Rumours and redemption: Blue Jays’ Saunders on his year of hurdles

Michael Saunders talks about the trade rumours surrounding his first days of spring training and how he is looking for redemption this season with the Toronto Blue Jays.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Michael Saunders doesn’t have Twitter; doesn’t have Facebook either. But he does have a cell phone, and as trade speculation involving the Blue Jays outfielder blew up across social media Monday night, that phone started blowing up itself.

“Some of my friends from back home were asking me about it and I told them exactly what I’m telling you right now—they’re rumours,” Saunders said, standing outside the Blue Jays clubhouse where he still has a stall after reportedly almost becoming a Los Angeles Angel in an aborted three-team trade the night prior. “Until it’s done and players are on planes, nothing’s done.”

That much was abundantly clear Monday night. According to several reports, the proposed deal would have seen Reds outfielder Jay Bruce become a Blue Jay, with Saunders going to L.A. and prospects heading to Cincinnati. But according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, concerns over the medicals of a Toronto prospect involved in the trade prevented the deal from happening.

That did not, however, prevent the not-insignificant amount of media, observers and fans who comment on this team, and circle every piece of Blue Jays news like seagulls over a trash barge, from making the suggested deal a primary point of discussion Monday night. No matter how much social media a professional athlete avoids, something like that always gets back to them.

That’s why when Saunders arrived for work at the Blue Jays facility in Dunedin early Tuesday morning, team brass was waiting for him. First, his manager John Gibbons pulled him aside to reassure Saunders he has a spot on the team. Then, his general manager Ross Atkins held his own session with the 29-year-old, telling him not to worry about the conjecture flying around him.

“I really respect that Ross and Gibby pulled me aside and talked to me and assured me that nothing’s going on and it’s just rumours,” Saunders said. “They realize that there’s a human element to this game as well. We’re not just chess pieces on a board—we’re people.”

And as far as ball-playing people go, Saunders has been through an awful lot during his short time as a Blue Jay. When he was acquired last off-season from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for J.A. Happ—who ended up back in Toronto himself this winter on a free agent deal—Saunders was ecstatic. He’d grown up cheering for Toronto and grown tired of an increasingly unworkable situation between himself and management in Seattle. He was overjoyed for a fresh start; an opportunity to right his career while playing in his home country.

He was so excited that he showed up remarkably early for 2015 spring training, which is where he blew out his left knee in particularly cruel fashion, stepping on an exposed sprinkler head on a practice field that has since been completely redone.

Saunders was first told he’d miss half the season. Then, after surgery to remove 60 per cent of his meniscus, he was overjoyed to find out he’d be ready to suit up shortly after opening day. But after just nine games with Toronto he went back on the shelf with a previously asymptomatic bone bruise in his knee that eventually kept him sidelined for the rest of the season.

“Last year was a tough year for me,” Saunders says. “It was really tough to be down in Florida for three or four months watching the guys and the success they had. You want to be a part of that.”

He showed up for 2015 spring training in high spirits, finally healthy and thinking he would get his chance to play everyday for the Blue Jays after a long, bitter year of waiting. But then Monday night happened, which was followed by a Tuesday morning spent swarmed by reporters looking for comment on what it’s like to be him right now.

“I’m trying to be a professional,” Saunders said. “I’m a Blue Jay. I’m here to work. I’m here to help bring a championship to Toronto. That’s where I want to be.”

The truth is that for Saunders, over the last 365 days or so, nothing has been easy. Every time he gets some good news, whether it’s about his knee or about his place in the game, another shoe seems not far behind, ready to drop a hearty dose of gloom into his life.

“Obviously, physically it was a struggle,” Saunders says of his lost 2015 season. “But I felt like I had more hurdles to climb mentally and emotionally.”

Of course, this is part of the deal. There’s no shortage of ballplayers who have been hard done by the game and the slaughterhouse realities of a life within it. If anything, Saunders is well positioned to face something like this, as a thoughtful, well-reasoned guy who’s faced plenty of adversity in his career, whether it was during previous injury troubles near the end of his time in Seattle or much earlier in his career when he had to completely revamp his swing just to stay in the game.

“You know, he’s an old pro,” Gibbons says. “He’ll move past it. Mike’s in the head of the game — he’s a very mature guy. He understands the business. I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

But what must be the most dispiriting for Saunders—and also telling of his reputation among fans—is that on Monday night as rumours began to emerge that it was a medical issue holding up the potential trade, most assumed it had to do with him.

It didn’t. But the speculation illustrates how reputations and preconceived notions can follow players with every step they take. Anyone who’s spent any time around Saunders since he came to Toronto knows he’s a tremendously passionate man; one who wants desperately to prove he belongs and that he can be a reliable, everyday player in the majors.

“I kind of feel like this year is a redemption year for me,” Saunders says. “I was excited last year but I feel like a kid this year. I’m always excited to come to spring training but there’s just a different feel with what I learned last year about not taking anything for granted and finally being 100 per cent.”

Saunders says his knee is fully healthy; says it feels like he didn’t have surgery at all. He also says the final 10 per cent of his rehab was mental; that past the tests in the squat rack and with the agility cones and on the track where he’s been sprinting at full speed, he had to truly believe he was healthy and able to be the player he once was.

He found that belief in the little things. Like being able to simply run around in the outfield shagging pop flies, not thinking about his knee and letting the flight of the ball guide him towards it like he has so many times before. Like having teammates to confide in during tough times like these, and feeling like a part of the group that will face the 2016 season in Blue Jays uniforms. Like the monotony of spring training.

“There’s definitely a peace of mind to being out here running around in the sun, being with the guys again, just acting like a kid and having fun,” Saunders said. “Obviously there were the natural emotions from me coming here last year, going through what I went through, really wanting to be a Blue Jay, and then hearing my name come up in rumours last night. But I want to be here. I want to be a Blue Jay. It was a dream of mine growing up to play for Toronto. And I’m here now. And I want to be here to stay.”