“They don’t pay me to think. If I’m a thinker, then I’m not a closer. That’s the way I look at it, man.”
— Jonathan Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon is taking his fastball to Philly.

At his best, Jonathan Papelbon always gave the impression of an overgrown kid who couldn’t believe his good luck to be in a major league uniform, throwing fastballs and intimidating hitters for a living. This is the Papelbon I fell in love with, the big kid closing the door in the ninth, being his incredibly goofy self away from the stadium.

I remember driving down 93 South one afternoon during the offseason, listening to Papelbon glowing about a sneaker deal with Reebok. He was beside him, giddy about how the company gave him a bunch of sneakers — for free! When he excitedly asked the radio hosts if they needed a pair, the studio gave way to laughter, and told Papelbon that, no, they didn’t need any free sneakers, but they appreciated the offer.

But my first impression of him was nothing like that. I remember sitting at the bar in Chili’s on a Sunday afternoon after hunting for records at a flea market in Raynham, Mass., watching Papelbon make his debut in a start against the Minnesota Twins. I’d been reading about his progress through Portland and Pawtucket that season, and I knew he’d be given the ball that day.

He pitched well that day, tossing a line that doesn’t seem too striking on paper: 5.1 innings, 4 hits, 3 runs (2 earned), 7 strikeouts. Certainly, for a 24-year-old on his first day, it was promising.

What struck me, though, was his demeanor. He had a stone face on the mound, he didn’t blink as he sent hitters like Shannon Stewart and Luis Rodriguez down by way of the K, as Don Orsillo would say. In the dugout, he glared back towards the diamond, towel draped around his neck, nearly unblinking. This guy had an edge, and he was determined.

I was against it at the time, but it now seems so natural that he would transition to the bullpen. That crazy tension doesn’t last nearly as well stretched out over seven innings as it does compressed into three or four batters.

He spun that tension and energy into the best tenure a closer has ever had in Boston. He was on the mound for big wins, horrible losses, and threw the last out in a World Series winning season. He packed a lot into a little more than six years.

★ ★ ★

This afternoon, word broke that Papelbon had signed with Philadelphia to the tune of $50 million over four years. It was the least surprising baseball event of 2011 so far.

Since at least 2008, Papelbon had openly discussed playing year-to-year in order to set the market for closers. He wasn’t interested in trading money for long-term security, and to their end, the Red Sox seemed even less interested in signing Papelbon to a long-term, over-market deal. The clock has been ticking towards the 2011 offseason for at least four years.

So, free agency has come, and Papelbon is off to the National League, where he’ll try to close out another World Series for a strong team. It’s always sad to see a Red Sock leave, especially one who came up through the system and was such a vital part of a championship club.

But, personally, it’s hard to be too broken up. The Red Sox have lost an exceptional pitcher, but it’s certainly no shock. I’ve been more than prepared for this reality for some time now. I’ve expected it, the way I expect weekends, work days and dinners.

It seems like both the Red Sox and Papelbon have, too.

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