Robinson Cano, Celebrity

Athletes like Robinson Cano are still people (via Keith Allison).

Athletes like Robinson Cano are still people (via Keith Allison).

Back in April, my girlfriend showed me a YouTube clip from Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show. We don’t really watch late-night shows like that but, hey, here we are in Seattle, and here’s something about Seattle on national TV that’s not about Macklemore or legalized pot. With the Mariners scheduled to play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, Fallon’s crew stopped people on the street and had them boo a cardboard cutout of Robinson Cano, the occasion being that Cano was playing for the visiting side in the Bronx for the very first time. And then, boom, Cano himself steps out from behind the cardboard.

It’s really funny:

Also, I felt that, instead of just watching some goofy piece of late-night television, maybe there was something profound lurking in the subtext. It’s the same feeling I get whenever Sacha Baron Cohen is at his most poignant (that link is, believe it or not, Safe For Work): that I’m not just watching another goofy comedy but I’m seeing some rogue strain of high art that, like any good art, reveals something meaningful about our society and our inward selves.

When Fallon’s production crew is on the street, the key moment–in terms of both the joke and whatever deeper meaning may or may not exist–is the precious second when the fan clocks in that Cano is actually standing in front of him/her, and also that he has been within earshot the whole time. There’s no reason to believe that anything about the production of this segment was staged or inauthentic; I will take the fans’ reactions as genuine.

How interesting then, that, despite none of the fans having seen another (because if they saw one another, the joke clearly would be spoiled), they all gave variations of the exact same reaction. The fans all seem to acknowledge that their past selves–their selves of one second previous–were illogical, off base, not to be trusted. The first guy Fallon’s crew dupes is actually in the middle of saying, “You’re not welcome here,” when that precious second strikes, and then he meekly reaches out his hand to shake Cano’s.

What is that?

* * *

I’ve just finished reading The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton, and I think it has some meaningful things to say about the Cano video, even though the book doesn’t necessarily mean to.

I didn’t pick up this book intending for it to unlock the riddle of why I found the Cano video fascinating. I picked it up because I was, for a very brief time, a journalism major in college. The News is an attempt to answer why, exactly, so many of us don’t really care about the news–even somebody like myself, who, for a moment, was envisioning a professional life that was entirely oriented around gathering and delivering news.

Despite having a stretch where I, in an uncharacteristic fit of high character, sat down with the New York Times every day and actually read it, I dropped out of my school’s journalism program really quickly. Subsequently, like so many other youngsters in my youngster demographic, it has been years since I have received the news from anybody other than Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Oops.

De Botton’s central argument is that an ideal news organization would report its stories with a longer-view concern towards the collective well-being and individual welfare of its readers. De Botton contends what we have today is something that loudly and hastily trumpets very small, specific, and usually pretty nasty chunks of the human existence.

To adjust one of de Botton’s examples about what is wrong with the news: a great work of literature, like Breaking Bad or The Wire, can make us feel a thousand kinds of sympathy and respect for a character who is nonetheless gravely violating the law. A few quick paragraphs about the exact same crime in the local section–accompanied by a mugshot, next to an ad for mattresses, without any of the essential theatrical context–will only make us feel hopeless for our community, individually helpless in the face of humanity’s depraved depths.

Counting on an “ideal” news organization to someday redeem news is probably naive. But, yeah, I like how de Botton sees room for improvement.

* * *

De Botton never talks about sports specifically, but he does devote a large chapter to our pursuit of Celebrity, which is more or less the same thing. Seeking out news about Celebrity is not necessarily a mindless pursuit, he says; the Greeks did it a lot, for one. The difference being that the Greeks saw, in Celebrities, models and inspiration for their own lives–instead of producers of gaffes and affairs and self-portraits as centaurs and every other type of melodrama. De Botton writes:

If news organizations were kinder, rather than simply describing the triumphs of others as mysterious faits accomplis, they would expend copious energy on analysing precisely what went into them. They would present the stories of successful people principally as case studies that we could understand and practically emulate rather than simply, as at present, either admire blankly or resent.

Our feelings when looking (up?) at Celebrities aren’t simply limited to the binary options of admiration or resentment. There are also, among other feelings, envies and jealousies. These jealousies might be pointed and specific, or maybe we just feel a broad, fuzzy, universal daydream of just how nice it would be to soak in the restaurant-table-securing perks of Celebrity.

It is this soaking in of the perks, the roar of the crowd, that de Botton believes motivates Celebrities to pursue their fame–and that it’s also motivates us anonymous majority who would wish to be Celebrities:

At the heart of the desire for fame lies a touching, vulnerable and simple aspiration: a longing to be treated nicely. Whatever secondary impetus may be supplied by appetites for money, luxury, sex or power, it is really the wish for respect that drives the will to fame.

[...]

Then, once famous, they realize that they have become the recipient of a most perplexing kind of attention: one where intense love is followed by sudden hatred, where their most minor lapses are treated with violent intolerance, where weaknesses are pounced upon and never forgotten, where a prurient interest surrounds matters entirely unrelated to the talent that initially earned them public notice, where journalists go through their rubbish in the early hours and where embarrassing pictures of them appear online and within hours attract the ridicule of millions.

The ways that we, the public, gift and snatch back our affections have been exacerbated by Twitter, the world’s most efficient tool ever to deliver anonymously hurled barbs at celebrities. Another late-night host, Jimmy Kimmel, has inadvertently taken a deep psychological dive into this phenomenon with his recurring series “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets.” The result, like Fallon’s experiment with Cano, is incredibly fascinating:

Unlike the Yankee fans’ unanimous way of reacting to in-the-flesh Cano, the celebrities on Kimmel’s show have dramatically different ways of reacting to the Mean Tweets. There are glimmers of genuine hurt, much as that hurt is quickly masked over by a sassy comment or wry joke. And who could blame them for feeling hurt? One’s stomach must get wrenched into a knot with the knowledge that another person, a stranger, has deliberately taken time out of his or her day to release an unprompted, perilously personal insult to the broader world. It would feel sickening at least the first few times it happens, and maybe every time it happens.

