The Toronto Blue Jays and great leaders are as synonymous as baseball and Cracker Jacks. Over the next 10 weeks this series will share the guiding principles of these men and other great leaders in Blue Jays history-those who have played a key role in defining this proud franchise.
When Toronto finally won an MLB franchise in 1976, Paul Beeston had to answer a simple question: How do you start a baseball team?
By Arden Zwelling
It says something about how far professional sports have come in the last 30-odd years that the Toronto Blue Jays were once run by 28 people. That includes front-office executives, ticket sellers, marketing department, public-relations office, stadium operations—the whole thing.
Paul Beeston was the first of those 28 people hired—as an accountant, no less—when Toronto was granted a major-league franchise in 1976. He remembers a time when the entire organization had an operating budget of less than $5 million. Now the team pays Jose Bautista nearly three times that every season. “It’s a completely different operation now,” Beeston says, chewing on a cigar in the spacious Rogers Centre office he enjoys as the club’s president. It certainly is; maybe the only thing that’s remained the same is Beeston himself, who was instrumental in taking a legal entity titled Metro Baseball, Ltd., and turning it into the multi-million-dollar franchise it is today.
Don McDougall, the former president of Labatt Brewing Company, was the driving force behind bringing pro baseball to Toronto. Along with Peter Hardy, a former Labatt chairman, he doggedly pursued a franchise for years, eventually working out an agreement to purchase the San Francisco Giants for $13.25 million and move them to Toronto for the 1976 season. When that deal fell through, he paid MLB $7.5 million—with the help of CIBC and Imperial Trust—for the rights to an expansion franchise that was slated to begin competition in 1977.
With the franchise secured and Exhibition Stadium fixed up with new seating and facilities to house the team, the next challenge was both simple and complex: How do you create a professional baseball team? “You’re talking about starting completely from scratch,” Beeston says. “We had a fairly long checklist.”
“You have to have something to sell otherwise you’ve got nothing, and people will see that very clearly.”
You could spend years just sorting out the business side of the equation: acquiring concessions contracts, selling media rights, setting prices, creating a brand, licensing merchandise and on and on. But Beeston et al. decided their foremost concern was the product on the field. “You have to have something to sell,” Beeston says. “Otherwise you’ve got nothing, and people will see that very clearly.” Peter Bavasi was brought over from the Padres to be the GM, and Pat Gillick, who had worked as a farm director for the Astros and director of scouting for the Yankees, was brought in as assistant GM. While Bavasi was officially in charge of baseball operations, he remained more involved with the business side of the club, while Gillick—who sold the Blue Jays on a vision for a pitching-focused, speedy, defensively sound team—handled the majority of the roster management. “He did the scouting, he put together the team, he did the draft, all of it,” Beeston says. “It’s a tremendous challenge. But he had a clean slate with no expectations and was heavily financed. That’s pretty good.”
Gillick’s first priority was staffing the scouting and development branches of the organization with like-minded individuals with whom he had come in contact during his time in the game and trusted absolutely. That meant giving veteran scouts like Bobby Mattick, Al LaMacchia and Epy Guerrero full-time jobs. “Building a baseball team is like building a house,” Gillick says. “You look for the best architects, the best builders—and then you let them do their jobs.” Maybe the biggest challenge in that critical first year was acquiring talent. The league held an expansion draft, allowing teams to protect 15 players. Of the rest, some had no-movement clauses or 10-and-5 rights that meant they couldn’t be selected. Still others were pending free agents, meaning they could have immediately left the Jays for another team without playing a game in Toronto. Gillick took the best players available, but he was essentially acquiring the 24th or 25th guy on each team’s depth chart. The teams he constructed in 1977 and 1978 were glorified triple-A clubs—the biggest names included Alan Ashby, Ernie Whitt and Ron Fairly, who led the team in home runs in the inaugural season with 19. But at that time, the focus was simply on putting a team on the field, not winning.
“You look for the best architects, the best builders—and then you let them do their jobs.”
And it’s not like Gillick had the option of promoting from within. On opening day in 1977, the Blue Jays had yet to establish a minor-league system. That meant the club had just 41 players in the organization, with a total payroll of $760,000. If there had been a bad string of injuries, Gillick would have likely had to take on a burdensome contract from another team just to get a warm body in the lineup.
The Blue Jays won just 54 games in that inaugural season and didn’t crack 60 until 1980, when they won 67. In fact, the team finished last in the American League in its first five years of existence. But Gillick patiently bided his time, using the draft to acquire pieces that would prove crucial in the future, including Lloyd Moseby and Dave Stieb in 1978 and Jimmy Key in 1982. Meanwhile, he and Beeston continued to funnel money into development at each level of the minor leagues, which helped groom the crop of Blue Jays who helped turn the team around in the 1980s. When Gillick started with the Jays, he figured it would take about 10 years for the team to be a contender. In 1985, one year early, Toronto won the American League East with 99 wins and went to the playoffs. “The most difficult thing about it is keeping your wits about you and not deviating from the plan. These things take time. It’s not all going to suddenly come together at once,” Gillick says. “Everybody now is too impatient. Everybody wants something right now; they want instant gratification. It just doesn’t happen.”
In exchange for their patience, Gillick and Beeston got a pair of World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. The trophies sit in glass cases at the Rogers Centre, just down the hall from Beeston’s office where he pulls a long cigar from a wooden box and searches for his cutter. “It was a different business back then. There weren’t the same television dollars or advertising dollars. We just sold tickets,” Beeston says, kicking his feet up on his desk. “We were just 28 people. Today we probably have 50 in ticketing alone.”
Through the highs and lows of a turbulent 2013 season, John Gibbons’ folksy laid-back approach has kept his team focused, and when necessary, in line.
By Ben Nicholson-Smith
If John Gibbons can maintain his composure through a half-season this turbulent, he’s not going to unravel any time soon.
Sure, the Toronto Blue Jays manager may snap at an umpire, or even a player on occasion. But such outbursts are as quick to pass as they are unavoidable. The 51-year-old native of San Antonio, Texas doesn’t lead by intimidating his team into submission.
Blue Jays players and coaches say Gibbons has been a steadying presence for the first three months of the 2013 season, one that has included plenty of highs and lows.
“He’s kept his head,” first baseman Adam Lind says. “I’m sure he’s had moments where he’s wanted to blow up and hasn’t.
“I think everyone has their moments where they want to,” Lind continues. “It’s just how you show it.”
Gibbons has an easy-going demeanour, yet there’s a purpose behind his approach.
“It’s a grind,” he says. “One hundred and sixty-two games, the occasional day off, but you’re with them every day through the ups and the downs and they have to know that you’re behind them.”
The Blue Jays’ patience was tested early on in 2013, when the team emerged from spring training as a World Series favourite only to start the year 13-24, as newcomers Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson landed on the disabled list while established players under-performed.
Gibbons repeatedly told Toronto fans and players alike that despite the slow start, the wins would come before long.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said when losses piled up in April.
And when the Blue Jays started playing better and gaining ground in the standings, Gibbons kept expectations in check.
“It’s not going to last forever, but you enjoy it while it lasts,” he said after the Blue Jays won 11 consecutive games in June to tie a franchise record.
