The beautifully complex game of baseball is unique in that it is ultimately a game of overcoming individual failures. It is a game in which the best hitters fail roughly sixty-five percent of the time and a pitcher is left atop a mound to dig deep for that last out. Individual errors are glaring and potentially costly – and a player has no one to blame but himself.
It is for this reason that so many fall in love with “America’s Pastime”. Each and every one of us has been there – perhaps not on the field, but we have all struggled in our personal lives to accomplish goals, and we have all at one time or another failed. It is in that way that baseball mirrors life and it is for that reason that we find beauty in a player’s performance. For that gives us hope that we, too, may persevere and succeed. And when we watch a player succeed, it is joyous.
But every now and then, baseball reflects more than just our own lives. It provides a microcosm for society as whole. It is in those times that we must pause, reflect, and ask “how can we do better?”
This was true a few weeks ago when Baltimore Orioles’ center fielder Adam Jones spoke out about a spectator in Boston who called Jones the N-word. Let’s not be under any illusion here. I would imagine that the hurling of racial slurs at players of colour is more common than we want to believe it is – including in our own beloved city. What made this particular incident stand out was that Jones had finally had enough and was vocal about it (he also wrote about it for The Players’ Tribune). Against the backdrop of the current political climate in the United States, where race tension seems heightened even more than usual, Jones’ experience at a ballpark in Boston becomes broader issue.
On Tuesday night in Atlanta, Kevin Pillar provided another bigger-than-the-game moment when, angered by a quick-pitch, he yelled a homophobic slur at Braves’ pitcher Jason Motte. The epithet sparked understandable outrage, disappointment, and sadness amongst many fans of the game (including one of Pillar’s biggest supporters, Gideon Turk) and, naturally, those feelings were felt the deepest amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community.
After listening to Kevin Pillar apologize for the incident, there is no doubt in my mind that he is sorry for what happened, although I am unsure as to whether or not he understands the extent of the harm that may have been caused. To be quite honest, if that’s the case, he is not alone; numerous people wondered on social media why anyone other than Motte himself would be upset or offended.
The impact of hearing such a word used by anyone, let alone someone for whom you cheer (which can be a deeply personal thing), can be devastating for a number of reasons. For those who have been subjected to gay-bashing and physical assault for one’s sexual orientation, hearing that word used in any context can bring back memories and feelings of being unsafe. As someone who is not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I cannot imagine what it must be like to be fearful to simply live my life, but I believe those who say they relived that emotional trauma Tuesday night. My own life experiences have taught me that words hurt more than we want to believe. Words have meaning. And once a word is out there, it can’t be taken back.
I wonder, too, about all of the young people who play baseball – or any sport, really – who have been pondering whether or not it is safe to come out of the proverbial closest and the message that this incident may have sent to them. Would Pillar’s use of that word make them feel less safe about coming out to their teammates? Would it cause them to feel even less welcome playing the sport that they love? How many might quit, as Billy Bean eventually did (not to be confused with A’s President Billy Beane), because doing so is far more palatable than any one discovering their sexual orientation?
There is also the overarching issue of the culture of toxic masculinity that exists in professional sports. It was not lost on me that during their recent visits to Toronto, both the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland had players carry equipment to the bullpen in pink, feminized back packs and duffel bags that are clearly designed to be embarrassing because, of course, a man carrying something associated with femininity is hysterical. However, that’s simply the tip of the iceberg and is relatively minor within the construct of professional sports, where this type of behaviour is celebrated and where those who do not fit the traditional construct of machismo will, at best, be marginalized to the fringes. At worst, those players will be left out entirely. What does that say about those of us who cheer such actions from the sidelines? Is that the kind of masculinity we want to promote in our society?
I don’t know Kevin Pillar. I am unwilling to say anything about his character one way or the other but feel compelled to give him a chance to redeem his image. I understand if others are less willing to do so. We don’t all have to be on the same page about this.
But I do believe that this incident – like the one involving Adam Jones – provides one of those unique opportunities for us to take something that happened in a game and recognize it as being so much bigger than the game. It provides us with the opportunity to reach out to the LGBTQ+ community and not only offer our support, but examine ways in which society in general and sports in particular can provide genuine inclusivity.
The one thing that I would encourage Pillar to do is to ask himself why that particular word was his go-to when angered. I would go so far as to encourage everyone to examine the words that they use. I will admit that there is a word that sometimes comes to my mind when I witness someone doing something particularly stupid; the impact of using such a word was lost on me until someone took the time to have a conversation. (Though, if I’m being honest, I already knew it was not a nice word to use. I simply had never considered how my use of the word may affect others.)
No, the upset over what Kevin Pillar said is not about others being overly-sensitive. It is about empathy. It is about doing better in our own lives. Rather than dismiss other’s reactions as being over the top, ask genuine questions and actually listen to the answer. We could all stand to learn something by doing so.
This incident may have taken place on the field, but it was not about baseball. Ultimately, it was not even about Kevin Pillar. It’s about recognizing that the things we say can have unintended consequences. It’s about changing a culture for the better, both on and off the field. It’s an opportunity to once again see ourselves mirrored on the field.
That’s the beauty of baseball.
Lead Photo: © Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports