The Phillies' closer sauntered into the media room Friday afternoon at Bright House Field wearing a T-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt. He zipped up the hoodie before he took a seat in front of numerous reporters and TV cameras, concealing the T-shirt's two-worded message.
Papelbon caught the eye of a reporter who had seen it, and he smiled.
The shirt read, "Fan Favorite."
"I don't mind it," Papelbon said later. "I'll be the Ric Flair villain."
The T-shirt was funny because Papelbon has had a rocky time in his three seasons in Philadelphia, despite posting 106 saves (seventh most in baseball) and a 2.47 ERA (16th out of 137 qualifying relievers) in that span. He has criticized the organization, expressed his bewilderment at why anybody would want to play on a losing team like the Phillies, and got himself suspended for seven games late last season for making an obscene gesture as he left a game following a blown save at Citizens Bank Park.
Papelbon is not exactly Richie Ashburn in fan circles.
The Phils have tried unsuccessfully to trade Papelbon for almost two years. They will continue to try to trade him during Spring Training, and failing that, they will try to trade him before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Papelbon made no trade demands Friday, nor did he have any harsh words for ownership, the Phillies' front office or coaching staff. He did say, however, he believes Philadelphia can win in 2015 and he will continue to be a positive influence in the clubhouse. (By all accounts, Papelbon has been a positive mentor for the team's young relievers.)
Papelbon refuses to believe the Phils are rebuilding for the future, despite the fact that team president Pat Gillick and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. have said countless times over the past few months that is exactly their plan.
"I still think we can compete," Papelbon said. "Is that crazy for me to think that? You tell me. I'm still not so sold on this entire rebuilding. I know that that's one of the things that myself and some of the veterans that are going to be coming into camp want to probably sit down with Pat, Ruben and Ryno [manager Ryne Sandberg] and say, 'Hey, you know, let's get a little bit better feel on the state of the organization and let's come up with a plan and go one way or the other.' I just think we're kind of in limbo now."
The reality is the Phillies are building for the future, whether Papelbon likes it or not.
In Papelbon's words, he did not come to Philadelphia for that. He signed a four-year, $50 million contract in November 2011, becoming the highest-paid closer in baseball history, because he expected the Phils to compete for a World Series.
Instead, they have not had a winning season since 2011.
"I don't have any regrets at all coming here," Papelbon said. "I get to play in an intense environment every day. I was the highest-paid closer in baseball. Why would I regret any of that? For me, I still have the opportunity to compete every day at a high level. So I don't have any regrets.
"Look, we're all professionals. Not a single one of us are going to sit here and say, 'Oh, we're not out of here. Oh, we're still here and they're rebuilding,' or sit here and complain. I think every single one of us has too much pride, too much fear of failure, too much ego, really, to just lay down. I know I do, so I don't think that's going to happen or we'll see any of that."
But that does not mean Papelbon would not welcome a trade. A big sticking point has been his contract. Papelbon will make $13 million this season, and if he finishes just 48 games this season, his $13 million club option for 2016 automatically vests.
The Phillies must agree to eat the right amount of salary for the right prospect in return.
Papelbon also has a limited no-trade clause. The Phils had talked trade with the Brewers and Blue Jays recently. Papelbon could block a trade to both teams, and there have been multiple reports he would require the club option to be picked up to approve a deal.
Papelbon initially said he would go to a team without requiring the option to be picked up, but he later clarified.
"It depends on where I'm going, what the situation is with that other ballclub, what my situation is here," he said. "The whole equation comes into play. I would go anywhere that wants me. If Philadelphia still wants me and they want me to be a piece of this puzzle and continue to be a leader in this bullpen, I love my chances of staying here and competing. But if Toronto wants me, if Milwaukee wants me, whoever wants me, they're going to get someone who knows how to compete and go play ball and lay it on the line. That's basically what it boils down to for me."
So what are the chances Papelbon is with this team at the end of the season?
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe you can use that Magic 8 Ball that Cliff [Lee] had [Thursday]."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.