In an excerpt from his new book, the Blue Jays’ long-time play-by-play announcer recalls how veteran mentorship played a critical role in Toronto’s World Series wins (with Dan Robson)
When Pat Hentgen arrived with the Jays, he was surrounded by experience. [In 1992,] he had access to two of the best veteran pitchers in the game in Dave Stieb and Jack Morris. Hentgen studied them. He watched what they did in between starts, learned their routines and how they went about their business. Most important, he saw how they competed. Hentgen was following his father’s instruction: “Whatever Jack does and whatever Dave does, you do. When they throw, you throw. When they run, you run.” And he added, “Morris started 15 Opening Days in a row. There’s a reason.”
Hentgen always thought of himself as a competitive guy, but watching Stieb and Morris redefined his understanding of what competitiveness is. Hentgen says their example made him take things to another level. Even at their age, near the end of their careers, Stieb and Morris were both incredibly athletic. And they both worked incredibly hard. Despite their status on the team, they worked their asses off in infield drills. Neither slacked or came off as lazy. Neither complained about having to practise covering first base. “It was always at game speed,” says Hentgen. “I think that was one of the things that really stuck with me.”
Stieb was the best pitcher I ever caught. His movement was ridiculous. He could have pitched with one pitch, his fastball, but his slider was so good he wanted to throw that all the time. But what stood out to me, too, was his competitive side. He didn’t just want to win every battle on the mound. He wanted to embarrass people.
Neither Morris nor Stieb were overly verbal leaders on the team. But they led by example. They knew how to keep it simple. Stieb told Hentgen that, as an outfielder in college, he could throw the ball accurately to any bag. Then, when they moved him from the outfield to the mound, he just couldn’t believe how close the target looked. Throwing it to the catcher’s mitt was easy because he’d been doing it from centre field all the way to third base all the time. With that in mind, when he moved to the mound, Stieb just kept things simple. He didn’t rush. Didn’t overthink. He just threw the ball right to that glove and let his movement take care of the rest.
Likewise, Stieb taught Hentgen to relax on the mound and to keep the game simple. He taught him how to rebound after a bad game—how to get out of a funk and get back into a groove. Even though he came off as emotional, or testy, in the press, Stieb really kept the game to the basics. He remained calm. "He didn't overanalyze," says Hentgen. "It was always, 'Keep the ball down, be aggressive, throw strikes, throw the ball up and in, trust your stuff'—all the same clichés that you hear pitching coaches talk about. But when you see a guy go out and execute it every fifth day, it just rings home."
Growing up in Detroit, Hentgen was a huge fan of Morris long before they were teammates. So when he was suddenly on the same roster, it was a big moment for him.
The first thing he noticed about Morris was his swagger. "It was just a confidence," says Hentgen. "He basically just took over and said, 'I'm the man, and I'm going to show you the way'—and I think guys were better around him because of it. I mean, it was a confidence, it was a swagger, it was a competitiveness."
Hentgen basically followed Morris around, taking in any information he could glean. "He could have said, 'Hey, kid, quit bugging me.' But he never did that," Hentgen says. "He always took me under his wing."
After batting practice one day, Hentgen and Morris sat in the sauna together. "You know what, kid?" Morris said. "You know how you win games in this league?"
"How?" Hentgen asked, all ears.
"You pitch longer than the other guy," Morris said. "They'll bring in a reliever, and the reliever will start to give up runs--and you'll be in there to win the game. You put your balls in your cup and compete as hard as you can until the manager comes and gets you."
"It's a story that stuck with me my whole career," says Hentgen, who won a Cy Young Award in 1996 and became a mentor to some of the game's future pitching icons. "I tried to pass it on to [Chris] Carpenter. I told that story to Rick Ankiel in St. Louis. I told that story to Doc [Roy] Halladay. I told all those guys that same story because it just resonated in my head over and over."
In many ways, the mentorship that occurred on the Jays' pitching staff in those World Series seasons was a lot like what has occurred with the Blue Jays today. The Jays have a great bunch of young arms, led by emerging ace Marcus Stroman. A key part of Stroman's jump to being one of the most feared pitchers in baseball came under the mentorship of Mark Buehrle, a guy who had seen it all and knew what it took to win. Buehrle and Stroman developed a close bond, even though their personalities seem like polar opposites. During the 2015 season, the always-subdued Buehrle promised Stroman that he would react with emotion during a game if the ever-enthusiastic Stroman promised to pitch a game without getting excited. Buehrle held up his end of the bargain with an in-game fist pump.
Now it was over to Stroman in his next start. The requirements: no emotions after a strikeout or any good defensive play while he was on the mound. But Stroman struck out the very first batter of the game and marched off the mound with a huge fist pump and a big "YEAH!" He didn't last a single batter. Oh well, he had good intentions--and promised to try again next year!
Buehrle provided Stroman with the kind of mentorship a young, talented pitcher in the major leagues needs. Even though Buehrle was left off the Jays' 2015 post-season roster, he played an enormous role, supporting and guiding young pitchers like Stroman. When you look at the Jays' current batch of young, home-grown pitchers—guys like Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna and Drew Hutchison--you can see reminders of what the Jays had back in the early 1990s. And with veterans in the bullpen like Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins, it was clear that Alex Anthopoulos had learned the lesson the Jays of that era taught: If you want your young players to develop, you need to surround them with teammates who have been there before.