Gone from 'other city,' Papelbon embraces new surroundings
Jonathan Papelbon is in the first year of a four-year, $50 million contract
Papelbon starred with the Red Sox for seven years but had a bad last game
Papelbon isn't afraid to speak his mind and even has his own alter ego
WASHINGTON -- Jonathan Papelbon may have left behind his native Nation but as he goes around his new city, he can't help but sense that its friendly people, laid-back feel and sidewalk cafes give it a European flavor.
"Philadelphia has a cool feel to it, man,'' Papelbon says. "It's a vibe that the city produces. It makes you feel like you are in Paris. I've never been to Paris, but I've seen it in a lot of movies. I think [Philadelphia] is going to be a great place to live."
Papelbon, 31, is expecting to be there at least through 2015, which is the length of the $50 million contract he signed with the Phillies in the offseason. Philadelphia certainly has its share of rabid sports fans but they can be tame compared with the often-crazed denizens of Red Sox Nation, whom Papelbon dealt with regularly during seven years in Boston.
"When I walk down the street [in Philadelphia], everyone is nice. They say hi, and then they let you do your business," says Papelbon, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La. "In the other city, the people get up in your face a lot more and want to talk about baseball, the team and how you are going to do. It's more easy-going in Philadelphia.''
"The other city," of course, is Boston, where he pitched from 2005-11 and became a four-time All-Star and the Red Sox's career leader in saves with 219. He converted 88 percent of his save opportunities for the Red Sox and closed out Boston's 2007 World Series championship.
But he will also be remembered as the closer who blew a save in the final game of 2011 to cost the Red Sox a chance to play in the postseason. All Papelbon had to do was keep the Orioles from scoring in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Red Sox would advance to the postseason, and the misery of a terrible September would be forgotten. Papelbon got two strikeouts, and had the then-lowly Orioles down to their last strike. But Baltimore rallied and won 4-3 when Robert Andino's single fell underneath the glove of a sliding Carl Crawford in leftfield.
After the game, in the quiet Red Sox clubhouse, Papelbon stood in one corner and took questions from waves of reporters, but during the offseason, he didn't dwell on it. He jokes that he can't get it out of his mind, but he says that in reality, dealing with tough losses is part of being a closer.
It's a lesson he learned as an AL All-Star teammate of the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera.
"When I asked him for a tip, he told me to have a short memory,'' Papelbon says. "And, when you're pitching against the best hitters in the world, you have to learn how to deal with failure. You are going to get beat. You are not a big league pitcher if you don't get beat once in a while.''
Papelbon was watching TV in his Washington hotel room when news broke that Rivera, 42, will need possible career-ending surgery after injuring his knee going after a fly ball on the warning track during batting practice at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.
"It was heart-breaking man, just heart-breaking,'' Papelbon says. "It was tough. He's the godfather. He made the closer's role what is today. He's amazing. What is it, only one time on the disabled list? He's the reason I am where I am today."
As Papelbon knows, Rivera is far from the only closer to land on the DL this season. In fact, a slew of injuries to closers and the struggles of many others have led some to question the wisdom of how closers are used -- often only when their team has a ninth inning lead and usually for just that single inning -- Papelbon has a ready response for those critics.
"Who is writing that stuff, people who have never played the game?'' he asks.
Papelbon certainly heard his share of criticism for the way Boston's season ended last year. He didn't want his contract negotiations to linger all winter, so he told his agent that he would sign with the first contending team that made him a good offer. He was signed with the Phillies by mid-November.
"I'm glad it was the Phillies, man,'' Papelbon says. "I like the way they play. I never really thought about the money. I was thinking more the team and the opportunity.''
Would have he preferred to return to Boston and make up for the miserable finish in 2011?
Yes and no.
"Every athlete wants to try (to make amends),'' Papelbon said, "But it was time for me to go. All good things must come to an end. So I moved on.''
Terry Francona, his manager with the Red Sox and now an ESPN analyst, said he finds it hard to believe that his time was over in Boston. "I know that as a manager, he's always good to have on your team. But he earned the right to be a free agent, and he got what he was looking for.''
Like Papelbon, what the Phillies are looking for is to make up for a disappointing end to last season, when they won 102 games, the most in the majors, but lost to the eventual world champion Cardinals in the NLDS. This season they have struggled in pursuit of a sixth straight NL East title, currently sitting in last place in the division, five games out of first.
Papelbon has largely done his part, converting his first nine save opportunities and allowing just one run in his first 11 outings. He did, however, take the loss in his most recent appearance, against the Mets on Monday, when he surrendered a three-run homer in the ninth-inning that broke a 2-2 tie and sent Philadelphia to a 5-2 defeat.
Overall, Papelbon has made a smooth transition from the American to the National League, although he had to bone up on his NL knowledge. During games, he sits with bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, who helps Papelbon brush up on NL strategy by talking about everything from scouting reports to double-switches.
"I had forgotten a lot of that stuff,'' Papelbon says. "I like the quickness of the National League games. It's not like you have to sit around for four hours.''
And, Billmeyer says there will be an advantage for Papelbon because it will take NL hitters a long time to get a book on Papelbon's pitching. "That could be an advantage,'' Papelbon says. "I haven't really thought about it like that. I'm just learning the hitters and what I have to do to get them out.''
He's also learning about his new home stadium, cozy Citizen's Bank Park. "You pitch a little different in Philadelphia,'' Papelbon says. "You have to make sure to keep the ball down in the zone. So, I'll throw more splitters and sinkers.''
In his first home appearance, Papelbon gave up a home run to Miami's Austin Kearns. The ball cleared the leftfield fence and landed in a flower bed. Manuel laughed.
"That's how we welcome our new pitchers to the team,'' Manuel told Papelbon.
Manuel doesn't have to worry about his closer's mindset. "He's a character, a real character,'' Manuel says.
Indeed, Papelbon even has an alter ego, the super-competitive Cinco Ocho (Spanish for "58," his jersey number). "He's fearless, ruthless, feared and evil, like a tornado going through a trailer park,'' Papelbon says.
Says Manuel of his new closer, "He has no fear. He wants the ball for every save opportunity.''
Indeed, Papelbon knows the expectations and pressure are high but that's fine with him.
"I live for that,'' he says.
Besides, even if he fails, at least he'll be able to relax at a nice street café.
Mel Antonen, a baseball writer in Washington, D.C., can be heard as an analyst on Sirius-XM Radio.