why?

Instead of putting the squeeze play on Harper’s neck for all to see, why didn’t Papelbon handle it like the veteran he is and work it out behind closed doors?

Partly, it’s about how Papelbon was raised. Not back in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but rather in Boston, where in 2005 he cut his big league teeth playing for a boisterous bunch that featured alpha dogs David Ortiz, Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling. “That was a man’s-man’s locker room,” says Arroyo, who was part of that '05 Boston squad. “I wouldn’t have wanted to come up in that locker room as a young guy. I would’ve been terrified to walk into that place, and he wasn’t. He had his chest out and he was like, ‘I’m Jonathan.’” Adds Gonzalez: “He came up in an environment where guys got on your case if you didn’t do something right. He’s an old-school player who’s trying to keep the torch going.” Unfortunately, sometimes the torch burns a little too hot.

* * *

“I can’t go back and rewind the tape,” Papelbon said during a 12-minute media session the day before camp opened in which he apologized to fans for what happened in September, admitted that he was in the wrong, and was about as forthright as anyone could have possibly expected someone with his reputation to be. “I wish I could take it back and go talk it out in a more peaceful way. I don’t know. It just happened. Kind of like when you shake up a bottle and you open the top, it explodes sometimes and you don’t know why.”

Although Papelbon’s response -- and the quietly compelling manner in which it was delivered -- doesn’t justify the outcome, it does offer a glimpse into one of the baseball’s most intriguing characters. A guy who, for the past decade, has been one of the best in the game at doing a job where the prerequisites include a rubber arm, a short memory and chutzpah. According to those who know him, it’s a job that Papelbon has been qualified for since day one.

“The first time he stepped into a big league locker room, he was as comfortable as any rookie’s ever been,” Arroyo says. “He came into the league exactly who he is today and never changed.” What did change was Papelbon’s role.

After making three starts to kick off his career, the 6-foot-4 righty moved to the bullpen, where he has been ever since. Clearly, it’s a gig that suits him, for better or worse. Says Arroyo: “I don’t think you can have a guy out on the mound that pitches the way he does and has as much fire as he does, and not think that there’s a fuse there for a bomb that can go off at some point. You gotta take the good with the bad.”

For what it’s worth, the Nationals have already dealt with the bad. In the two months after he came to D.C. at the trade deadline, Papelbon was suspended for intentionally throwing at Manny Machado, had the Battle Royale with Harper, and worked to a 3.04 ERA that was significantly higher than his career mark (2.35), and almost double what he posted in Philly (1.59).

Now, it’s time for the good. At least that’s what the Nationals are hoping. Because if they’re going to perform as expected and challenge the Mets for NL East bragging rights, they’ll need Papelbon to save more than just games -- they’ll need him to save the choke holds and body slams for the bad guys.