In Kimmel’s clip there are also celebrities who, due to whatever combination of their personal character and life experiences, have the Mean Tweet bounce off them, proverbial water off a proverbial duck’s back. June Squibb has the saltiest response to her Mean Tweet, but, to me, it also seems like she has the most resolute self-esteem. Knowledge that there are Mean Tweets about her will not pop back into her mind when she tries to sleep. At least I don’t think so. (Jeremy Piven, too, seems to be easily able to laugh off his insult, although maybe that’s because the insult sent his way was the most ridiculous.)

Cano belongs in this latter category, even though he reacts far more gently than Squibb. I genuinely admire how little the entire episode seems to bother him. His small, quiet response of “Thanks for the boo” is, I think, next to perfect. I don’t think I could summon that response on my best day. I probably would be able to shake hands and smile at the boo-ers, I’m guessing, but I would also do my damndest to send a verbal jab right back at them, manically trying to achieve the last laugh. Contrast that with how Cano is relaxed, smiling, probably even of present-enough mind to be actively enjoying the sunny spring day.

I think what happens during that important second, that second where the fans see Cano and see that he is real, is that the fans, somewhere in the ocean of their churning thoughts, realize that they were booing Robinson Cano, Celebrity, without realizing that they have been booing Robinson Cano, Person. (Maybe without realizing that Robinson Cano, Person, actually exists.) And then they instinctively grasp that Robinson Cano, Person is actually a pretty nice person–“Thanks for the boo”–and suddenly booing Cano seems like a really unpleasant thing to do. Not that booing anybody is ever a polite thing to do, but suddenly booing Cano seems really rude–like insulting-a-host’s-cooking rude. The fans realize, within that instant, that they don’t actually want to be the type of person who is rude in that deep way.

The unifying bond between the Fallon and Kimmel segments is that the celebrities work as a straight man, or mirror. The “star” is actually the viewing public ourselves. Usually, our insults come from the comfortable anonymity of Twitter, or from within the comfortable mass of a major league audience. Now, suddenly, individual insulters have been, at random, isolated from the pack. And, it turns out, they/we look really dumb in isolation.

I think that Cano and Squibb can deflect this criticism so easily because they are able, mentally, to distinguish between themselves as Celebrity and themselves as Person. They realize that the insults are being directed at themselves as Celebrity, and that’s okay, because their own identity is as a Person, not a Celebrity. They are able to step away from the accusation and realize that their accuser looks kinda dumb. De Botton writes:

The famous person might imagine their critics to be motivated solely by a limitless, obsessive hatred, and to have made their lacerating deductions from immovable convictions. But in truth, their opponents are generally not much more than thoughtless, unempathetic, inured to low standards and accustomed to doing what others do. Their cruel jibes arise chiefly from the sheer implausibility that the person they are being mean to could actually be listening and is likely to be deeply vulnerable. As when one is dropping a bomb from high altitude, the capacity for hurting others increases hugely when one doesn’t have to look one’s victim in the eye.

And maybe Cano is even further mentally fortified to resist being destroyed by these insults because he is a baseball player. And baseball players are taught, even when they’ve hit a home run, to trot with their helmets down. And Cano slap-singles his way over .300 each year without comment and plays the un-sexy position of second base, and actually he probably doesn’t really care about being a celebrity. It looks like he cares, most of all, about playing baseball well, and recently he also has had to care about maximizing the financial return he can get from playing baseball well.

There have been baseball players, though, who have cared about being celebrities. Who see the moment of the batter-pitcher match-up not as an extension of a team game but as a spotlight at last projected onto them. We know who these players are. We sense them as far away as a shark smells blood, and we’re just as eager to attack.

Like the famous Greeks of the deep past that de Botton references, all of these men have accomplished so much. When I watch baseball, I like to think about just how much they’ve accomplished, even all those negative-WAR guys at the bottom of the standings. Maybe some or maybe a lot of professional players are assholes when you get to know them (I don’t really know), but also all of them have a lot to teach us through their own lives about how to approach the day with energy, passion, and discipline. No?

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Good article. The internet and social media has essentially dehumanized not just celebrities but everyone. Go on any web site comment board and look at how many times someone calls someone else a moron or something worse. No one would ever do that in person. The anonymity and impersonality of the internet contributes, I think, to the virulence of the dialogue. You are not really attacking a human being; you are just attacking a name in cyber space. It’s a place to vent one’s deepest resentments without being held accountable, either physically (no one can punch you in the nose) or emotionally (knowing you really hurt someone’s feelings).

  2. Jeff said...

    There is no reason to believe that all fans behaved as those who were televised did. The producers of the show picked those to televise based on whatever criteria they had in mind. Would they have shown a guy who said, “Robbie, we really miss you?”

    • said...

      This article still remains valid even accounting for selective bias (which we should ALWAYS remember exists). We still did see genuine human reaction. You make a fantastic point that we’ve no idea how much of humanity was really represented. So, this article still works, but it may be smaller in scope than assumed?

      I was stunned that the producers did show essentially carbon copy reactions. I kept waiting for the one fan who still booed the live Cano. In the framework provided above, that person would not have been able to seperate Person from Celebrity. That would have been fascinating and deeply sad to watch.

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