Lind says it would have been “completely justified” for Gibbons to rip into the team during the difficult opening months of the season, but instead, the manager held back in anticipation of a turnaround.
“I haven’t experienced everything that’s going to happen in this game — how I deal with these guys and the issues that arise — but I’ve seen most of them,” Gibbons says.
Pete Walker has experienced many of those issues alongside Gibbons.
The Blue Jays pitching coach played under Gibbons during his first stint in Toronto from 2005-06. Now a member of the Toronto coaching staff, he has a new perspective on his former skipper.
“Even keel,” Walker says. “Someone who doesn’t get too up or too down, that’s for sure. He stays the course. We went through a tough time earlier in the season, but obviously there was never any dissension, there was never any finger pointing or any of that kind of stuff to be honest with you.”
Make no mistake, however, Gibbons does have another gear.
“He’s kind of laid-back, old school and gets rowdy when he needs to and I like that,” says centre fielder Colby Rasmus.
Ask any casual Blue Jays fan about John Gibbons’ first tenure in Toronto, and it won’t take long before the names Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly come up.
Back in 2006, Gibbons famously challenged Hillenbrand to a fight after the infielder wrote on the clubhouse bulletin board that the Blue Jays’ “ship was sinking.
” Later that season, Gibbons and Lilly engaged in a skirmish after Lilly was removed from a game in which he wished to continue pitching.
Pat Hentgen, the Blue Jays’ bullpen coach, says effective managers must be able to enforce order as skillfully as they preserve calm.
“Some guys are real quiet and docile. Other guys are real intense and fired up,” says Hentgen, the 1996 American League Cy Young Award winner. “I think Gibby is a nice combination of both. I think he can get in someone’s face when he wants to, and when he needs to, and I think he’s also got a calming influence.”
Earlier this season, Gibbons got in Brett Lawrie’s face.
On May 26 the 23-year-old Lawrie stormed off of the field in frustration during the ninth inning of a game against the Baltimore Orioles, when Lind did not attempt to score from third on a possible sacrifice fly. Upon returning to the dugout, Lawrie heard from Gibbons, who addressed the third baseman firmly from his seat in the dugout, gesturing pointedly at Lawrie for emphasis.
“You’ve still got to lay the rules down,” Gibbons says. “You’ve got to enforce them, but it’s still important that you have fun with them because you do it every day.”
It’s an approach that works for Rasmus.
“He’s got an open door,” the 26-year-old says. “He just tries to keep it positive and get me to enjoy the game and not get caught up in trying to do so good all of the time and beating myself up.”
Long before his managerial career began, Gibbons played briefly with the New York Mets, appearing in 18 games as a backup catcher between 1984 and 1986.
Hentgen can see traces of Gibbons’ former position in his current managerial style.
“It’s a position where you really have to learn whether to pump guys up or light a fire,” Hentgen says. “That’s one of the hard parts about being a catcher.”
With millions of dollars in future earnings dependent on playing time, it’s impossible to ignore the business side of the sport. For example, everyday players, starting pitchers and closers earn more than bench players and setup relievers.
“This is their careers and these positions wield a lot of power,” Gibbons says. “The decisions you make affect these guys not only on the field that night, but maybe, possibly their career. That’s very important to me. I always keep that in mind when I’m dealing with these guys.
“If you’re steady with them and honest with them, you may piss them off for a day or two,” he continues. “If you lie to them, they never forget that.”
It’s a different game now than it was when Gibbons played.
Sports highlights get airtime around the clock and each on-field outburst is quickly passed around on air and online.
Gibbons says managers must adjust accordingly.
“The times have changed,” he says. “It used to be in baseball in these positions — the manager’s spot — that they could rule by fear and they could send anybody down at any time, it didn’t matter.”
Lind echoes his manager’s observation. Managers can’t get away with as much as they did decades ago.
“It’s not really the new style. It just doesn’t happen anymore like it used to,” Lind says. “The new style is ‘don’t show anybody up, don’t make anyone look bad.’ There’s cameras everywhere and if you’ve got to handle something, you do it behind closed doors.”
There’s no doubt that the game continues to evolve quickly, yet Lind says Gibbons hasn’t changed much between 2008, when the Blue Jays fired him, and now.
“He’s the same guy,” Lind says. “Teams are obviously different — different personalities, but he’s been pretty much the same.”
He has played for Gibbons at the MLB level, in the minor-leagues and he has coached under him. In each instance, Walker’s role has been clear.
“He’s a player’s manager,” Walker says. “As a player you know your job every day you come to the field. You have responsibilities and you put on that uniform every day and you have a job to do.”
No matter how well Gibbons adapts to a changing game, there’s a good chance his second tenure in Toronto will eventually end the same way the first one did: with a firing.
The inevitability that managers are hired to be fired is not lost on Gibbons. Rather, it informs the way he balances order and chaos in the spotlight.
“These guys are going to be here longer than I am, that’s for sure,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you change who you are or you cater to them or you let the inmates run the asylum — not like that — but I think in the world today I try to have fun with these guys.”
Sure, the Blue Jays had stud players on each of their title-winning teams, but talent alone didn’t secure them their rings in ’92 and ‘93. They succeeded at the less-visible things—occasionally emotional and often cerebral—that make good teams great, and playoff teams champions.
My first game, I remember standing on the edge of the dugout when we did the national anthem and not everybody was there with me. Cito and I talked about it. I told him I was going to find where everybody was. Basically, I said, “You are to be finished eating; you are to be dressed; and you are to be on the top of that dugout when the anthem begins from here on. And I’m serious.” There aren’t too many opportunities to win it all, so sometimes I felt I had to remind the other guys that this was our opportunity.
During our first homestand, Winfield called a meeting. We went over how we were going to approach the game and how we were going to go about our business. We were going to play to win, do the little things that were required to win even if that meant at times personally giving up an at-bat by moving the runner.
When the house is burning down, we all look to Winny. If he ain’t panicking, I ain’t panicking. He was the glue.
I remember [Winfield] walking up and down the dugout and saying, “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!” He wanted you to root your teammates on. And you’re like, “OK, Mr. Winfield.” He was six-foot-six, 220 lb.
[Winfield] was very imposing, kind of a Paul Bunyan guy.
[Winfield] did a kangaroo court. He was the judge. And he decided that if somebody did something wrong they were fined. We had a box and every time somebody didn’t run to first base hard, that was a fine. If it was 0–2 and you [gave up] a hit as a pitcher, it was a fine. It brought us together.
Following a rough patch in August 1992, the Jays were in desperate need of a pick-me-up.
Candy [Maldonado] and I went to Cito before the game and said, “Is it all right that we have a team party after the game?” We dipped into our kangaroo court money and rented out one of the halls in the hotel. Cito said it was a mandatory meeting and coaches, trainers, equipment men, players, everybody had to be there or he was going to fine you. We hung around and played cards and talked and ate and had a few drinks, kind of get everybody back together and have a few laughs, get our minds off of baseball. We needed that. Guys were pressing, barking and screaming at each other. When you’re around guys for six months you get antsy.
