Red Sox manager Terry Francona crossed the lines of decency earlier this week by offhandedly and irresponsibly characterizing Jonathan Papelbon’s comments about the Billy Wagner acquisition as misunderstood by the media partly because he is “not a Rhodes Scholar to begin with.”
Let us disregard for a moment the damning fact that the 28-year-old Papelbon is no longer eligible to obtain the prestigious scholarship, which is awarded to students between the ages of 18 and 24. Leaving aside this key rule, the preparation and application process alone for becoming a Rhodes Scholar is tedious, time-consuming and uber-competitive. It is next to impossible to expect that a top-tier high school athlete, as Papelbon was at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Fla., could have set aside the time required to apply for such an elite academic scholarship.
Worldwide, there have only been roughly 7,000 Rhodes Scholarships doled out over the 100-plus years since the award was established in 1904 after the death of Oxford visionary Cecil Rhodes. By contrast, there are only a few hundred baseball players on planet Earth with the skill set and mental makeup of Jonathan Papelbon.
Sure, out of the 4,000 or so Rhodes Scholars still alive today, there may be a handful who could rear back and throw a fastball in the mid-90s MPH range. But how many of them have the ability to mix in breaking pitches and come into Major League Baseball games to record outs in save situations?
The fact of the matter is that very few Rhodes Scholars would be able to both locate high-velocity fastballs–and throw plus-sliders with the requisite controlled movement–to present a serious challenge to professional hitters because they would have dedicated their formative years to intense intellectual development in pursuit of degree courses at Oxford University.
Moreover, Rhodes studies may not officially begin until after an undergraduate degree is completed. In Papelbon’s case, this means he would not have been eligible to begin his education at Oxford until spring 2003, when he officially matriculated from Mississippi State College (an institution that boasts just one Rhodes Scholarship winner, awarded in 1911). By that time, Pap would have had just about 17 months to complete a Rhodes application before turning 24 years old and losing eligibility. As it were, that year and a half was spent fine-tuning his fastball and developing a slider and change-up while playing for the Red Sox’ Class-A affiliates in Lowell and Sarasota.
Between mandatory team workouts, spring training, the regular season, offseason conditioning, in-season weight work, side sessions, long tossing and maintaining a healthy athlete’s diet, Papelbon would have been lucky to simply read the text of the Rhodes Scholar application, let alone actually fill the thing out and begin studies under the Oxford University degree program–the rigors and geographical limitations of which would have undoubtedly stunted his rapid development into a top pitcher in the Red Sox farm system.
Theoretically, even if Papelbon were to consider playing a sport while studying in Cambridge, England’s baseball equivalent (cricket) could never be seriously viewed as a viable alternative to playing the American past-time. Single at bats in cricket have been known to last several hours and would severely limit Papelbon’s availability to pitch in following matches due to his prior shoulder problems and innings restrictions that have since been imposed on the All-Star closer.
Red Sox players face enough unrealistic pressure from the media and fan base without Francona tightening the vice of scrutiny a few extra notches. OK, so Jonathan Papelbon ain’t no Rhodes Scholar. And he never will be unless Oxford University were to suddenly relax its stringent guidelines for admission. But surely he need not be belittled with these facts any more than Francona need be harassed for never becoming an astronaut.