Marching to his own drummer

Jonathan Papelbon : Wild and competitive. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Jonathan Papelbon : Wild and competitive. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff

Phils closer Papelbon, a.k.a. Cinco Ocho, just wants to be the best.

Posted: May 18, 2012

It was raining outside on a recent weekday, so the Phillies pitchers played with their new toys. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Chad Qualls flew tiny remote-controlled airplanes through the clubhouse. Jonathan Papelbon sat at his locker and quietly watched. Then he opened a massive box that contained something called the AR.Drone, a flying quadricopter that retails for $299.99. Everyone stopped looking at the smaller toys.

Papelbon, the man who stipulated his contract include an extra $58 in addition to the guaranteed $50 million, directed the copter with his iPhone as the joystick. He crashed it once and fumbled with a takeoff. Halladay tapped him on the shoulder and asked for the controls.

"This is hard," Papelbon said.

Halladay flew it through the room and buzzed it by unsuspecting players. Papelbon was antsy. He asked for the iPhone. Halladay surrendered it.

Papelbon sent the copter straight ahead. It nearly grazed the clubhouse ceiling. He gracefully lowered it for a soft landing in Laynce Nix's empty chair.

"Look at that!" Papelbon yelled.

This was how the richest reliever in baseball history spent the afternoon following his first defeat as the Phillies closer. Papelbon slipped into a gray T-shirt - the same one he wears every day - with "OUTHUSTLE" emblazoned in bold red letters across his chest. "Just be yourself," he said. He stared at the floor and inspected a box of vitamins and supplements.

"It doesn't matter what I'm doing," he said. "I'm trying to win."

A good feeling

Jonathan Papelbon truly believes he can be the greatest. This is why he is a closer, because closers tend to think whatever they want to think. They concoct alter egos and talk in the third person. They say things that are immortalized by loud headlines like "PAPELBUM!" And then they frame the newspaper page and hang it in their house.

From a distance, Papelbon was the kilt-wearing, beer-spraying bully of a closer who embodies all of the ignorance required for the job. "He's not exactly a charter member of Mensa," Curt Schilling once said. It was not difficult to imagine him spending his entire career in Boston blasting the Dropkick Murphys and fist-pounding bullpen cop Billy Dunn before every save chance. That was a good life; Papelbon, his wife, and two children enjoyed it.

"Whenever I gave him the ball," former Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "it was a good feeling."

Then the Red Sox collapsed in epic fashion, and it all ended on a 90-m.p.h. Papelbon splitter. The Phillies offered $50,000,058 - taking the ultimate risk on a role ridden with volatility across all of baseball - and, suddenly, the good life was easy to leave.

He went to spring training in Clearwater, Fla., and was reserved. In Boston, his former teammates talk about Papelbon and Cinco Ocho, his imagined alter ego, as if they're two different people. That has yet to show.

"That guy is a mess, man" Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "Pap is a great guy, but that Cinco, man, that guy is screwed up. He's a weirdo, man."

Papelbon had never played with any of his current Phillies teammates. They had their preconceived notions from afar.

"I didn't like him," said Qualls, who has since become one of his closest teammates. Shane Victorino loved his Riverdance after the 2007 World Series. "I knew then that this guy was fun," Victorino said. "He's wild. He's outgoing." Catcher Brian Schneider toed the middle. "I thought he was out there a little bit," he said.

Papelbon blasts loud music in a Phillies clubhouse once trademarked by its stoicism, personified by Chase Utley. Rather quickly, with Utley's reduced presence, Papelbon has become one of the room's dominant forces. "He's the kind of guy," Victorino said, "who could go anywhere and be fine because of his personality."

But strip away the villain facade, the kooky dances and the bold statements and what remains is a man with few emotional layers who enjoys duck hunting - and kicking everyone's you-know-what in his quest to be the greatest.

"Of course I can," he said. "There's no doubt. Of course I want to be that guy. I think I can be that guy."

Pipe dream?

"That guy" is Mariano Rivera, the patriarch. Two weeks ago, when Rivera slipped on dirt in Kansas City and destroyed his right knee, Papelbon was lying in an Arlington, Va., hotel room.

"I don't watch a whole lot of TV or ESPN," Papelbon said the next day. "I truly don't watch a whole lot of TV. I just happened to be flicking through the channels and I saw breaking news on the bottom line. I just . . . I did a double take; I'm sure like everyone else did. Like, 'Huh? Wait, what?' "

Papelbon spoke silently then. He often paused to collect his thoughts, and it was a fascinating entrance into his mind. He considers Rivera a friend but does not have his cellphone number. It's more of an appreciation. If Rivera had never existed, maybe teams would rethink the modern bullpen. Maybe Papelbon would have never been lavished with that $50 million.