There were times that Joe would suffer from migraine headaches and he’d come into my office and say, “Skip, don’t put the lineup up yet. I’m going to go back here in the sauna, in the dark, and I’ll be OK.”
I’d just lie on the table until game time. I never wanted to come out of the game. I’d lie there for two or three hours, try to rest it off.
He never once did not play, whether his headache was gone or not. He wouldn’t have told me if it happened in the playoffs. Joe’s such a competitor. I’m not sure if Joe would let his kids win a checkers game.
Tom Henke obviously had great fastball command and was excellent at tutoring young pitchers. When you come up, guys think you need to be better, nastier. I remember one of the things he used to tell all the young pitchers was: “Don’t change a thing.”
Molitor was a very intense, very focused, hard-driven player. He came to Toronto when he was 36 years old, but still played every single game. He had a remarkable presence that just kind of calmed everything down for the Blue Jays and validated again that they were doing whatever they could to win a World Series.
I was never overly verbal. I always did feel the freedom to speak up if I thought we were losing focus or losing sight of our goals. But I always thought that how you carried yourself and how you prepared for games—the respect that you gave the game and your teammates and your performance—was something that you could set a tone with. Simple things like running balls out and being early and just showing the right way to be professional. A lot of guys knew all this, but I think they kind of wanted to have someone around to instill the idea that that was the right way to do things.
Paul was a lot quieter guy than Dave. But the quiet influence was still an influence. A lot of young players migrated toward Paul because he carried himself well and he had the knowledge of the game.
I remember Dave Stewart, first day of pitchers’ camp, puts his arm around me and says, “What kind of year are ya gonna have?” And I was like, “Wow. Haven’t even thought about it.” He goes, “I’m gonna have a great year. You’re gonna have a big year, right?” This is the first day of spring training and I’m thinking, who am I playing golf with that afternoon? He’s talking about what kind of year he’s going to have. And then that day after the workout he says, “Hey, you wanna run with me?”
I fought my battles in between starts and so when I’m running, I have a visual of the hitters that I’m going to be facing and what the guys have done to me in the past and what I want to accomplish if certain situations happen. I use my running as preparation.
I’m like, “I get to go run with Dave Stewart? Great!” So, we take off running, right? And we’re in our shorts and T-shirts and we leave the stadium and I’m thinking, “Hey, we’re getting a long ways from the stadium.” And Dave’s not saying a word. All I can think about is, “I hope he’s gonna turn around sometime soon.”
He wasn’t saying much but he was thinking, “Stew-dog, when we getting back?” I asked him, “What were you thinking about when we were doing our run?” And he said, “I wasn’t thinking anything. I was just thinking about running.”
We get back from the run and Dave looks at me and sweat’s just pouring out. And he says, “I threw a lot of shutouts on that run. You see, when I run I’m not just getting my legs and heart in shape, I’m getting my mind in shape.” I started to gravitate toward that. And of course the next day, after camp Dave says to me, “Wanna go for a run?” And what am I gonna say, “No”? And all I can think about is, “Hope it’s shorter than yesterday’s.” He took me on. There was a mentorship there.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Stott about the mental approach to the game, I used those opportunities because I wanted him to be better than I was. I wanted him to be one of the best in the game.
He began talking to me about responsibility and about, as a starting pitcher, you’re not just responsible for your day. You’re responsible for everybody in that uniform, the GM, everybody who works at that stadium and everybody who bought a ticket to come and root for the team. And it’s really a lot bigger than I ever thought about. At that moment, I started falling love with being a starting pitcher.
I asked John Olerud in spring training that year if he ever thought about winning a batting title and he said something like, “Really? You really think I can? I can’t run, I can’t do this, I can’t do that.” And I said, “Yeah, I really do think you can.” And sure enough, he goes and wins a batting title. And I thought, “Man, if I knew I was going to finish second I would have waited another year to tell him.”
In game three of the World Series, Cito Gaston had to bench Olerud and play Molitor at first in order to keep his bat in the lineup, a move that might have caused bad blood in the locker room—but didn’t.
I was more than happy for it to go either way. I was more than happy to cheer for John. When it happened John had nothing but encouragement.
Olerud was a true professional. He said, “This is what it is.” And Paul was professional, he went out and played the game. We respected Cito so much. We’d do anything for him.
Olerud was one of the most unselfish players I can remember wearing a Blue Jays uniform. It wasn’t about John. He could’ve hit .463 and if he didn’t play in that game, it wouldn’t have affected him.
I do remember he said, “If you need anything, just look in the dugout. I’ll try to help you out.”
Whether it was with his words, his actions or his thundering bat, Carlos Delgado’s time with the Toronto Blue Jays personified everything an organization is looking for in a franchise player.
Most fans of the Toronto Blue Jays know Carlos Delgado as the franchise leader in several offensive categories including home runs, slugging percentage and OPS.
But to his former teammates and coaches, the now 41-year-old is considered an understated leader who helped set a tone allowing others to excel.
“Occasionally we would have team meetings, but he led by example, led by just getting ready to play every day and giving it everything he had,” recalls Pat Hentgen, who played with Delgado from 1993-99 and again in 2004.
Delgado says credible leaders must be consistent over a long period of time, and sometimes that means putting in additional work.
“I’m not saying you’re going to become a better hitter because you took 20 swings on a Saturday morning after a night game, but I’m saying it sends a message to the younger guys that this is how we do it,” Delgado explains. “We prepare ourselves to be better.”
It’s a message that comes from a man who hit 473 career home runs. And while there’s no doubt Delgado’s production gave him credibility that would elude a lesser hitter, he insists numbers alone are not enough.
“Because you hit .300, it doesn’t make you a leader,” he says. “It helps, because it’s easier to earn the respect from your teammates when your performance is better. Having said that, it’s not necessary.
“It’s important for a leader to be accountable, be a guy that’s a standup guy, good times and bad times, and is always willing to go the extra mile.”
Gord Ash remembers the day the Blue Jays fired him as general manager, Oct. 2, 2001.
The Blue Jays were on track to finish in third place for the fourth consecutive season, and new team owner Rogers Communications was looking for a change in leadership.
The previous October, Ash had signed Delgado to a four-year $68 million extension, setting a new MLB record for average annual value in the process.
Clearly, Delgado had nothing left to gain from cozying up to Ash, yet the first phone call Ash received following his dismissal was from his former first baseman.
“We kind of grew up in the organization together, so it meant a lot,” says Ash, now the assistant general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
What the phone call did not do was surprise the former Blue Jays GM, who says Delgado possesses a keen sense of those around him and a work ethic surpassed only by his natural talent.
“Carlos had a certain personal discipline that not everyone has,” Ash says. “The dedication he showed, the work ethic, the ability to prepare for an at-bat — that is tough to find.”
Delgado says he always tried to “go the extra mile.”
“It’s video, preparation, cage, game information, how this team pitches you, who’s the umpire, who’s the catcher, all the stuff that you don’t know when you come into the league,” Delgado explains.
It was that dedication that led Ash and then-Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson to appoint Delgado Toronto’s team captain in 1998.
Two seasons later, Ash recalls he had no reservations about signing Delgado to the record contract, in part because of his stature within the clubhouse and in the community.
