Aubrey Huff deserves scorn, but does he deserve empathy, too? A story behind the bravado

The Miami Herald (TNS)
Aubrey Huff

Is it possible to hate most everything someone stands for, and yet feel sorry for that person? To watch someone go so far off the rails that you worry whether they’re OK?

So Twitter permanently suspended former major-league – and Miami Hurricanes – baseball player Aubrey Huff this week, erasing all of his trolling and toxicity, and the move was met with cheers across social media, sort of a chorus of “Good riddance!”

Predictably Huff, on Instagram, doubled down, calling the ban “a badge of honor,” and blaming the “liberal Karens” at Twitter.

The suspension ultimately came because Huff, a self-described “anti-vaxxer” who mocks people for wearing masks, violated Twitter’s “misleading information policy” regarded COVID-19, but that was atop myriad other vile affronts to general decency.

Plainly, Huff is a far-right ideologue whose (former) Twitter bio read, “I believe in God, free speech, America, guns, whiskey and toxic masculinity.”

Over time, in tweets, he threatened violence if Bernie Sanders were to beat Donald Trump; “joked” about kidnapping and assaulting Iranian women; supported the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump zealots aiming to overturn the presidential election result; and mocked the San Francisco Giants for hiring a female assistant coach..

(The Giants, in 2020, told Huff he was not invited to attend an anniversary celebration of the 2010 championship team).

Sexism, transphobia and violence seemed to be steady themes, behind a facade of macho patriotism and that “toxic masculinity.”

The parameters and very definition of “free speech” always come into play whenever someone is suspended by a social media giant. The topic arose again in my mind as I read that some vendors at this week’s annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota (a superspreader event if ever there was one ) were selling Confederate flags and even memorabilia with Nazi images.

But we all learned the “can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” example to know there are limits to free speech, and so Aubrey Huff’s suspension was hardly a shock.

The reaction in the media has mostly been to dismiss him as an idiot who got what he deserved and to move on. And I get that.

So why can’t I help but feel an empathy that surprises me?

We’ve heard a lot lately about athletes being at the forefront of mental health awareness. It was the story of the recent Tokyo Olympics when champion U.S. gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of most of her events because of that.

I wonder what Huff has going on inside that hides behind the braying, boorish bravado?

He had a very solid 13-year MLB career with five teams, totaling 242 home runs from 2000 to 2012. That included a solid three-year run with the Baltimore Orioles, including a Silver Slugger Award in 2008. He capped it with World Series titles as a San Francisco Giant in 2010 and 12.

At UM in 1997-98 he was so good he left with an even .400 batting average (second all time) and in ‘98 had 21 homers and a school-record 95 RBI. He helped lead the Canes to the College World Series both years. He entered the UM Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

How did he get here? So how did it get to this point? To where an ex-ballplayer, at 44, leans in so hard to being virulently unlikable that he gets kicked off Twitter?

“He’s kind of gone off the wild end, the deep end, on some of his remarks,” former coach UM Jim Morris said of Huff. “He was a lot quieter back then than he is now. I read some of his comments, kind of chuckled, took a deep breath and thought, ‘Oh my goodness’.”

Whatever empathy I feel for Huff does not excuse what got him here. It only tries to understand.

When Aubrey was 6 years old the father he barely remembers, an electrician, was murdered in Abilene, Texas, a bystander trying to intervene in a domestic dispute. Aubrey and a younger sister were raised by their mom, suddenly a 28-year-old widow.

When Huff arrived at UM as a junior college transfer was he was mercilessly made fun of for being a virgin, stepping into a team with a frat-boy ethos.

“A smalltown guy from Texas who had trouble adjusting to Miami like a lot of smalltown guys,” Morris recalls.

It wasn’t until Huff started calling himself “Huffdaddy” and adopted a swaggering, macho persona to fit in that the taunting and ridicule finally stopped.

“Baseball by day, party by night,” he said of those UM years.

Adderall addiction, drinking issues and suicidal thoughts: In MLB he became addicted to Adderall, an amphetamine, and acknowledged drinking 12 to 15 beers after games. He suffered from depression and anxiety.

Along the way his wife, mother of their two sons, now 12 and 10, divorced him. A couple of broadcasting jobs didn’t last.

In his book, Baseball Junkie, he recalls that in 2014 he thought of suicide so seriously that he knelt in a closet and held a loaded .357 magnum to his temple.

That’s a lot to unpack. No degree in psychology is required to wonder about Huff’s mental health, and what role it has played in the person he became.

It would be on brand, should this column ever reach him, for Huff to deride me. That’s fine.

There are plenty of others calling calling him names this week, hailing the Twitter ban and shouting good-riddance.

I get that. Still, for all I detest about so many of his views, I hope he’s OK.