"He's done phenomenal things for the game and my position," Papelbon said.

Since 2006, Papelbon has 229 saves. So does Rivera. They clashed for years in Boston and New York. Rivera was inspiration for the "PAPELBUM!" headline. Papelbon brazenly suggested he should close the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium instead of Rivera.

"I'm confident in myself, man," Papelbon said recently. "That's it."

When did it start?

"Since I was a kid," he said.

Why?

"That's the way God made me," Papelbon said. "I couldn't tell you, man."

He was the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 30 saves in each of his first six full seasons. Four pitchers - Francisco Rodriguez, Rod Beck, Ugueth Urbina and Robb Nen - had more saves than Papelbon by age 30. Each of them pitched in at least 100 more games than Papelbon.

"I love Pap," Francona said, "but when you're talking about Mariano, you're talking about once in a lifetime. I know Pap aspires to be like Mariano, but he has years and years to go to make that kind of impression."

Papelbon was asked if he can wrap his head around eclipsing Rivera, a pipe dream at best, but also a stated goal.

He says things like, "You start looking ahead, that's when you start getting too far ahead of yourself." But he hung a framed photo of Rivera and him in his Mississippi home. It's autographed by Rivera.

"It scared us"

Half of baseball's 30 teams have changed closers since the start of spring training whether due to injury or ineffectiveness. Ryan Madson, Brian Wilson and Joakim Soria succumbed to Tommy John surgery. Heath Bell was handed $27 million to close in Miami only to lose the job 11 outings into his Marlins career. The list goes on and on.

Papelbon is the highest paid of them all and perhaps the most durable one standing in the wake of Rivera's freak fall.

It wasn't always that way. When Papelbon, then a rookie, threw a pitch Sept. 1, 2006, against Toronto, pain shot through his shoulder. He was diagnosed with a "transient subluxation event," which effectively was a dislocated shoulder.

"It scared us," Francona said.

He was shut down for the season, and Boston's medical officials devised a shoulder strengthening program to adopt that winter. They also decided he should become a starter, because a more stable routine would reduce risk later.

With Theo Epstein as general manager, the Red Sox often sent their top prospects to the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Ala. It's where James Andrews performs Tommy John surgery on the unlucky patients. But Epstein was interested in the biomechanic studies of pitchers' mechanics.

Glenn Fleisig, the research director at ASMI, works with pitchers and coaches to develop best-practice mechanics through their laboratory. Cameras and computers capture every movement in a pitcher's delivery. There is no concrete way to prevent arm injuries - that discovery is baseball's next frontier - and there is no reason to believe starters are more susceptible than relievers. Fleisig called the recent rash of closer injuries "a fluke."

"The best computer out there is the brain in the pitcher's head," Fleisig said. "It's wired to the muscles, ligaments and tendons. It's getting the feedback. The most important thing the pitcher and his coach can do is know his body and listen to his body."

The experiment as a starter lasted five weeks in spring training. Papelbon's brain told him what was right. A dedicated routine before he enters the ninth inning made it reality.

"The first opportunity I got to close in the big leagues, I knew right away," Papelbon said. "That's what I wanted to do."

Everything is competition

First, he won the NCAA tournament pool by a landslide. Then, he started making successful side wagers with other teammates. Finally, one day before a game in Washington, Papelbon picked the odds-on favorite horse to win the Kentucky Derby from a hat and gloated. That was enough. He had no more willing participants.

"Everything is a competition with him," Schneider said. Papelbon once bet Schneider on how to correctly pronounce an opposing player's name.

"He wants to be right all the time," said bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer. He's seen plenty of closers, from the introspective (Brad Lidge), the goofy (Ryan Madson), and the proud (Brett Myers). Papelbon might be in his own universe.

He relishes the cloak of Cinco Ocho. He uses it to hide behind questions or to avoid seriousness when required. "Cinco Ocho wants bragging rights," he said, when asked about facing his former teammates this weekend.

"I think of him as family," Pedroia said. "We miss him."

Sometimes, away from the lights, Papelbon talks. He says fatherhood keeps his life sane. He says he defines nothing, even when so many labels are readily applied.

"There are tons of ways to describe me," Papelbon said. "I mean, I could go on and on. There are a million different things that could describe me. It's hard to say one word."

He has one in mind. He's just not saying it.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @magelb

Staff writer Bob Brookover contributed to this article.

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