“He was a guy that could be the face of your franchise,” Ash says. “A great player and someone that was generous with his time and his resources.
“He pushed himself and he pushed others,” Ash continues. “On the field he was a great hitter and off the field he led a very disciplined life.”
In 2005, Delgado faced a transition period of his own.
After just one season in Miami, the Florida Marlins traded him to the New York Mets.
One of Delgado’s new teammates that year was a 22-year-old shortstop named Jose Reyes.
“He always gave me advice about hitting — that’s the most common thing that we talked about,” Reyes recalls. “Some of the stuff off of the field, too, because when he got there in New York, I was still younger.”
Reyes, who describes Delgado as “a great person,” and “a great guy to be around,” still keeps in touch with his former teammate.
He says he still receives and values the occasional hitting tip from his old friend.
“When he sees something that I do wrong on the field, he’s going to text me or call me and let me know what I’m doing wrong,” Reyes says. “Like I said, that’s something that I appreciate a lot coming from a guy like that.”
Reyes isn’t the only one of Delgado’s former teammates he’s stayed in touch with in retirement.
Others include Shawn Green, Alex Gonzalez and Jose Cruz Jr., each of whom were in attendance recently, when the Blue Jays added Delgado’s name to the Level of Excellence.
“This goes beyond baseball,” Delgado says. “I can pick up the phone, call Shawn Green and say, ‘Hey, I’m on the West Coast, can I stay at your place?’ These are great relationships.”
And while some athletes struggle to find an identity away from their sport, Delgado has always been known as a player with passions beyond the diamond.
For example, his political beliefs created a stir back in 2004 when he decided not to stand during the playing of God Bless America in protest if the Iraq war and he has established his own charity, the Extra Bases
Reyes has received hitting tips from Delgado, Ash a supportive phone call, but all Blue Jays manager John Gibbons jokes he ever got from Delgado was a pair of batting gloves.
Some may recall Gibbons was the Blue Jays’ first base coach for a period of time during Delgado’s tenure in Toronto, when, according to Gibbons, the first baseman was “one of the top guys in baseball.”
“I did a pretty good job of holding his batting gloves,” Gibbons jokes. “He didn’t hit many singles. Usually doubles or homers.”
But as Delgado evolved into one of the game’s top power bats, Gibbons says he always remained accountable to his teammates.
“He was up there with the best of them,” Gibbons says. “He did it easy, too. Good guy. Real first-class guy.”
Other former Blue Jays teammates considered Delgado the team’s undisputed offensive leader.
“We viewed him as a middle-of-the-order power bat and he had a high average as well, so he was a tough out,” says Hentgen. “If he wasn’t in the lineup, our lineup was clearly a lot different.”
It was the late 1990s and, as Ash says, power was “the currency of the times.”
The luxury of penciling in 30 home runs and an elite on-base percentage each year from Delgado gave Ash the freedom to focus on improving other areas of his club.
“That was your power source,” Ash says. “That was your run producer. That was the guy that would make your offence click. We had a lot of power then and it started with him.”
A player who has hit 40 home runs on three different occasions has license to be vocal in the clubhouse, yet Ash, Hentgen and Gibbons describe Delgado as someone who preferred to simply lead by example.
“He didn’t speak a lot, but when he did speak he spoke with honesty,” Ash says.
Those waiting for Delgado to speak up might be left waiting a while. Those looking for consistent production on the field and preparation off it wouldn’t have to look far.
When he says the significance of leadership can’t be overstated, Delgado isn’t referring to himself, but those who played with him are more than willing to do the talking for him.
“He was always a special player from the time they first signed him as a catcher,” Hentgen said. “The best compliment I could give him is to say that he made other hitters around him better.”
Cito Gaston learned a lot during his years playing in the majors, and parlayed every bit of it into the Blue Jays’ World Series wins
As told to Evan Rosser
I played for 10 years in the big leagues, and I wish I’d had managers who stuck with me a little bit longer. I know what it means to build confidence in guys. If they’re looking over their shoulder all the time, then they’re not really comfortable out there in what they’re doing. You’ve gotta build some trust in them and they’ll build some trust in you. They will believe in you and they’ll play for you as hard as they can, because they know that you trust them and care about them and you want them to have the best opportunity to succeed. The season is long, and you can do something to a person that will damage you for the rest of the season—taking a guy out too early or pinch-hitting for a guy or something.
I used to get a lot of heat for not pinch-hitting a guy I gave a day off. If I gave Robbie [Alomar] a day off, it’s a day off. No matter what came up in that game, he wasn’t going to hit that day. People don’t understand that if he goes up there and gets a base hit, then he had a great day—but if he goes out there and makes an error, it can ruin his whole day. Why have the day off? It helps if you were a player and you understand those sorts of things. I wanted to give my guys as much of a chance as I could. When you’re not hitting the ball, people are looking at you kind of funny, or you think they are, or think they’re talking about you. They probably are but I think when you can show the player that “I believe in you, you’re going to come out of this,” he’s going to play hard for you, he’s going to give you everything he has.
I was fortunate enough to play for [San Diego Padres manager] Preston Gomez. God bless his soul, he’s not around anymore. He was kind of like a dad for me. Preston always tried to be a couple innings ahead of the opposition in knowing what was going to happen. It’s not that tough to do. I’m not going to say you have to be that smart, you just have to go through the situations—what if this happens, what if that happens—and to be ready for it. When I was a pinch hitter in the last part of my career, sometimes I got the last-second “Get a bat and get ready. Get down the hole and get ready.” I’ve always tried to let guys have some time to think about who they might face and what they might try to do.
One thing that I preach to my players, something I learned from Hank Aaron [the two were roommates while playing for the Atlanta Braves], is that you don’t look in the past. If you have a great day, you enjoy it that night and the next is a different day. If you have a bad day, you look at what you could’ve done to make it a better day and then you leave that in the past. [Aaron] taught me a lot of things, as well as tying a tie. He got me back in the game. When he was farm director for the Braves, he asked me to come work with him—never said work for him, he said, “Work with me”—and the third time he called me, I said OK. And the rest of it’s pretty much history.
Always one to stick up for his players, Gaston had a lot of fans in the Blue Jays clubhouse. Tom Henke, closer for the ’92 World Series champs, was one of his biggest.
Cito is the best manager I ever played for. I’d run through a brick wall to save a game for him. Like a dad, he wasn’t afraid to discipline you if that’s what had to be done. He could be as tough as anybody. But he was always there for you, always had your back. If one got away from me, the next day in the papers you’d see Cito trying to take the blame for it—trying to take the blame off me. He was that way with everybody on that team. That’s what a good manager does. I played for Joe Torre [in St. Louis] and he was the same way.
Cito understood the game—really understood—and made some players what they were. He was a student of the game. He could read the situations—he could see how a batter was at the plate, the last swing he made, and he’d tell you what the next pitch was gonna be. He could pick off signs. He could see things in a pitcher’s delivery almost any other manager would miss—like something that a pitcher did different when he was throwing his curveball instead of his fastball.
There was a stretch where I was getting beat like a dog, every time. I thought, “What the heck is goin’ on?” Cito came up to me and said, “When you’re throwing your split-finger you’re wiggling your glove.” It wasn’t a big wiggle, just enough for batters to pick up. They knew what was coming. He told me to do the wiggle on every pitch. Sure enough, guys were looking for something else.
R.A. Dickey knows better than most that the fortunes of big-league pitchers can rise and fall quickly.
Four years ago, Dickey was an aging journeyman, a former first round flop who had yet to experience much success at the MLB level.
By 2010, however, he had turned his career around, and by 2012 he had become one of the National League’s elite pitchers.
But the 2013 season has been a much different story, as Dickey has been less effective since joining the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I learned a long time ago that you can’t take yourself too seriously in this game and part of that is you always want to try to remain as humble as possible,” Dickey said in a recent interview. “You want to have a quiet confidence that you can beat the other team, but at the same time, you also know this game is very difficult and can be very humbling.”
The 2013 Blue Jays have shown that it’s extremely difficult for MLB teams to obtain frontline pitchers. Dickey and Josh Johnson have fallen short of expectations, and the team’s starting rotation has faltered.
Yet there’s no doubt that winning championships becomes a whole lot easier with an ace or two on the pitching staff.
While the 2013 Blue Jays don’t have a starter performing at the level of an ace, past Blue Jays teams have included many elite pitchers — even some all-time greats. From Dave Stieb to Jack Morris to Pat Hentgen to Roger Clemens to Roy Halladay, the lineage of Blue Jays aces includes a number of Hall of Fame candidates and former Cy Young winners.
It’s no coincidence that the rosters of the 1992 and 1993 world championship teams included accomplished starters such as Morris, Hentgen, Dave Stewart, Juan Guzman and David Cone and shutdown relievers such as Tom Henke and Duane Ward.
Even so, there’s much more to being an ace than standing atop the mound and letting it go. Pitchers must balance the mental and physical components of their game, managers and coaches must guide and communicate with the aces, and teams must balance the responsibilities of starters and relievers.
Here’s some of the wisdom on ace pitchers gathered from the last two National League Cy Young winners, former Blue Jays aces, and those who have managed and faced them:
“You have to have a certain skill set to be here. So I’d say it’s probably 60/40 physical and mental, but the mental component can’t be underrated. You have to have that as part of the package, or you’ll never be able to achieve what you want to achieve.
“The mental game is such a grind. One hundred and sixty-two games in 183 days. Thirty three starts if you’re a starting pitcher and you have all kinds of ups and downs. To be able to weather that mentally — it’s tough and it takes training, just like it does to train your body to throw.“
“The mental part is not thinking about it. However much you can just not think about it and just go out and pitch and simplify things and attack the hitters, more often than not, you’re going to have success.”
“I loved to watch the pitchers who had the same stuff that I had. How they can use it in order that I can do it myself so I can be successful.
“Not every pitcher is the same. Every pitcher is different, but I believe you have to know how you can use velocity effectively. If you have a good slider, if you have a change-up, how are you going to use it in order to be successful?
“I watched Clemens. I remember coming up in 1986 he was so good. He had such a good fastball and forkball. Nolan Ryan. I watched mostly the hard-throwing pitchers because I used to throw hard and I said, ‘I’d like to learn what they’re doing, I’d like to watch that.”
“Me? No, I’m just kidding. Jimmy Key was one of those guys who was a true, true pitcher. I learned a lot from Jimmy Key, I learned a lot from Mike Flanagan. My hero growing up was Nolan Ryan. Having an opportunity to be on the same field as a lot of great pitchers — it was a dream come true.”
“I’m so different than everybody else. It’s kind of tough. I like to watch guys who have what scouts would define as mediocre stuff, but have been able to maintain and sustain a level of greatness despite the label they’ve got as a guy that doesn’t have stuff.
“So guys that throw 88-90 but just can really get it done, I enjoy watching that because it’s a chess match, and that to me is really fun. I feel like if you throw 100, you’d better get people out. It’s like being 7’2”. You’d better be able to dunk the basketball at 7’2”.”
“There’s a ton of good left-handed pitchers right now. Cliff Lee’s probably the most established. He has done it forever and has been doing it for a while now. Cole Hamels, too, is a great pitcher. There’s a lot of guys. (Francisco) Liriano and (Jeff) Locke in Pittsburgh and a lot of guys that I like to watch, get some ideas for how to pitch to certain guys, stuff like that.”
“It doesn’t matter how much you hit, you certainly have to pitch well and play good defence. We had a lot of great pitchers — Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and other guys too — but when you have starting pitching, it really helps your team.
“Sure, if you have guys who are going to win 15 games, sure you can get by that way, too, but everybody wants to have one or two quality starters.
“If you can have quality starters that go out there and get you 15 wins, then you’ll also have a great starting staff.”
“I like the limelight. I like to go out there and show what I can do and be that seventh, eighth, ninth inning guy where all eyes are on you. I wanted that weight of everybody relying on me to do something.
“Plus, it gave me an opportunity to pitch a lot. I love pitching a lot and that’s why the bullpen fit me so well. I think as a starter, I’d have been pulling my hair out — what little hair I had — and just going crazy because I’d pitch one day, get four days off.”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of how he’s going to pitch to me. Then you learn pitchers usually have an out pitch. I tried to figure out what’s their out pitch, when this guy’s in trouble, he’ll probably go to that. You don’t go too far away from your strength, but you’ve got to be smart about it because they’re not going to put it on a silver platter for you.”
“I was on second base and there was nobody out with the bases loaded. To this day I can’t figure out how I got to second, because I never hit him that well. He must have hit me or something, I’m not sure.
“I was getting my lead to make sure I was going to score on a base hit. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Three fastball strikeout. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Two strikeouts. Nobody’s fouled a ball off yet. Now I’m not even getting a lead, I’m just looking at him because I’m in awe of him. He throws three more fastballs and the inning is over. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen and it was just unbelievable.”
There’s no quick fix for rookies looking to transition from the minor-leagues to the big leagues.
By Ben Nicholson-Smith
Just ask Adam Lind.
No matter how well-intentioned and respectful rookie players are, and no matter how well they perform on the field, when they first reach the Big Leagues, they will still be considered outsiders.
By the time of his first September call-up with Toronto in 2006, Lind was well-recognized as one of the Blue Jays’ top prospects, yet he was still an unknown to many of his new Big League teammates.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” Lind recalls in a recent interview. “It wasn’t like when I got here, I was guaranteed to be on the team for the next five, six years. I hadn’t been to big-league camp, so I didn’t know any of the guys.
“Some guys who have been to a couple of big-league camps can hit the ground running,” he adds. “For me, I was thrown up with Davis Romero and John Hattig. We were the three amigos for that September.”
It’s not that veteran players were hostile toward Lind.
In fact, he credits many former teammates for making time for him. But helping a rookie adjust to the big leagues isn’t immediately the top priority for veteran leaders focused on a pennant race or an upcoming contract negotiation.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get in because they don’t want to waste their time with you,” Lind says with a laugh. “After a couple of months in my ’07 year, Troy Glaus, Frank Thomas started talking to me about hitting.”
Lind’s story is far from unusual.
