CLEARWATER, Fla. — He sat there in his bright red Phillies cap, talking about “putting his years in Boston behind me.” Heh-heh-heh-heh. Yeah, good luck on that.
Oh, sure, one of these days this spring, Jonathan Papelbon may be able to put his years in Boston in the rearview mirror. But not on this day. No chance.
Saturday in Clearwater was Day 1 for Papelbon as a Phillie, the day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, dreaming about the road to glory they all hope lies ahead. But the new closer in town only had so much time to dream.
He spent 22 minutes of his day time-traveling through a press gathering at a makeshift podium at Bright House Field. Hard as he’d try to steer the conversation into the present and future, his old media buddies from New England kept forcing him to U-turn into the past. So backward into that past he went.
There was the final day of last season to revisit, for instance. No ignoring that.
One minute, he was standing on a mound in Baltimore that night, with two outs in the ninth, nobody on and two consecutive strikeout victims grumbling in the dugout. The next, a baseball was dropping in left field, the winning run was scoring, the Red Sox season was about to end and so was Jonathan Papelbon’s career in Boston.
He was asked how much he thinks about that final pitch, on that final day.
“Every day, all day,” he deadpanned.
But that was pure sarcasm — a man who has answered way too many of these questions through the years, teasing the guy who had just asked it by dangling the answer he knew his audience wanted to hear.
And then yanking it back out of the air to deliver The Truth.
“I don’t think about it at all, man,” he said, seconds later. “You know, when I was a rookie and I made my first All-Star team, I had a chance to talk with [Mariano Rivera] about what’s the biggest thing that’s going to make me successful in this game. And his first answer was, ‘Short-term memory.’
“So you’ve got to be able to learn from those situations,” he said. “But man, I don’t sit there and think about it all spring. I mean, you go over things, and you’ve got to learn from them. But you’ve got to be able to turn the page.”
On this day, though, there were too many pages strewn all around him to get every one of them turned. There were too many memories that had to be relived. And some of them, frankly, Jonathan Papelbon still WANTED to relive — like the “lifelong friends” he left behind in Boston.
At one point, he paid homage to the newly retired Tim Wakefield and the about-to-be-retired Jason Varitek, saying they were the two veteran sages who once taught him “how to respect the game of baseball.”
At another point, he stroked his old bullpen tag-team partner, Daniel Bard, predicting Bard would make a smooth transition to the Red Sox rotation because “Daniel can do whatever he wants to do. He’s that good.”
But when the conversation turned to the controversy that still swirls around the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox, Papelbon was in no mood to support the theory that not all of his ex-teammates were as committed to excellence as he was.
“I like pressure. Yeahhhhh. That’s what makes me tick, man.”
— Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon
“I know that everybody’s had their own opinion about that situation and what went on there,” he said. “But nobody really truly knows what was truly going on. And I don’t really truly know, because I’m worried about myself and doing my own job.
“But you know, just because a team struggles or somebody struggles doesn’t mean they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I’ve always said that when you win, it cures everything. But when you lose there’s got to be a reason why you lose.
“But is that why we lost? No,” he said, emphatically. “That’s not why we lost, because of what went on in the clubhouse. That has nothing to do with it.”
There was a certain irony to this part of the conversation, though. And that irony was this:
If you play the word-association game these days and utter the phrase “Red Sox clubhouse,” the word most likely to come back is: “dysfunctional.” So how ironic is it that Jonathan Papelbon made it clear Saturday that what attracted him to playing in Philadelphia — aside from $50 million, that is — was that he was looking for a clubhouse as similar as possible to the place he had spent his entire career?
“The biggest thing that I recognized,” he said, “in this clubhouse and on the field as well, is that, from the past three or four years, playing against the Phillies as a baseball player, you know those teams that had that good close-knit [bond], and they go out and they go to war every night and grind together. You recognize those things when you play against teams, and you see that. So I had a good feeling about what it would be like.”
He also has a feeling he knows what the fans of Philadelphia will be like, because seven seasons in Fenway Park have trained him well. And he has no fear of them, either.
Not everyone is wired to pitch in towns that can be as insane as Boston and Philly. But as an executive from one of his former American League rivals admitted about this man the other day, “One thing you have to say for Papelbon is that he never takes the easy way out. He goes to just another pressure cooker — after being in the ultimate pressure cooker in Boston.”
“I like pressure,” he said Saturday. “Yeahhhhh. That’s what makes me tick, man. So I’m excited. Pitching in this environment is an environment that I enjoy.”
In fact, he said, he was specifically looking last winter for a place that he considered to be as intense as Boston. So where exactly would that have been if the Phillies hadn’t been interested? Caracas maybe?
“Definitely, a big [part of the] decision for me was to go to a spot I felt that I could thrive in,” he said. “And as [the people in Boston] well know, these are the types of situations I like to pitch in and thrive in.”
Before you tell him to be careful what he wishes for, however, there was one more indication Saturday that this is a guy who feeds on the joys of a pounding heartbeat: He even said he’ll miss those six series a year against the Yankees. Seriously.
“Those are series where you elevate your game,” he said, with thorough conviction, “and you see how good you can be.”
But hang on here. Just because he’ll miss that Bronx adrenalin rush doesn’t mean Papelbon isn’t aware that facing a whole new set of hitters, in a whole new division in a whole new league, figures to be the best thing that ever happened to his career.
The AL-to-NL effect on pitchers and their well-being is now well-documented. But think about the impact on a closer who has spent his entire career pitching in the toughest division in baseball. Has anyone ever attempted to measure that?
Jonathan Papelbon has faced Derek Jeter 29 times in his career. He’s faced Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira 20 times apiece — and Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson another 19 plate appearances apiece. That’s 107 duels with just those five hitters on ONE team.
You think Papelbon isn’t stoked about putting THAT behind him? Think again. Heck, Chipper Jones has only faced him twice. David Wright has only batted against him once. Hanley Ramirez has never seen him. Not once.
“Am I excited about that? No question,” Papelbon said. “To be honest with you, there were really some days where it got kind of old, sitting there saying, ‘OK, I’ve got to face Jeter again. He’s seen everything I’ve got. I’ve seen everything he’s got.’ And that’s why I say it brings a little bit of life to me this year, being in a new clubhouse and being able to face new guys and play the game of baseball in a National League way.”
It was tough not to notice the smile on his face as he looked over that horizon into a fresh new future. But those years in Boston have taught Jonathan Papelbon that the only way to keep life simple at times like this is to try to stay locked in on the present.
“If I can just go one day at a time right now,” he said, “I know it sounds clichéd, but that’s what I have to do to stay focused on my job at hand and being able to go out there every day and do my job.
“But,” he said, with a gleam in his eye, as his past, present and future converged, “I do know when we play the Red Sox.”
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, “Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies,” was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter @jaysonst.
Stark: Papelbon steered back to Boston
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