PHILADELPHIA -- On the face of it, what Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon told Julian Benbow of the Boston Globe before Wednesday night’s game against the Boston Red Sox was an invitation to a public pillorying in the town in which he now plays.
Why, he was asked, would he have said, “I don’t really feel like a Phillie” before he faced his former team, expressing instead an attachment to Boston that sounded as strong as it was when he was still closing games for the Red Sox?
“I've never been embraced here, from day one,” Papelbon said after saving the Phillies’ 4-2 win over the Red Sox, narrowly avoiding catastrophe when Hanley Ramirez’s deep drive to left with the bases loaded in the eighth was caught by left fielder Ben Revere when off the bat it looked like it might be Ramirez’s second grand slam in two games.
You know how you retain an attachment to your hometown, regardless of where you might end up? That’s how Papelbon says he feels about Boston, even though he is beginning his fourth season with the Phillies, a team that put $50 million in his pocket when they signed him to a four-year deal as a free agent, with a $13 million vesting option for 2016.
“It’s the same thing with me,” he said. "I came up in that organization, I was raised in that organization, I was taught how to play baseball in that organization. I was taught how to become a major leaguer in that organization, so that’s why I feel like that’s what my roots are. That’s who I am. If I get lucky enough to make it to the Hall [of Fame] one day, I’ll go in as a Red Sox. That’s who I feel like is the most part of me.”
But wouldn’t it better, someone suggested to Papelbon, that even if he feels that way, that he keep those sentiments to himself, rather than taking the risk of antagonizing the folks paying his salary?
“It’s not antagonizing,” he said. “It's speaking the truth. When I get asked that question, I give you the truth.
“I don’t say anything to piss anybody off, piss the fans off, by any means. I’m honest, you know? I'm a Phillie right now. I play for the Phillies, but there’s a big part of my heart that lies with the Red Sox, you know what I mean?”
Such candor, while generally admirable, would not have spared Papelbon the storm that surely would have followed if Ramirez’s ball had left the yard.
Papelbon smiled. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not. But the ball didn’t leave the yard.”
It was caught in front of the 374-foot sign in left-center by Revere, having failed to navigate through a stiff crosswind on a miserably cold, damp night. Ramirez said he thought it was gone when it left the bat.
“I hit it good, yeah,” he said, “but I hit it a little toward the gap, and when the wind hits that scoreboard, it ricochets back and brings everything back. I can’t control that.”
Papelbon said he never thought the ball was leaving the premises.
“I knew Hanley hit it off the end of the bat a little bit,” he said. "He has such a big swing that it looks like it might go, but I knew as soon as he hit it. You can go back and look at the tape. I said, 'Not tonight.’”
The night instead ended like so many Papelbon enjoyed in Boston, with a fist pump after he struck out Xander Bogaerts to end the game. He has saved all four games in which he has had an opportunity to do so against the Red Sox. In all, he has 107 saves with the Phillies, five short of the club record held by Jose Mesa.
But while it might appear that Papelbon is building up some fond memories here, don’t be fooled. The Phillies have done nothing but lose while he has been here. The team considers his contract an albatross and would love to trade him; he has made little secret of his desire to move on.
“I think with all the losing years I’ve been here, I’m kind of like a scapegoat, you know?” he said. “Because I guess I’m brutally honest.”