There’s more to being a rookie than carrying a brightly-coloured tote bag and dressing up in outlandish costumes come September. Former Blue Jays players say easing rookies into the Big Leagues takes time, patience and helpful nudges from those around them.
The pink backpacks are just a bonus.
Adjusting to MLB involves a lifestyle change – especially for players in Toronto, the lone big league city outside of the U.S. On a basic level, players must get used to earning a Big League paycheque, $490,000 per year.
Life isn’t quite as posh in the minor leagues.
“You go from living with three or four or five roommates and you get here and people have families and you live by yourself,” Lind says.
Then there are the administrative challenges.
“New bank account, new cell phone, new cash,” Lind says. “It’s a whole different world when you come up — especially with the Blue Jays — than what you’re used to. Some guys haven’t ever left the country when they come here.”
For Neil Wagner, a rookie on the 2013 Blue Jays, the cultural adjustments have been manageable.
“It’s not Quebec or something, where everyone speaks French,” says Wagner, a native of Minneapolis. “It’s a fairly easy adjustment.”
One of the biggest challenges for Wagner has been the commute to and from Buffalo, where Toronto’s triple-A affiliate plays.
“On paper it’s a short drive, but you have to go through customs. That’s really the big thing in shuffling back and forth.”
Once rookies address logistical challenges like setting up bank accounts, they can turn their focus to the field. With any luck, there will be a veteran player or two willing to answer questions and provide occasional guidance.
Wagner, older than most rookies at age 29, has received support from his teammates, and no hazing.
“I know that in the past, guys had a little bit of a rougher time, but both the coaching staff and the veteran players have been pretty good, rather than riding us and making the guys here feel uncomfortable,” Wagner says. “If we inadvertently step out of line, they’re pretty good about putting us back in our place without being cruel about it.”
When Jesse Barfield first arrived in the majors in 1981, his older teammates felt his clothing wasn’t fashionable enough. Then-designated hitter Otto Velez and first baseman John Mayberry tried to help the 21-year-old.
“I couldn’t afford a whole lot, so I had my K-Mart walkman — thank God for K-Mart — and I had my Tom McAn pleather jacket — everybody had one of those — and shoes,” Barfield recalls.
“They took my shoes off. ‘Where’d you get those shoes?’ big John said. ‘Tom McAn? You can’t wear no Tom McAn in the big leagues, son. We’ve got to get you some real shoes.’
“Everybody’s laughing and Otto said, ‘Big John, that don’t feel like real leather to me.’ I feel like getting out of the bus, and then he got to the jacket. Same thing, they popped it! And I’m like ‘this is what the big leagues is all about.’”
The veteran players helped Barfield buy a new wardrobe, and the gesture made his transition to the Big Leagues a little smoother.
Ten years after Mayberry and Velez ditched Barfield’s Tom McAn jacket, Juan Guzman found himself trying to fit in with the 1991 Blue Jays.
Veteran starter Jimmy Key helped reinforce the point that success on the mound depends on more than fastball velocity. Key, a soft-tossing left-hander, shut down the Orioles one day after the flame-throwing Guzman lasted just five innings.
“I said, ‘wait man, there’s something here,’” Guzman recalls. “So there’s so much you can learn from people that already have been through it — especially concentrating and learning how to use your stuff.”
For players like Guzman and Barfield, lessons from established Big League players led to success on the field.
Rookie players may sometimes feel isolated, but there’s always a manager who has been charged with the responsibility of overseeing that player’s development. Longtime Blue Jays skipper Cito Gaston says most rookies must be eased into the lineup over time.
“You make sure they get some playing time and put them in situations where they aren’t going to fail,” says Gaston, who managed the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays to World Series titles. “You want them to gain some confidence in what they’re doing, so you try to pick the spots and places that you might want to play them.”
For some players, however, talent takes over.
Former Blue Jays stars Dave Winfield and John Olerud started playing at the MLB level without a single game in the minors.
“Winfield and I played together in San Diego and we had a team that wasn’t going anywhere, so it was easier to put Dave in that lineup,”Gaston recalls. “But when Olerud came here, we had a good team and we were going places, so it was even tougher for him.”
Carlos Delgado was one of the many rookies who reached the MLB level during Gaston’s tenure in Toronto.
Delgado hit eight home runs with the Blue Jays in April of 1994, but ultimately returned to the minor leagues after a prolonged slump. He personally thanks Gaston for his role in teaching him how to adjust to MLB pitching.
“I put a lot of time and effort into figuring out what I was good at, how the teams were pitching me, how they were trying to get me out and how can I maximize my swing and my approach to try and be the best player that I could,” Delgado says.
It’s hard not to be intimidated when you’re facing an MLB player you watched growing up, so it took some time before Lind viewed accomplished players as equals. But he now knows that John Hattig isn’t the only one who swings and misses at curveballs.
Frank Thomas and David Ortiz do it too.
“I think sometimes the misconception in the Big Leagues is that the game’s flawless,” Lind says. “Especially minor-league coaches who haven’t played in the Big Leagues think the game’s flawless. And you get here and you realize that the game is a lot better, but there are still the idiosyncrasies of the game that happen at any level.”
Lind estimates that he needed a year to understand that Big League hitters make errors in the field and swing and miss at hittable pitches. By the time he made that realization, he was no longer a rookie by any definition.
“Up here everybody’s slider is so good, and everybody’s fastball sinks, and everybody’s heater is 95,” Lind says. “So my first month I was like ‘man I have no shot.’ Then you realize it’s not quite as good as the picture you had in your head.”
Coaching at the Big League level entails much more than watching the game from the bench. In fact, the game itself often represents some well-deserved down-time for MLB coaches.
By Ben Nicholson-Smith
Toronto Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale prepares for each game as though he’s the manager himself.
It’s a precaution that has come in handy in each of the four instances this year that Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has been ejected.
“You have to, because you don’t want to have to take over managing and have your team skip a beat, so to speak,” Hale explains in a recent interview. “You want to keep going, and playing the game, and the way they expect John Gibbons to manage. That’s the comfort.”
But preparing to manage an MLB team is quite an undertaking, one that takes Hale roughly 12 hours every day. He’s not alone, either.
Big-league coaches around baseball help lead their teams by adapting to their players’ needs continuously over the course of a 162-game season. The job demands patience, consistency and flexibility.
Three MLB coaches – Hale, Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo and Blue Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola – recently detailed how they prepare for a typical 7 p.m. game.
All three have decades of professional playing and coaching experience. Mottola and Lovullo played at the Big League level before coaching and Hale and Lovullo have interviewed for big-league managerial positions in recent years.
Here’s a closer look at how their days unfold:
“You wake up, get to the ballpark by 12 or so, and get started. You come in, sit with the manager a while, you check to see if any moves have been made, check the scouting reports, see how the other team’s doing.
“When you’ve been in the league a while, you’ve seen some things. Myself, seeing managers and their styles, but more importantly you kind of see the lineup. The manager’s got an idea of how he’s going to try to attack it.“
“If it’s the opening day of the series, the first game, it gets really busy. We have our advanced meetings, several meetings that require sit-downs just to go over the tendencies and habits of the hitters, the pitchers, some of their tendencies and habits on the bases, just the little things.
