NEW YORK – Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar share a jersey as teammates on the Toronto Blue Jays, and Tuesday night at Citi Field they’ll share the distinction of representing the American League in the 84th edition of the Midsummer Classic.
A less obvious bond they’ll share on one of the game’s grander stages is fighting successfully through professional adversity to earn recognition as all-stars, Bautista for the fourth time, the other three for the first time.
For some, the path to such status events is far easier and straightforward, but overcoming difficult times can make the experience rewarding in a deeper way.
“It makes me feel very happy because we all had similar career paths where we struggled and then managed to find some consistency in our performance and do good things,” says Bautista.
“I’m excited for them, it’s good to get compensated for doing well and this is certainly the start to hopefully what’s going to be a string of a number of years of coming to the all-star game for all three of those guys.”
The Blue Jays would love that to be the case, but in the event it’s not, Tuesday is a day each deserves to savour, something Bautista has made a point of doing in each of his all-star trips.
Given the player he’s evolved into over the past four years, it’s easy to forget that he once bounced through five organizations in a single season, eventually to be discarded by a Pittsburgh Pirates team ready to turn the page on him.
A trade to the Blue Jays in August 2008 turned out to be a masterstroke for both player and club, his connections with then manager Cito Gaston and first base coach Dwayne Murphy helping him make a critical adjustment with his front foot to get his swing started faster.
One hundred and sixty home runs later, he’s now an all-star game fixture.
Encarnacion is aiming to follow in his close friend’s footsteps, describing his selection to the all-star team is “something I worked for.”
Steadily proving his 42-homer breakout in 2012 was no fluke with a similarly productive 2013, Encarnacion is now far removed from the error-prone slugger the Cincinnati Reds tired of waiting on and Blue Jays once outrighted off the 40-man roster.
The Oakland Athletics also had a shot at him after the 2010 season, claiming him on waivers only to later release him and allow the Blue Jays to re-sign him.
And all that is before the Blue Jays considered dumping him again early in the 2011 season, eventually settling on cutting ties with Juan Rivera instead.
Encarnacion’s turning point came midway through that ’11 season, when he made a conscious effort to become more selective at the plate, and he punished baseballs more consistently as a result.
A tweak the following off-season to finish his swing with two hands on the bat instead of one helped shorten his stroke and give him a more direct path to the ball, and brought his other changes together.
At last the all-star he always believed he could be, he’s relishing the moment.
“I feel great,” says Encarnacion, four-year-old son Edwin Jr., bouncing on his lap. “I had a lot of ups and downs but I never put my head down, I always keep my head up and keep working hard and keep focused on my game and the things I have to work on, and put everything together the way I did the last couple of years. I feel great being here.”
Yet neither of their stories can match that of Delabar, forced out of baseball because of a broken elbow that needed a metal plate and nine screws to heal.
He ended up teaching in Elizabethtown, Ky., where he first heard of a weighted ball training program, started using it, made enough gains to earn a minor-league contract from Seattle Mariners and finally found his way to the Blue Jays for Eric Thames last July 30.
Little wonder then that he jokes "with a lot of people saying, if I was told three years ago that I’d be at the all-star game, I would say where would I pick up my tickets?’”
“It’s a huge honour for me to be a part of something like this. It’s one of the biggest stages that they have, we’re representing our team, in Toronto we’re representing an entire country, not just a city.”
Delabar has found himself repeating his remarkable story over and over again since winning the Final Vote ballot last week.
Even in quiet times, he insists that he hasn’t done much reflecting on his journey.
“I know that stuff has happened,” he says. “I’d like to think about that stuff, but at the same time I want to focus on the future and worry about tomorrow instead of worrying about yesterday so much. Down the road, I’ll look back at the jerseys and be able to go, ‘Hey, this was a pretty cool ride I’ve had.’”
Of the Blue Jays all-stars, Cecil seems the most low-key about things.
The left-hander broke onto the scene in a big way in 2010, going 15-7 with a 4.22 ERA for the Blue Jays, but then watched his numbers deteriorate, due in part to a velocity drop. Try as he did, he couldn’t regain that zip, and even shedding some 50 pounds while transforming his body prior to the ’12 season didn’t help.
A return to the bullpen – he was a closer at the University of Maryland – changed things, and his use of the weighted ball program introduced to him by Delabar pushed things to the next level.
This season he’s enjoyed streaks of 25 consecutive batters retired, 40 straight batters without allowing a hit and 19.2 scoreless innings.
“I’m not looking for any recognition, I’m not here to tell a story of my bad past and say, ‘Hey, look where I'm at now,” says Cecil. “It’s just really an honour to be here. I’m going to take it in fully for myself and my family. If people want to recognize me for being here, then great. Since I’ve been here most people are, but it’s not what I’m looking for.
“I’m just here to enjoy everything that MLB puts on for this and get back to work after this.”
Still, even he acknowledged the remarkable turn of events he’s experience in a short time, from struggling to earn a roster spot during spring training to the all-star game.
“One step at a time,” he says with a smile. “I talked to (Jim Farr), my pitching coach from Maryland (on Sunday), and he didn’t have much to say because that’s the type of guy he is. He said, ‘Enjoy the moment. Don't get too high. Don't get too low.’ I feel like that’s been my motto for myself this whole season. Don’t get too high or too low, short memory and get them the next time.”
Four all-stars, four different stories, four examples of perseverance rewarded.