Late on Tuesday, May 15th, a Canadian sports network called “The Score” published an article featuring Canadian baseball star Joey Votto expressing his feelings about nationality as it relates to baseball. His comments, which originated during a Yahoo! Sports podcast for MLB, are below. These quotes are as they appear in The Score’s article and are not intended to be twisted in any other way than as they originally appeared in Jonah Birenbaum’s article.

“I don’t care almost at all about Canadian baseball […] I wasn’t raised inside of Canadian baseball really … I’m coming up on half of my life being in the United States working and being supported by American baseball.”

“As far as Toronto, and Canadian baseball, and the country of Canada, and (Paxton) being Canadian, I don’t care at all […] (Paxton), or the Jays, or Canada, in general, may disagree with that, but I really couldn’t give a rats ass about that.”

My initial response to these comments was nothing short of fury. As a Canadian who is passionate about local, regional, and national sports as they struggle to gain attention in popular media dominated by American sports, it was heartbreaking. While he may not be the “best” Canadian baseball player.  Votto is still a Canadian baseball star. Far be it for me or anyone to diminish a career that includes an NL MVP, five All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, a Hank Aaron Award, and a number of Canadian awards celebrating his success in MLB. To top this off, Votto also won the Lou Marsh Award for top athlete in his native country twice (2010 and 2017).

So let’s unpack these quotes and attempt to reason why Votto said what he did.

The initial comment about not caring about Canadian baseball stings if you’re a Canadian baseball fan. One way to look at it is that Votto doesn’t particularly care about his appearances at the 2009 and 2013 World Baseball Classic. I can’t say I blame him as Canada was never successful at any of these events. Compared to hockey or soccer, baseball does not have the same international appeal as a big time event. It’s understandable why 33 year old Votto declined to appear for Canada in the 2017 edition of the tournament. They weren’t going to win and why risk injury in a meaningless tournament that pays nothing compared to the juicy contract he has with the Cincinnati Reds.

It’s also true Votto has spent nearly half his life in the American baseball league system. He has been playing south of the border since 2002 when he was just 19 years old. He’s spent exactly zero years of his career as a professional athlete in Canada, aside from any appearances the Reds have made in the Rogers Centre. There is next to no connection to Canadian baseball. His initial comments, while packing a bit of a sting, are more matter of fact than a condemning of the country’s national programs. Even if they were a direct attack on Canadian baseball programs, wouldn’t it serve as some kind of motivation for them to improve, what with a Canadian baseball star expressing disappointment?

One can twist any number of ways to justify their thoughts on the first quote. The next one is where things get a bit harder to justify.

Votto puts it all out front: he doesn’t care about Canadian baseball, being from Canada, the no-hitter by Canadian James Paxton against the Canadian team in Canada, or Canada in general. He doesn’t give a rats’ ass.

This is a totally fine stance to take. We live in 2018 and nationalism is not as relevant or useful as it once was when national borders were still being defined. We shouldn’t care where someone is from anymore. We should care about what’s in their heart and what they are able to contribute to their community. National identity can be a thing that evokes emotional connection, but being “from Canada” is as meaningless as being “from America” and so on.

Further to this, why would Votto care about the Toronto Blue Jays? He’s never played for them, likely never will, and sees them maybe once a season. He plays in Canada even less than that. Why would Joey Votto care about a non-divisional opponent in the American League? Why would he care about James Paxton, who by ESPN’s account, he has never faced in a regular season game?

I can’t pretend to know what was in Joey Votto’s heart when he said those comments. If I were him, I probably wouldn’t care about a Canadian pitcher throwing a no-hitter for a non-divisional opponent just because they are from Canada. If it has no impact on the divisional standings, it’s not a big deal.

Except that it is and the bigger issue is how Votto said what he did.

As a player who has been awarded enough trophies and accolades to be considered the “face” of Canada’s baseball players, one would think you’re better off not saying you don’t “give a rat’s ass” about Canada, its baseball, or its fans. I get that he is a pro athlete and is not idolized for his skills as an orator…but either way, it is a stupid thing to say.

The Truth Hurts

The good news for Joey Votto is that when it comes to Canadian baseball and its history, his comments means very little. His comments do little but to get under the skin of overly patriotic fans. I’m not sure if we fans should have greater expectations of a pro athlete who probably spent more time working on his swing than interview etiquette.

It is an undeniable, irreversible fact that Votto was won the Lou Marsh Award twice as top Canadian athlete. He’s also won the obscure Tip O’Neill Award seven times for being “judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to the highest ideals of the game of baseball.” He has been present to accept this award each time. We can’t go back in time and take those awards away just because we’re mad at him for not being an unabashedly proud Canadian boy who drank maple syrup and skated to school in the winter with a hockey stick in hand. He’s certainly a star baseball player and if time is kind to him, he might just make it to the Hall of Fame.