“Bus at 12:30, get here by one, get situated, have our own internal meeting day number one, talk about the things we want to talk about.
“A lot of the reason that we get here early beyond that — after day number one — is that we just want to be accessible to players. I think that’s a really good quality that we all have here — that we get to the ballpark, take care of our business, maybe have a little lunch, sit down with the guys, just integrate some of our thoughts and some of the stories that have happened over the course of the day.
“Just be there for the players, because you never know what their needs are, whether it’s just a conversation or some video they need to watch, but it’s mostly to be accessible to players beyond that point and beyond that first day.
“I have the same format I follow. I have the same seat that I’ll sit in, I have the same about of time that I spend eating. I have the same amount of time that I’ll spend with (Red Sox manager John Farrrell) getting the lineup formatted — which is also something I do, one of the first things I do is sit and talk with John about what he wants to do lineup wise.“
“I arrive at about 11:30 a.m., start breaking down that night’s pitcher. What are his tendencies to the left-hander, right-hander, what he’s done the last few games, so that takes me to about 12:30.
“Then maybe grab a bite to eat, 12:30-1. Then either start looking at our swings of guys that are scuffling a little bit or guys that are doing well, because I like looking at swings of guys that are doing well.“
“The players arrive and you talk to them, get ready for batting practice and have batting practice.
“From there you have a little break — a 15, 20 minute break. You gather yourself and think about the game, and then the game starts. It’s over and over.
“Through that all, you hope to have 30 or 40 minutes to yourself to go and work out to
keep yourself in shape.“
“The players get going at 4:15 and 4:30, and once that picks up, it starts going pretty quick.
I think the hitters have a routine with their hitting coach. I think the pitchers have a routine with their pitching coach, but outside of that we just try to go over some different things that we pick up during the course of the day.
“It might just be a casual conversation about how your wife is and how your children are doing back at home over the course of a long road trip. We just want to be there for the guys and be accessible for the guys. It’s a long season and we want to be one big family.
“It’s mostly about just the rhythm and the routine of day number one, formatting the opposing team’s strategy along with their strengths and limitations. Pass it along to the players. There’s no real one written script to that because it changes on a daily basis. These guys are so dynamic and some of their needs are pretty unique.
“What’s funny is everyone knows when it’s time to sit down, stop laughing and get ready for the game, and that’s usually around 6:15. It gets real quiet in our locker room. Everything’s off, and the focus starts to become the game.“
“The physical work starts about 1:30 or 2 o’clock. We’ll go to the cage on separate times for each guy and it could be anywhere from five minutes to 15 minutes depending on how they feel. That takes me to four o’clock and we have stretch at 4:20, then BP from 4:30 to 5:30 roughly and back to the (indoor) cage all the way to about 6:45.
“Then the game starts and that’s probably when I have my least work. We just sit back and relax. My busy time each day is basically from about 2-6:45. Then the game starts and I don’t like to get involved too much when the guy’s throwing 95 m.p.h.. You can’t get too deep into stuff.“
“Always before I leave, I check with the manager. He gets reports for all his injuries, any moves being made. You’ve got all of that information right there. If there’s nothing else, you go home, exhale a little bit, and make some adjustments in your head as to what maybe you could have done better, tendencies that the opposing team showed that were interesting in a given moment.
“So you’re forever thinking. It’s a lot — you’ve got a lot, but you’re thinking about the game and if an off-day is coming you try to think about it a little bit.“
“What people don’t realize is that we’ll be here a while. Our bus (to the stadium) is at 12:30 … We get here by one o’clock and we’re here until probably midnight when buses leave, and they all leave between 11:30 and 12 o’clock depending on what time the game is. So we put in an 11-12 hour workday, but it’s not all grinding work.“
“After the game, we’ll go to the cage every once in a while if the guy wants to sleep good at night, I like to call it. Just take a few swings to make sure he feels good about going to bed if he didn’t get the results in the game he wanted to just to unwind. Some guys are crazy that way that that’s the way they unwind.
“I know what I signed up for. I enjoy the grind. That’s kind of the way my career was, being from nine organizations, and hearing all kinds of different philosophies. That’s where I get the most excited is when guys are grinding and get in the battle with them and understand what they’re feeling. That’s what I signed up for because I really enjoy it.”
Mark DeRosa’s value to the Blue Jays goes far beyond the box score. Just ask his teammates.
As told to Brett Popplewell
In January, after the Blue Jays’ front office put together what was supposed to be one of the most offensively charged clubs in the league, management found themselves looking at a massive hole in their roster. Sure, they had some of the best bats in the game, and a Cy Young Award–winner on the mound, but they lacked “a glue guy”—the type of player required to keep the team together.
So rather than promote a young bat from the minors, they went out and picked up Mark DeRosa, a 15-year vet with a World Series ring and years of post-season experience. It didn’t matter that he was pushing 38 and coming off the worst season of his career (he hit .188 in 85 at-bats with the Nationals last year). All that mattered was that for $750K, the elder could contribute as much off the field for the playoff-chasing Jays as he did on it.
In early August, with the Jays eight games below .500 and all but mathematically eliminated from the post-season, an undisclosed club attempted to snatch DeRosa away from Toronto. That the Jays opted not to let him go may have come as a surprise to those who view baseball strictly as a numbers game. Because despite a few key hits this season, DeRosa hasn’t been among the most productive members of the 25-man squad—he was batting just .227 with 29 RBI and 34 hits at the time. But baseball never has been just a numbers game, at least not to the players themselves, who collectively agree that win or lose, a guy like DeRosa is invaluable.
Off the field, he serves a pretty big purpose. When I’m not playing well, at the end of the day, he’s a guy you don’t mind talking to. He has a gift for being able to talk to people. He gets his point across without you thinking that he’s attacking you personally.
I played with him in St. Louis, and I remember then he just was kind of free-flowing—said anything that was on his mind. When he first came over there from the Indians, he made it more light, more fun rather than just like the stone-faced, “We’re here to work instead of have fun.” He has always been good to me. The game’s hard, man, so being able to just let that go and have fun makes it easier.
Most of the guys in my experience who have been glue guys have had a pretty good amount of experience. When I was younger [with the Texas Rangers], it was Brian Jordan. He was on the DL for a lot of the year but he was a guy who commanded a lot of respect and he knew how to communicate well with a bunch of different types of guys. I don’t think you have to look any further than Brett Lawrie to see DeRosa’s value to the team. It’s not an accident that their lockers are side by side. When you have that much experience next to you—I mean, the guy has been to so many post-seasons, he has played for championship ball clubs.
First time I saw him was in spring training. I knew how long he’d been in the game and all the teams he’d played with. He has played with the best—Maddux, Pujols, Glavine. I knew he was with the Giants when they won [in 2010]. Sooner or later, we started playing golf together and we’ve been boys ever since.
His value starts as a teammate. He helps push this group of guys. He picks you up when you’re down and he keeps you up. He’s always out there for the first pitch during practice. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met in baseball. It doesn’t matter if he’s just going to hit .100, which he’s not going to because he has got a lot more talent at the plate than that.
