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Why I Was Proud to be a Baseball Fan in 2009

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2009 probably wasn't the best year for Major League Baseball's reputation. Superstars and household-names Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez led the pack of players reported to have used performance enhancing drugs. Those worried about payroll inequity in the sport saw the Yankees run through the competition and win the World Series. The league's "finest" umpires blew what seemed like every other call in the post-season. Mark McGwire announced his return to baseball (as a hitting coach).

But overall, there was something to take from baseball this year that really gave me a good feeling about at least some of the people filling the game. It was sort an overriding theme to the 2009 season, and it was the type of thing that made you think for a second that maybe the era of hulking, macho baseball players that was rampant throughout the decade was being replaced by those willing to admit to faults, and seek assistance for their problems like real humans - not through pill bottles and injections.

As Zack Greinke dominated the American League en route to his first Cy Young Award, his story was told over-and-over again - and it was one worth hearing. Greinke, at one point years ago a highly-touted prospect, had battled with depression and anxiety problems that forced him to leave behind the game he knew his whole life. While the common conception of athletes is that this type of social or mental issue would be met with ridicule, his was met by owners, managers, and teammates with support, providing him with the time and assistance he needed to overcome his personal issues.

In 2009, Greinke met his potential. And while it's risky these days to look at an athlete and assume them to be clean of steroids and the likes, the sense you get from Zack Greinke is a bit different. He finds his competitive advantage by other means - such as the study of sabermetrics, looking at baseball from an objective, more mathematical approach. And rather than, you know, have sixteen girlfriends across the country, Greinke uses his spare time to take part in other relaxing activities, like his favorite game, World of Warcraft. 

And while Greinke's introspective nature allows him to deal with his fame and lifestyle in a way comfortable to him, one baseball player was far more public with his battle.

Cincinnati Reds' first-basemen Joey Votto was having a difficult start to the year. He was consistently being scratched in the last few minutes before game time, was leaving in the middle, and sometimes, even had trouble getting off the field. Eventually, Votto took time off to recuperate from his unknown issues, leaving the fans and media to speculate wildly about what was sidelining the slugger.

When he returned in the summer, prior to game against the Blue Jays in his hometown of Toronto, Votto addressed the media. He spoke of his own battle with the depression, stemming from the passing of his father the previous season, and the buildup of anxiety he faced from never taking the time to properly deal with his emotions. He could have hid the issue and claimed he was on the disabled list because of any ailment, and few would have questioned. But Votto chose to spoke up and make light of the fact that many forget - that superstar athletes are human too.

Year-in and year-out, our favorite athletes, for good and for bad, affect the way that we, and especially kids, choose to act and behave. They become role-models to kids far more than many who are surely far more deserving. 

We hear the stories of the athletes showing those who look up to them the wrong way to act - steroids, affairs, violence, dog-fighting, to name a few - and we see them doing charity and giving back. But rarely do we see them being humans, battling the problems that afflict so many, and overcoming what was surely harder than any injury they've ever suffered. And that's something that kids - and adults, too - can certainly learn from.

A poll by the Canadian all-sports channel Rogers Sportsnet recently asked fans to vote in their annual Canadian Sportsmen of the Year award. While others had more high-profile years, like Sidney Crosby, Jason Bay, Steve Nash and Georges St. Pierre, I was thrilled to see Joey Votto make the ballot for the reasons discussed here. He wouldn't win the vote (the award went to St. Pierre for the second-straight year), but this wasn't about a victory. It was simply about acknowledging. 

Ultimately though, the acknowledgements of their personal struggles by guys like Zack Greinke and Joey Votto was far more important than any accomplishment I saw on the field this year.