He is in no way Canada’s all-time greatest baseball player, nor does he hold the distinction of having the heaviest influence on his country’s growth in the sport.

Let’s first talk about his status as one of the best Canadian baseball players of all time. He sure does stack up well against the Justin Morneaus, Russell Martins, and Larry Walkers of Canadian baseball history. As has been repeated many times in this piece, he’s won a lot of awards. Only Larry Walker has received more Tip O’Neill Awards, and no baseball player but him has ever won the Lou Marsh Award more than once. He’s got a great case, especially if he can continue his production and perhaps find his way into winning a World Series title before he retires.

He’s no Ferguson Jenkins!

For those of you unfamiliar with Canada’s only resident of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Fergie was a pitcher from 1965 to 1983 who accumulated 284 wins, a lifetime 3.31 ERA and 3100+ strikeouts. A phenomenal athlete, Jenkins played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the offseason for a couple of years and won a Cy Young Award in 1971. The son of two incredible athletes who immigrated to Canada from Barbados, Jenkins won 20 games six straight seasons in a row. He is one of four pitchers (Maddux, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez) to strike out 3,000 batters and walking less than 1,000. He won the Lou Marsh Award in 1974 and was considered the top athlete in Canada four times by the Canadian Press in 1967, 1968, 1971, and 1974. During a time when legendary ice hockey players like Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe were dominating the popularity of Canadians, Jenkins topped them all. Beyond his accomplishments during his career, Jenkins was awarded the Order of Canada in 1979, which is among the highest honours the country can give to a citizen. Jenkins continues to be honoured in Canada through Black History Month every February and remains constantly praised as one of the heroes of Canadian sport.

It is incredibly difficult to compare pitchers and hitters, but Jenkins should remain the face of Canadian baseball in light of Votto’s comments. While someone like Votto is an incredible hitter who may or may not become a Hall of Fame level player, Jenkins has already achieved that and much more. It’s harder to connect Jenkins to baseball in 2018 since his career was fifty years ago, while Votto plays now. Still, Votto couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Canadian baseball. So let’s just do him a favour and forget he’s Canadian.

Too Little, Too Late?

Unsurprisingly, Votto’s comments caused some interesting backlash on social media. Canadians were hurt by his comments. Fans couldn’t understand why a heralded hero would say something so boneheaded with no reasoning.

Votto no doubt saw this and issued apologies in true Canadian fashion. Here is an excerpt from The Score:

“I was asked recently about James Paxton and his no-hitter on Canadian soil. I am not sure how I could have been so ridiculously selfish and short-sighted in my reply […] When asked about baseball in Canada, the Blue Jays, and specifically this event, it took me back to the times and my resentment for not making Team Canada in high school, not being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school, or not being picked for the Olympic team while in the minor leagues. […] Clearly my reply came out of a side of jealousy for a Canadian baseball athlete being celebrated in the city of Toronto. It was an odd reply and one I am terribly ashamed of. […] I am saddened that I was so flagrant with my remarks and more importantly that I offended so many people that mean so much to me. I would not be where I am now without the efforts of so many Canadian baseball people and the fans of Canadian baseball. […] To James Paxton, the Blue Jays, the Toronto fans, the women and men all across Canada that work so hard to promote and support Canadian baseball, I am sorry for my selfish comments and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”

Further to these quotes, Votto also described his original message as cringy and “purely petty”.

“I’ve lost sleep over this. I just did everything wrong and it came from a bad place. So regretful. My comments were clearly, clearly silly and selfish and ego-driven. […] I’m so embarrassed by what I said. Really, my words couldn’t be less in line with how I feel.”

Votto’s full apology to the Canadian Baseball Network is here from the Toronto Sun:

Clearly, these numerous apologies come from a man aware of the idiocy of his own remarks. Only Joey Votto can tell us what’s in his heart, or what kind of mood he was in at the time of the original comments. He’s embarrassed and is willing to admit to making a very petty series of comments. He could have continued on without saying anything, but he chose to do the “Canadian thing” and say he’s sorry. That’s something…but is it too late to forgive him?

Final Thoughts

As of late Wednesday evening, there doesn’t appear to be anything coming from the Blue Jays clubhouse about the matter, particularly from its Canadian residents Russell Martin and John Axford. I can’t imagine they have any interest in wading into already muddied waters of the discussion. At the end of the day, Votto said something stupid, pissed off a lot of Canadians, but then apologized. He’s still not the best Canadian baseball player, and we don’t have to think of him as a Canadian baseball player if we don’t want to. While I was pissed off myself earlier today, seeing him graciously and publicly apologize takes a lot of the sting out the dumb quotes. If you’re still mad at him I would gently offer the reminder that he’s just a baseball player and a human being that makes mistakes, just like the rest of us.

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