We are constantly being drilled with the idea that pro sports exist to teach us something instructive about our lives.
If we try hard enough, practise diligently enough and care deeply enough, we too may get to that promised land of professional and personal contentment.
Most of this is a lie. Professional athletes are where they are in large part because they were gifted by genetics. You can’t will yourself to be 6-foot-9, or become a 275-pound man who moves like an antelope through rigorous calisthenics.
It’s also a lie because many of the few who do aren’t particularly contented. In a locker room, every guy around you is potentially one of the Joneses.
Years ago, I did a Proustian questionnaire with the Blue Jays during spring training. One of the set-ups was, “If you had to live with one teammate, who would it be and why?”
Then first baseman Lyle Overbay, a lovely, easy-going man, looked around the room and said, “Vernon [Wells].”
“Because Vernon’s rich,” Overbay said.
I laughed. He didn’t. Because he was serious.
At the time, Overbay was making US$6.75-million a year.
Wells, who’d signed a US$126-million extension, was the only person in the clubhouse who could make a guy making 135 times the average wage feel working-class. And clearly did.
Now that was instructive. Rather than bring us up to their impossible performance level, it was a useful reminder that, emotionally, athletes still live down with the rest of us. Money and fame don’t change the basic calculus of human desire – that the minimum of what you want is whatever your next-door neighbour has.
That brings us to Canada’s most Canadian athlete: Joey Votto.
On Tuesday, in the midst of a wide-ranging podcast interview with U.S. journalists, Votto was invited to say something treacly about B.C. native James Paxton’s recent no-hitter in Toronto.
This wasn’t a softball question. It was a gigantic soap bubble. You say, “I’m really happy for him,” and move on.
Votto unexpectedly rounded on it, his voice growing harder as he went on.
“As far as Toronto and Canadian baseball and the country of Canada and [Paxton] being Canadian, I don’t care at all,” Votto said, in part. “[Paxton] or the Jays or Canada in general may disagree with that, but I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass about that.”
“Canada in general”? How did we get from a well-pitched ball game to lighting your passport on fire on the street in front of the embassy?
The usual script in these sorts of things is that the pitchforks get pulled out of the hall closet and everyone sets out grimly for another day of reputational pillage.
But this was baseball’s Captain Canuck freaking out at a flag-raising. This didn’t make any sense at all. Most of the reactions boiled down to a sad, “Et tu, Joey?”
Since Canada is the world leader in just one resource – apologizing – Votto was out quickly with his.
But this was a different sort of sporting mea culpa than we are used to.
Earlier on Tuesday, baseball had treated us to another example of the wrong sort of apology – the shifty apology, the light-on-believable-facts apology.
When Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano was hit with an 80-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drug, a notorious masking agent, he blamed it on an unidentified Dominican doctor and treatment for “a medical ailment.”
Because all hundred-million-dollar human corporations are rolling into the local GP’s office in the off-season and swallowing whatever they’re given for a rumbly tummy.
Votto’s apology was that true rarity – one that not only showed contrition, but also made sense. He said that in the moment he was thinking about the national teams he hadn’t made, and the time the Jays didn’t draft him.
He expanded on that idea throughout Wednesday, going on a mini-atonement tour over the airwaves and on a conference call. He lashed himself for “selfishness” and said he is “terribly ashamed.”
It boiled down to this: Votto was having a bad day and feeling sorry for himself. His team, the Cincinnati Reds, is terrible. As the star, he’s expected to answer for that, ad nauseum. Then someone innocently drops a “Did you hear about this marvellous Canadian who’s doing a lot better than you?” in his lap, and he snapped.
Votto described the experience of listening back to what he’d said and “cringing.”
“[It was] that casual sort of tone – ‘Oh, I’m from Toronto. I’m from Canada. And nobody celebrates me’ – in a childish, immature sort of way.”
Of course, this is ludicrous on its face. Votto has twice won the Lou Marsh Trophy as the country’s top athlete. If anything, Canada is president of the Joey Votto Fan Club.
But when you’re over-tired and down on the ground throwing a fit in the aisle at the grocery store, common sense goes out the window. It’s how you feel that matters. And in that moment, Votto felt slighted.
You’ve surely felt this way, many times. But no one sticks a microphone in your face 10 minutes after you’ve been told you missed out on that promotion, and then broadcasts your response internationally.
The rest of us have nothing in common with Joey Votto, the baseball player.
But Joey Votto, the guy who sometimes takes things the wrong way, or Joey Votto, the guy who wishes he could get that one back – we recognize that person. He is us.
Screwing up was a minor thing. But Votto’s explanation was big. It allows us to see someone we admire do the right thing, the thing we’d like to think we’d do, too. It then lets us all feel the warmth of offering forgiveness.
In general, major-league baseball can’t teach us much about life. But in his relatable frailty, Votto just managed to.