DUNEDIN, Fla. – Colby Rasmus is armed with a new sense of ease, a shaggy new mane pouring out from under his cap, and a desire to shed all his St. Louis baggage in camp with the Toronto Blue Jays this spring.
The 25-year-old centre-fielder, still a lightning rod for his old team and very much a focal point on his new one, opened up Friday about his messy split from the Cardinals last summer during an engaging 12-minute media session in which he seemed like a changed man.
Eager to leave his bad times in the past – he says he felt "like blood in the water" last year – Rasmus is focused on keeping things positive, and since arriving Thursday afternoon it’s very possible he’s already smiled more often than he did in his entire two months with the Blue Jays last summer.
How long that lasts likely depends on the effectiveness of the adjustments he’s made to his swing over the winter, reducing a leg kick he admits "might have been getting a little too crazy," to better keep his weight over the plate.
At minimum, his state of mind appears to be far healthier than it was in 2011, and the fit with the Blue Jays looks much better than the one with the Cardinals.
"No doubt," he said Friday when told he seemed like a different guy. "I really never felt good in St. Louis. I always felt like I wasn’t … I don’t know. I was always so much younger than everybody else, and I just felt like I was never really, I guess you could say, a part of the team kind of.
"I never got comfortable, and Tony (La Russa, the former manager) wanted it that way. He always said he didn’t want me to get comfortable, he wanted me to always stay working hard and doing this and doing that. So I think that was one thing that might have hurt my game a little bit.
"I think right now I’m in good shape and feeling good mentally, so we’ll see what happens down the road."
The Blue Jays have a lot riding on whether Rasmus is able to make the good vibes last, as meaningful contributions from him both with the bat and the glove are crucial to the team’s progress.
A gifted athlete with the potential to be a five-tool contributor, he looked to be on the road to stardom in 2010, when he posted a .276/.361/.498 batting line with 23 homers and 66 RBIs for the Cardinals. He fell off dramatically last year, posting a combined line of .225/.298/.391 with 14 homers and 53 RBIs over 129 games with St. Louis and Toronto.
Amid that came public clashes with La Russa and the coaching staff, criticism that his father Tony was meddling too often, and trouble in the clubhouse.
During the World Series, Cards GM John Mozeliak told sportsnet.ca that Rasmus was a "distressed asset" at the time of the deal.
Asked why things got so bad in St. Louis, Rasmus replied: "I don’t know, I guess I just said some things that rubbed people the wrong way. I don’t know really, it’s all about how you play. If I would have played good, it wouldn’t have mattered, but I didn’t play good and like blood in the water, they came after me. But it’s all good, I’m here today ready to play, I’m not worried about it."
Still, there’s clearly some anger remaining there, and Rasmus wore a mischievous grin when he answered, "Yeah, I got a little sumpin sumpin," after being asked if he received a post-season share.
The 28th overall pick in 2005 opened with a strong April and a decent May before things devolved, and the clashing with La Russa, the coaches, and the criticism from fans left him "beat up" mentally.
Things didn’t get better on the field in Toronto, with a batting line of .173/.201/.316 in 35 games, but he started to feel like he could be himself again. This time around, he is adamant life with the Blue Jays will be very different.
"It won’t be like St. Louis where I’m just the young little puppy and everybody wants to teach me the tricks and beat me down and tell me that I’m doing things wrong," said Rasmus, adding later: "In St. Louis it just got to where I was so much just business, I was out there with no emotion, every day, I felt like I couldn’t, I just felt like everything I did was the wrong thing. If I showed emotion like I was happy, I wasn’t playing good enough so I could do that."
The Blue Jays clubhouse, on the other hand, allows him to be himself.
"These guys are cool," he said, "(Jose) Bautista’s awesome, always upbeat, doesn’t show anybody up or try to put his ego on top of you. This all about playing the game, having fun, just a bunch of guys trying to win a ball game."
Well, yes, but not exactly.
While manager John Farrell said helping Rasmus find a comfort level in the clubhouse and develop a trust with the coaching staff mattered, he went to pains to point out that doesn’t stand as a free pass.
"Yes we want players to be comfortable," said Farrell, "but by no means should that be interpreted as we’re sacrificing the expectation."
To that end, came the work on the swing over the winter, including a visit from hitting coach Dwayne Murphy about three weeks ago.
Blue Jays staff raised the notion of some fine-tuning to his leg kick after the trade, but Rasmus was understandably reluctant to tinker in-season. Instead he went at it over the winter, to the point that Murphy returned impressed both with the swing and the player’s enthusiasm for the changes.
"I think I got to where in my swing I just didn’t know where to go – one day doing one thing, one day doing the next," Rasmus said of where he was at last year. "I didn’t have any confidence in myself every day to just go out there and just see the ball and hit it.
"Now I’m focusing on some things like lowering my leg kick a little bit, talking with Murph, and just getting my weight over the plate and getting inside the baseball. Simple, not too many things going on. Just relax and hit the ball."
Helping on that front too, he figures, is his effort to surround himself with more positivity, including from his dad, who can "be a bit negative at times, just because he wants the best for me and he’s scared that I’m not going to do the right thing.
"He always looks at it from the point of I’m not doing enough, you can always do more," Rasmus continued. "I talked to him about trying to be positive with me, keep me in a positive light and I think that’s something that can help me, because he is such a big influence on my game and my overall mentality."
Put together, both the Blue Jays and Rasmus believe all the adjustments, tweaks and refinements will equal a happy and productive player.
The potential for distraction, they feel, is gone.
"Once I go out there and just try to play the game without thinking about all that stuff," he said, "just go out there and have some swag and smile and have fun and just laugh and play like a kid again, I think I’ll be all right."
With everything now apparently in place, he has the chance to prove it.
Notes: Shortstop Yunel Escobar and DH Edwin Encarnacion both reported for duty Friday, leaving only non-roster invitee Ricardo Nanita as the only player yet to appear in camp. The outfielder was having some visa issues that were expected to be resolved in short order. … The Blue Jays hold their first full-squad workout Saturday, and things pick up from there. "(Saturday) is Day 4 of that first four days of bullpen, we won’t have hitters standing in with pitchers yet, that will be Sunday," said manager John Farrell. "We’ve got more of our initial orientation that we’ll go through before we hit the field, now we’ve got a chance to start getting our bunt plays in order with guys at every position. That’s the next step, and the progression into BP after that."