Five years ago, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar took the field wearing an eye-black patch emblazoned with a homophobic slur.
The word – maricon – has some nuance to it in Spanish, depending where you are from. It could be argued that it means all sorts of things (though none of them are very nice).
To their credit, the Jays didn't try a logical shimmy on the pinhead of linguistics. They pulled Escobar into an excruciating news conference, where he was forced to apologize publicly (and, in the end, poorly). The team suspended Escobar for three games. Two months later, it traded him.
By the low standard of this sort of thing, it was a powerful message from professional athletics – we're not going to tolerate casual bigotry any more. There will be real consequences for this behaviour.
On Wednesday, Blue Jays centre fielder Kevin Pillar did the same thing as Escobar. Pillar didn't write the slur – "faggot" – down. He yelled it at an Atlanta pitcher. But it's the same principle.
Given a chance to apologize after the game, Pillar prevaricated. He was sorry, but would not say what for.
"It was immature. It was stupid. It was uncalled for," Pillar told reporters in Atlanta. "Obviously, something to learn from, something to move on from. Don't let it define me."
That is indeed a quick journey to resolution. A whole 15 words from recognition of the problem to absolution. And we still hadn't learned from Pillar what that "stupid" thing was.
The Blue Jays promised swift justice. Jays' general manager Ross Atkins flew to Atlanta deal with the matter. Both he and team president Mark Shapiro used the same word to describe how seriously they take this issue: "very."
Before the clubhouse opened on Thursday, the Jays had decided Pillar's punishment – a two-game suspension.
In a tiptoeing statement, the team tried sucking and blowing at the same time, expressing "extreme disappointment" with Pillar while also touting him as a "high-character individual." There was the usual boilerplate about Pillar "learning from this" so that he can "live up to our values on and off the field."
If sports leagues ran the justice system, they'd start a program to reduce homicide rates by giving everybody one mulligan on a murder rap. Because how else do you learn?
The Jays tacitly admitted the offending term was used by including a reference to "the LGBTQ community" in the release, but again did not mention what had been said.
Here's a general rule about apologies – if it does not include a frank admission of what you did wrong, it's not a real apology. It's an excuse.
Pillar released a co-ordinated statement on Twitter, saying much the same thing. The slur was cast as "inappropriate language." The en vogue thing in apologies-composed-by-committee – "This is not who I am" – was deployed.
If you take common decency out of the equation, you can see the ruthless pragmatism at work here.
Escobar screwed up in September, when the Jays were already out of it. Pillar screwed up in May, when the team still has a chance.
Escobar was a middling player of declining value, not particularly well liked in the room and no special favourite of the fans. Pillar is an affordable, contractually controllable piece suddenly becoming a star, very popular with his teammates and even moreso with the Rogers Centre crowd.
As such, Escobar was expendable. Pillar isn't. So while he is also suspended, it is for less time and with less of a rhetorical lashing from his employer.
Suspending Pillar was not just the right thing to do, but an act of mercy for the player.
Had he skated on this, Pillar would've worn it for years. Now he gets to go through the moral car wash of a temporary fall and subsequent return.
It's also smart business. The Blue Jays are a private corporation, but a public concern. When it suits them, Jays' brass take full advantage of that wider connection. On the day he arrived, Shapiro gave it particular emphasis in his first, prepared remarks.
"What makes this job so unique and compelling, is that [the Blue Jays matter] not just to the fans in this ballpark, not just to the fans in an incredibly dynamic, growing, diverse city like Toronto, but to fans across this entire country."
If you want to hawk jerseys and push out $10 cans of beer, do what you like. If you want to portray yourself as a representative of Canada, then that entails a higher responsibility.
When one of your employees goes rogue (or, as is so often the case in these matters, but considered impolite to say – shows you who he is), you have to consider something more than win shares and future salary negotiations.
You're now speaking on behalf of the entire community, which includes LGBTQ people. This sort of bad day wouldn't be tolerated in a government office, or a school, or any other place of business. So why should it be condoned on a sports team, which is a far more visible workplace and, inarguably, far more influential?
It shouldn't. And, thankfully, it wasn't.
What Pillar's punishment cannot fully address is the creeping sense that while the world is growing more tolerant, baseball isn't keeping pace. There's only so many times this sort of thing can happen when the knee-jerk response – 'Hey, I didn't mean to say that thing I just said because it's totally not like me' – makes any sense. Two times on one club in five years is two times too many.
People aren't stupid. They understand the difference between something you wouldn't say and something you wish you hadn't said out loud to a non-sympathetic audience. This is plainly the second thing.
No news release, no suspension, no ritual of regret can remove the impression that for some unknowable percentage of baseball players, there is the character they play when the cameras are on, and the person they are when they aren't.