I would miss D-Row probably the most of all the guys here if he was gone. This year has been hard for me in the sense that I was hurt in the beginning. I didn’t have a chance to start with the team. I knew we had a great opportunity, there was all this hype and I wanted to be a part of that, and I got taken away from that early and that bugged me. Then I got back with the team and soon enough I ended up hurting my ankle and that stopped me for 45 days. It has been a season of mixed emotions. He has always been there for me. He doesn’t just tell you when you’re doing something wrong—he tries to give you keys to fix it.
He hasn’t been to [the post-season] with all these teams because he doesn’t know how to win. He definitely knows, and I think that earns him a spot in this clubhouse. He speaks his mind. He’s going to tell you: “I’m going to be honest with you.” That’s his line.
Some guys want to lead by example. And that’s fine, but there does come a point when something has to be said in the clubhouse. And sometimes it means a whole heck of a lot more when it’s coming from one of your peers than from the manager. I think I established respect here early because I grinded. I was a 25th man early in my career—a guy who had to grind through the minor leagues. I wasn’t a top prospect at any point. I never hit .300 at any level. As I’ve gotten older and been able to hang around, I’ve kind of been every guy on the roster. I think that experience has helped me get a feel for everybody and where they might be at in their careers.
I completely enjoy being a mentor. I know I’m not going to play every day, especially at this age. My body can’t handle it. Lawrie is able to do things at his age and at his stage in his career that I can’t. So if I can give him some advice that I’ve picked up over the years and if some of that advice sticks or maybe helps him down the road or helps him feel something he has never felt before, then I get a huge deal of gratitude out of that. For me, that’s part of my job description.
My numbers aren’t great by any stretch and I know that, but I have been productive in big spots. I’ve gotten some big hits, I’ve helped us win some games and accomplished one of the career goals that I wanted in hitting 100 homers. I’m happy in what I’ve done and in being able to come back. I’m sure that 80 percent [of what the Jays saw in me] was more to come in and help Brett and to help J.P. and to be a sounding board for some of the younger guys. And then to be a quality bat off the bench. Hopefully, I’ve given them that.
Players such as Jonny Gomes and Mark DeRosa have earned reputations as ‘clubhouse guys.’ They show leadership by helping their teammates on and off of the field. But they must also produce.
By Ben Nicholson-Smith
Dozens of players from Mark DeRosa to Torii Hunter to Michael Young have built reputations as strong clubhouse presences – players who are supportive teammates on and off of the field.
But it’s Jonny Gomes of the Boston Red Sox who stands out as baseball’s quintessential clubhouse leader. The compactly-built outfielder provides power against left-handed pitching along with an apparent knack for reaching the post-season.
If the Red Sox reach the post-season this year, Gomes will have played on four different playoff teams in the past six years. His backers say it’s not a coincidence and his contract — $5 million per season for two years – suggests the baseball industry values the 32-year-old more than a typical platoon outfielder.
While Gomes doesn’t self-identify as a leader, he knows others view him as such.
“I don’t run from it by any means, which is something I take pride in,”
Gomes recalls in a recent interview.
“You don’t get that title in one year. You don’t get that title in two years. It’s earned, and there’s a respect that goes along with it. It’snot self-titled. I don’t walk into the Red Sox clubhouse for the firsttime this year and say ‘hey guys, jump on board, I’m the leader.’”
Baseball analysts tend to respond in one of two ways when a teamacquires a so-called ‘clubhouse guy.’
Some argue that players such as Gomes, DeRosa, and Mark Kotsay add value that can’t be measured in a boxscore, and that paying more to trade for or sign such players is completely justified.
Others maintain that using valuable trade chips, payroll and roster space for players because they are especially sociable is misguided. Mascots and coaching staffs exist for a reason, they say. Players are there to play.
Why devote a roster spot to Kotsay when, after 89 games, he has one home run and a .487 OPS? Why sign Mark DeRosa to a major-league deal following an extremely poor offensive year? Why spend $10 million on Gomes when comparable players such as Scott Hairston are available for half as much?
Well, some say there’s danger in relying too much on star power.
“In this game I think the number one characteristic in a superstar is selfishness,” Gomes says. “Truly. And that’s not a bad thing.”
But superstars alone don’t necessarily get a team through a six-month season – a point to which Gomes keeps returning.
“You could have the biggest engine and the most horsepower, but if that thing doesn’t have oil, it ain’t running,” he says. “What does a big machine run on? Grease – a big machine runs on a lot of grease. So you need grease on the team too.”
Many look at Gomes and fellow Red Sox newcomers David Ross, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli as the grease that helps the Red Sox machine run.
DeRosa, a 16-year veteran who has played on seven playoff teams, was brought in to grease the Blue Jays’ machine.
While the team continues to struggle, DeRosa has done his part, providing league average offence at three positions while mentoring teammates including Brett Lawrie.
“He’s that proven vet that everybody bounces things off of, he’s got the right things to say at the right time,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons explains. “It’s been a frustrating year, but he’s helped stabilize some
DeRosa has as much experience as some coaches, and yet he can also relate to current players. He has said he aims to be a big brother of sorts for Lawrie.
“Letting him vent, letting him say what he needs to say, and then kind of picking and choosing what battles to fight with him day-to-day,” DeRosa says. “You don’t want to just flood a guy with a million things to think about.”
Just as DeRosa aims to be a sounding board for Lawrie, Blue Jays left-hander Darren Oliver tries to make himself available to younger players.
Oliver, 42, has 20 years of MLB experience. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1988, two years before Lawrie and Anthony Gose were born. When players seek out Oliver’s advice, they tend to speak about their lives away from the baseball diamond.
“Having a girlfriend, getting married, family, money — that would be probably the biggest one,” Oliver says. “You need somebody to talk to and a lot of times you can’t really talk to your friends you grew up with because they’re not in the same situation.”
Whether it’s in the clubhouse, on the team airplane or over dinner, Oliver aims to provide younger players with the support they need to focus on the field and improve their performance.
“Most of the time you lead by example,” Oliver says. “How you go about your business on the field and maybe giving advice for some stuff off of the field that they might not be able to get from people that are close to them.”
Gomes agrees, explaining that veteran players can pass along valuable knowledge that makes a real difference on the field.
“I’ve learned a whole bunch from just sitting next to a guy at his locker, sitting next to a guy on the bench, and I’m very thankful for that,” he says. “I was always taught that you can’t hoard baseball information. You’ve got to give it back, so I try and do my best with that.”
Leadership doesn’t always come from the most talented players in the clubhouse.
“I’ve played on teams where the quote unquote team leader, the rock, the clubhouse guy might have been the 24th-best player on the team,” Gomes says.
Yet Gomes makes a point that will resonate with those who say teams should prioritize talent over personality.
If he were the general manager of one of baseball’s 30 teams, he would only pursue players who could produce on the field. Leadership would just be one of the elements he’d seek.
“I would look for that in players,” he says. “But they brought myself in, they brought David Ross in, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli – clubhouse guys and all that stuff. Well, they’re good baseball players.”
“I joke around by saying ‘it’s not like they brought in a rodeo clown to make everyone laugh and keep everyone loose.’ If you ask ‘hey how’s David Ross,’ well he’s a good player. Clubhouse guy is the last thing that comes to mind.”