Here’s the thing about Brett Lawrie, the Toronto Blue Jays speeding ticket at third base.
He’s playing baseball — hell, living life — at full throttle. If you don’t get out of his lane he’ll pass you on the right hand side.
Risky? Sure but he’s not looking for your approval; he’s in a hurry. He might get pulled over here and there, but he certainly doesn’t care — or care to give the impression that he cares — about what you or I think.
“People perceive people how they want to perceive people,” Lawrie said to me in a quiet moment before Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves. “I don’t necessarily think that everyone in the world has to like me, because that’s not how the world goes. So, if you like me then you do, and if you don’t you don’t.”
He was speaking in reference to the fallout after Sunday at Rogers Centre when he threw a tantrum that was more significant for its timing and specificity than its intensity or length.
As all Blue Jays fans with electricity are aware by now, he flied out in the bottom of the ninth with Toronto trailing by two runs. His was the first out of the inning and when Adam Lind was held up by third base coach Luis Rivera, Lawrie gave them a piece of his mind on his way back to the dugout in plain view of anyone who wanted to see it.
He looked at best selfish and at worst foolish — that he cared so much about being credited for an RBI that the slow-footed Lind should have risked running the Blue Jays out of a big inning before it started — and when manager John Gibbons scolded him for showing up his coach and his teammate, Lawrie gave it right back to him before Jose Bautista stepped in between them.
It was hardly Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson going at it in the New York Yankees dugout or Lou Pinniella wrestling with Rob Dibble in the clubhouse in Cincinnati way back.
Even for Gibbons, it would rank low on his list of top-five manager-player dust-ups; the man who threw Ted Lilly into a headlock.
And Lawrie did offer a proper apology to his teammates before the game Monday.
But is the Blue Jays’ sprinting, diving, free-swinging Red Bull advertisement ready to apologize for being Brett Lawrie?
Is he going to apologize if you don’t like a guy who plays his ass off but is hitting .200? Who defends his right to chirp back at fans on Twitter as his right to free speech? Who can’t quite understand why umpires might take offence to his unwillingness to accept the indignity of a called third strike?
Not a chance.
“It doesn’t really bother me who likes me and who doesn’t,” he said. “I’m here for all these 25 guys in here. I play for those guys. Anyone else can think what they want to think.”
“[And] if people want to have their say, I can have my say just as well.”
The question long term is what the Blue Jays think and what the rest of baseball is going to say.
There is a long major league tradition of guys who are less than charming people or teammates reaching the grandest heights of the game. Legends from Ty Cobb to Ted Williams to Barry Bonds are known nearly as much for being varying degrees of ‘difficult’ as for being nearly impossible to get out.
Being likeable doesn’t really matter. Being likeable and not very good is another issue, and if Lawrie’s hard-headedness is a symbol of his overall unwillingness to make the kind of adjustments required to excel in the majors, then maybe moments like Sunday do matter.
That Lawrie’s likeability quotient is slipping with each public display of dissatisfaction is one thing; that he’s also a pretty easy guy to pitch to at the moment — as his .199 batting average and 36 strikeouts in 150 plate appearances heading into Monday’s action would attest– is another. If they’re two things coming from the same place, then Toronto might have a real problem child on its hands.
Watching all of this is Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who traded a perfectly capable starter in Shaun Marcum for Lawrie on the basis that he could be a fixture at third base for a decade or more, with the added bonus that he could be the first Canadian to star for a Canadian team since Larry Walker was patrolling right field for the Montreal Expos.
Anthopoulos doesn’t want to apologize for Lawrie, but it’s his job to put his struggles into context, and the umbrella he chooses to shelter him with is the date on his birth certificate.
“Brett’s a high energy, intense player and you don’t want to take it all away from him, but it needs to improve,” said Anthopoulos in a phone interview. “And it is, slowly. It’s going to be a process. If it was going the other way and getting worse, it would be totally different.”
Lawrie represents a potential boon to the Blue Jays and their well-publicized quest to become relevant to sports fans across the country again after long years in the shadows. An athletic stud born in British Columbia and starring at Rogers Centre? That’s made-to-order stuff.
When he was called up in August of 2011, it was too easy to label him a star in the making. He was hitting walk-off homeruns and pulverizing the dugout with high-fives.
He was 21 and tearing up major league pitching. You couldn’t help but pay attention, and Lawrie — with his inked arms and amped up Twitter feed — seemed to revel in it.
But after a so-so second year and a brutal start this season — albeit hampered by injuries — Lawrie’s becoming known more for his antics than his big hits.
“This is what happens, he realizes it, but all eyes are on him, all the time and that’s part of having a million [actually 190,000] followers on Twitter and being a Canadian on the only Canadian team and being a fan favourite,” says Anthopoulos. “People love the way he plays, but it can get him trouble.”
Lawrie hasn’t been disciplined for any of his on-field foolishness so far, raising the question of whether the Blue Jays are enabling a young man to yield to his weaker moments or if they’re giving a talented kid room to grow. Anthopoulos says it’s the latter and the strategy is working.
“What happened [Sunday], he realized within five minutes [that it was wrong] and it’s addressed,” he said. “Last year it may have taken him 24 hours, so we’ve cut it down. Going forward we may get it to one minute or not at all.”
Doing dumb things in the heat of the moment is part of being human, and it’s nearly the essence that particular sub-species of human: the testosterone-charged, sub-25 year-old male.
There’s a reason the insurance industry treats young men with a high degree of caution. It’s not because they think they’re bad people, it’s just the data suggests they have a high doofus quotient when they get behind the wheel of a car, for example. They’re a risk.
At his best Lawrie can do all kinds of things on a baseball field almost no one else can.
The Blue Jays and their fans can only hope that becomes the story again instead of the relatively minor scrapes he keeps getting into along the way; that Lawrie learns his lessons fast enough to avoid a big wreck.