Visitors to the Fenway Park press box are greeted at the door by several massive photographs commemorating the Red Sox’ World Series championship teams.
Featured prominently in two of those shots is Jonathan Papelbon, who returns to Fenway this week for the first time as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
It feels like more than just two years ago that Papelbon was closing games out for the Red Sox, the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” ushering him in from the bullpen. During his time in Boston, Papelbon was, for lack of a better word, a beast. His staggering physical gifts made him a nightmare for opposing hitters, and his furious competitiveness and boundless enthusiasm made him a rock star in a city that idolizes its sports heroes.
Surrounded by a gaggle of media members in the visitors’ dugout prior to first pitch Monday evening, Papelbon described how it felt to return to the city where he began his career.
“It’s an absolute thrill,” he said. “To be here, to play in this park again and to hopefully get on the mound here and pitch. This is one of my all-time favorite mounds to pitch off of, and obviously the crowd will be intense tonight.”
Given the circumstances of his departure (after the disastrous 2011 season) and the fact that National League baseball is not covered extensively in these parts, many forget just how good Papelbon was for the Red Sox. Of his six full seasons in Boston, Papelbon earned All-Star nods in five of them. He’s the only pitcher in Red Sox history to record 20 saves in two different seasons — a feat he has now accomplished seven years in a row. He holds the all-time club record with 219 saves and, of course, converted all three of his save opportunities in the 2007 World Series, including the clincher in Game 4.
Even Red Sox manager John Farrell, who served as Boston’s pitching coach during Papelbon’s tenure, was effusive in his praise of the former Sox closer.
“People recognize Pap as the closer, but you’re talking about an exceptional athlete that can channel that adrenaline and that emotion into controlling his fastball,” Farrell said during his pregame news conference on Monday. “When you see his ability to command a mid-90s fastball to the locations that he does for as long as he has … he’s a rare, rare pitcher.”
Papelbon is a rare pitcher, one of the few closers that has shown the ability to remain at the top of his game at a demanding position that typically has a very short shelf life for players (injuries have forced this year’s edition of the Red Sox, for example, to employ three different closers already). If he does happen to take the mound at Fenway against his former team, he should be welcomed back as such.
“Hopefully I’ll be received well, but I also accept the fact that I might not [be],” Papelbon said. “Hopefully the fans will understand that what I did here was come here and help win. That’s the only thing I really wanted to do here, and hopefully they’ll understand that when I was here, that’s all I really wanted to do.
“If they don’t, I’ll understand. I’ll welcome it with open arms.”
A save situation never arose in Monday night’s 8-3 Red Sox win, meaning Papelbon’s only role in the game was that of a bullpen supporter. But judging by the crowd’s reaction to a video montage of some of the hurler’s greatest hits shown on the video board early in the night, after which fans continued to cheer until Papelbon gave a wave of recognition from the dugout, Boston is ready to welcome him back.