Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Lately, while trying to get myself out of the den of freelancing and into the world of daily exercise, I’ve started listening to the Jays Talk podcast the day after games. Believe it or not, I had never actually listened to the show before, but I certainly knew its glorious reputation. The show’s premise appears to be that primarily cranky and put off baseball fans call in, and a very patient (and sometimes not so patient) Mike Wilner handles their commentary to the best of his ability. It can certainly be entertaining and informative, but a great deal of the time the show has a cringe-worthy, anxiety-inducing quality about it—sort of like watching a comedic stand up performance you’re pretty sure at some point is going to offend you.
It’s almost guaranteed that regardless of whether or not the Jays win or lose on any given game day, someone is going to call in to Jays Talk to complain about the way the team is playing or being managed. There’s always an available point of contention, a thing to be furious about, and lately Marcus Stroman’s difficulties have taken up a lot of airtime. His recent bad starts have been dissected, with possible solutions offered, some joining the chorus of voices that think he should be sent down. I’m not too put off by most of the commentary, regardless of whether or not I agree or disagree, but one caller in particular had me thinking a great deal about how we publicly discuss players’ bad patches, foibles, and fates.
“He’s a bum,” the caller said. (For what it’s worth, Wilner thought the comment was as ridiculous as I did.)
It’s no secret that the tone of sports conversations tends to lean towards the toxic, and that there’s a player of the week that people feel compelled to throw their steaming, angry ire at. (Cecil, Storen, Dickey, have all recently been on that list.) But the Stroman discussion has fascinated me in particular because it has tended to attack his character—and oddly the contents of his Twitter feed—more than his ability to perform on the mound. I’ve seen people put out the notion that his attitude and his “ego” are responsible for his struggles, that he’s too preoccupied with his HDMH brand, too distracted, too confident, too full of himself, and too big for his britches to truly be a successful ace ballplayer.
The interesting whiplash about all this is that in the past Stroman has long been a human metaphor for overcoming obstacles precisely like this one. He’s a goddamn living ray of sunshine—an accessible, personable wunderkind who could likely write a book packed with transcendent inspirational life advice. Stroman’s entire public persona is an admirable lesson in how faith and belief in oneself can pull you through hard times, a lesson that we were more than happy to celebrate when he was coming back from injury, throwing strike after strike, graduating from university, and proving the haters wrong. But now that he’s down, facing some obvious technical issues he needs to tackle—something that he has been more than happy to acknowledge, by the way—a notable segment of the fanbase is willing to label his relentless public positivity a flaw.
I have long thought (and publicly shared) that, on a variety of levels, we collectively demand far too much from baseball players. We demand their time via the media, autographs, and scheduled public appearances. We demand that their sole focus is always winning, regardless of what is happening in their lives. (Birth of child? Sick relative? Who cares!) And when they “let us down,” we demand they listen as we hurl critiques and insults at them. We ask for their best performance every single game, despite the fact that logically, that’s entirely impossible. We think that because we spend our leisure time and our money on baseball, those on the field owe us something, and that because they collect an absurdly large paycheque, they don’t deserve our respect and basic human decency. Perhaps even more importantly in this case, that they don’t deserve our support when they’re facing difficulty.
As I’ve become more and more embedded in the culture of this game, I’ve come to understand that there are a large group of fans who care solely about “their team” winning at the expense of everything else. To them, the Jays are merely a bunch of interchangeable bodies who should do precisely what fans demand. They don’t care about personalities, or humanity, or what it might feel like to suddenly stop being really good at the thing you’re really good at. They’re the kind of people who wouldn’t think twice about calling an elite athlete they’ve never met “a bum” on a radio show, and who would likely be more than happy to tweet that brand of vile commentary directly at him.
Ballplayers like Stroman have to deal with the reality that when they are struggling on the job, in the moment, everyone is watching. (I know, I know, huge paycheque. I get it.) It’s an experience most of us will never understand, and one that might be hard to empathize with. But I think we can easily agree that telling Stroman he sucks right now won’t solve a single thing on the field, and that knowing the fanbase is behind him might actually help. Stroman has certainly proved that his legendary attitude can get him through bad patches, and at this point, there’s no reason to think it won’t get him through again.