JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) — Jonathan Papelbon remembers being “a 6-foot-4, 170 (pound) string bean” when Tommy Raffo recruited him to Mississippi State two decades ago.
Papelbon shined for the Bulldogs before becoming a six-time All-Star during a 12-year career with three Major League teams. He was recently in town to support Raffo’s program as the featured guest at Arkansas State’s 17th annual Grand Slam Banquet, a key fundraiser for Red Wolves baseball.
Raffo and Papelbon attended the same high school in Jacksonville, Fla. Himself a former Mississippi State baseball player, Raffo was an assistant coach for the Bulldogs when he recruited Papelbon to Starkville.
“I saw him smile when he walked up and it brought back a lot of neat memories, him getting off the plane and watching him and knowing that at 17 years old, he was kind of a baby giraffe,” Raffo, who is starting his 11th season as ASU’s head coach, said The Jonesboro Sun. “He made a big decision in his life to go 10 hours away to school and ended up excelling at a high level at Mississippi State and kind of carried it into pro ball. It’s phenomenal what he’s been able to accomplish. I’m proud of him.”
Papelbon, who pitched in the big leagues from 2005-16, became one of the game’s top closers. He is ninth on the all-time MLB career saves list with 368, including the most for both the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies, and finished with 41 career wins along with a 2.44 earned run average.
Before that, though, Papelbon did everything he could to justify Raffo’s confidence in recruiting him.
“He took me under his wing at Mississippi State and believed in me, and I did everything I could to prove him right, that he was correct in recruiting me,” said Papelbon, who now resides in Hattiesburg, Miss. “Then after that, I go on to my big league career and I do everything I can to just be the best Jonathan Papelbon that I knew how to be.
“Were there ups and downs? Sure. I didn’t do everything the perfect way, but I was me and I never wavered from that. Now that I’m retired and I get to see my kids grow up, it’s a whole different chapter of my life.”
Papelbon had 219 saves during seven seasons with the Red Sox. He was an All-Star four years in a row (2006-09) and never had less than 31 saves in any of his full seasons in Boston.
In 2007, Papelbon had three saves in the World Series as Boston swept Colorado, striking out Ole Miss product Seth Smith for the final out.
“You work since you’re 10, 11, playing baseball to dream of closing out a World Series. You strike out a guy who went to Ole Miss, and I went to Mississippi State,” Papelbon said. “There’s so many feelings that go into that and so much emotion that it’s really hard to explain, and I know it sounds cliche, but once you accomplish that, everything from your childhood dreams, it all just comes right back into your brain. It’s emotional. You don’t really grasp it at first. I’ve grasped more things as I’ve retired now than when I was playing because when you’re playing, you just play and you’re playing every single night.”
While there wasn’t a hitter Papelbon dreaded facing, there was one who could be especially frustrating.
“There was no hitter ever that stepped up to the plate where I was like, ‘Aw man, I’ve got to face this guy again,'” Papelbon said. “Now, were there situations where I said, “Aw, man, I’ve got to throw this guy another pitch?’ Derek Jeter was the king of that. Derek Jeter could purposely foul off pitches just to get you to throw more pitches and get to his pitch.”
Papelbon said baseball is becoming more and more scrutinized with every rule change. He said the Playing Rules Committee has a tough job.
“They’re trying to do everything they can that’s best for the game and for the spectator. Sometimes as a player it’s hard to realize,” Papelbon said. “The whole (pitch) clock deal, what you’re talking about, came into effect because of me, because I would take so much time. I felt like when I entered the game, this is my game, it’s on me, I’m in control. Well, they put a clock on it and the next thing you know, one rule kind of dominoes into another rule and the only thing I can say is the players are just going to have to get used to it. You’re just going to have to adjust.”
Papelbon was a two-time All-Star during four seasons with the Phillies. He spent part of two seasons with the Washington Nationals before being released in August 2016.
Asked about a 2015 dugout altercation with Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Papelbon said it was the culmination of several factors.
“Those things happen because of the environment, because of the pressure,” he said. “I was under a ton of pressure because I was going there and we had to make the playoffs, he’s under a ton of pressure, and sometimes it just spills over.”
His message — everyone has to stick together.
“Everybody in the clubhouse as far as the entire team has to pick each other up,” Papelbon added. “You have to enjoy competition and the seniors, whether or not they’re going to go on to play professionally or this is their last season at a high level of baseball, it’s their team. It’s their team to pick up when they’re down and to keep level-headed when they’re up.”
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Jonesboro Sun.