Justin Smoak was sitting in the departure lounge at Tampa International Airport waiting for a flight home to Charleston, S.C., when his phone rang. It was Alex Anthopoulos, who was then the Toronto Blue Jays GM. Smoak had just finished a physical with the Jays in Dunedin, Fla., and Anthopoulos was calling to offer him a one-year, $1-million contract. It was early December, 2014. The first baseman was looking for a new start as a free agent after five up-and-down seasons with the Seattle Mariners. Smoak was excited for his new beginning, but also nervous. A new team, a new city, a new country—change is full of challenge, even for a professional ballplayer. So when his new GM asked him for his thoughts on his old Mariners teammate Michael Saunders, Smoak smiled and thought happily, “Oh, he’s a piece of shit,” then extolled the character and talent of his long-time lockermate, who had become his closest friend in the game.
After talking to Anthopoulos, Smoak texted Saunders a message that both would agree should never be printed in a family publication. “It was probably something like, ‘I can’t get rid of you’—but in a different way, though,” Smoak says with a wry grin. Toronto traded starting pitcher J.A. Happ for Saunders a few hours later.
Today, Saunders and Smoak are still lockermates. They sit side-by-side at the far end of the Jays clubhouse, near the showers. From the other side of the room, they look like six-foot-four twins. But although they were born just 16 days apart in 1986, Smoak and Saunders come from much different places—Smoak is a proud product of the Deep South, and Saunders is staunchly Canadian from Victoria, B.C. Smoak admits he’s one of the more prominent “crap talkers” on the Jays roster, while Saunders is quieter and prone to being the target of his friend’s ribbing because, according to Smoak, “he’s a little more gullible than the others.” But constant mocking aside, the bond between them has been an essential part of not only navigating major-league careers, but also surviving the darkest moments of their lives beyond the game.
A highly touted prospect, Smoak was drafted 11th overall in 2008 by the Texas Rangers and ripped through the minors. He was called up to the Rangers in late April 2010 and hit his first home run a few games later. Smoak was still playing regularly through mid-June, when he had seven hits and eight RBI in a three-game sweep of the rival Astros in Houston. He flew back with the team after the final game and drove to his house in Dallas. That’s when he got the call from his parents. His father, Keith, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Keith Smoak started coaching his son from the moment the boy could throw a ball. He taught him how to switch-hit when he was nine, realizing left-handed Justin had been swinging the opposite way since he was a toddler. They spent hours in the batting cage together, just hitting and hitting, from both sides. Other days, Keith would put his son at first base and throw balls intentionally wide or in the dirt so he’d learn proper footwork and master the position. “Your glove will get you on the field, and your bat will keep you in there,” Keith told his son.
Smoak went on to higher levels and became a top prospect, declining to sign with the Oakland A’s when they drafted him as a high-school senior and going on to play for the University of South Carolina. And his father was always there—supporting him, pushing him to be better. If Smoak went 3-for-4 with two home runs, Keith would ask him about the time he flew out to centre. He was an old-school, hard-nosed father and friend who helped shape his son’s life and proudly watched him achieve his dreams. And now he was dying. “It changed things,” says Smoak.
Smoak struggled with the pressures of his first season in the majors and the heavy realization that his dad might not be around to see many more. During the next 16 games, Smoak managed just eight hits and no home runs. He was hitting .209 when Rangers manager Ron Washington called him into his office in early July and told him he’d been traded to the Seattle Mariners in a multi-player deal that brought ace Cliff Lee to Texas. Smoak got off to a slow start in Seattle, where he sat next to “this big, tall, Lurch-looking guy” named Michael Saunders. His average dropped below .200 and he was soon demoted to triple-A.
Saunders was familiar with the agony of looming loss. His mother, Jane, battled breast cancer for more than a decade. In the spring of 2010, he’d hit a home run on Mother’s Day while Jane sat in the stands. She had always been his biggest fan, along with his father, Derek, attending almost all of his hockey and baseball games in Victoria. She supported him when he decided to give up hockey to fully pursue his professional baseball dream. She always reminded him to stay focused and just do his best. “If you’re doing the best you can,” she’d say, “you can’t ask for anything more.”
Like Smoak, Saunders displayed lots of promise as a prospect. Drafted in the 11th round in 2004, he showed talent in the outfield but struggled at the plate through 2010. Then, in 2011, Jane’s health got worse.
Knowing his mother was dying, Saunders couldn’t think about baseball. He’d show up to play every day at the start of the 2011 season, but mentally he wasn’t there. It showed—Saunders hit just .168 through 45 games. He was relieved when the team sent him to triple-A in June because he knew he couldn’t perform at the major-league level. As soon as he was demoted, Saunders decided to take a leave from the game to spend time with his ailing mother. Jane died that June, after a 13-year fight with cancer. She was 50 years old.
By then, Smoak had already lost his father. But he’d made the most of the time they’d had left. Shortly before spring training began, he contacted his old coach at the University of South Carolina and asked for a favour. A day later, Smoak and his family drove 160 kilometres to the school’s baseball stadium. There, he and his father—frail and in a wheelchair—played catch one last time on the field. Smoak’s older brother, David, stood beside Keith to catch each ball and hand it to their dad, who threw it back. Later, Smoak took batting practice while his dad sat near the cage, commenting on his swing, just like he always did. After that day, Keith’s health declined rapidly. He died a month and a half later, in April 2011. He was 57 years old.
Smoak took a week-long leave from the Mariners. He hit a home run in his first game back, fighting tears as he trotted around the bases. The next night, he belted another one. Smoak continued to play well that season. He’d go on to hit 15 home runs, an incremental improvement from his first year, but the game didn’t resonate the way it once had. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. “For me, baseball really didn’t matter anymore.”
When Saunders was called back up to Seattle that September, he took his seat next to Smoak, who reached out to let him know that he understood what he was going through. Saunders didn’t fare any better in the final stretch of the season than he had before being sent to the minors. And while every game was still a struggle, he did find some comfort in the company of the tall switch-hitter with the Southern drawl beside him. They’d talk about their shared experience over post-game meals and beers, or during road trips. In the clubhouse, they’d mostly sit side-by-side in silence. “We leaned on each other,” says Saunders. “Just knowing that we were there for one another—that experience definitely brought us closer. He’s like my brother. I consider him family.”
On the field, both saw some improvement in the following seasons in Seattle, but suffered from inconsistent play as they tried to carve out big-league careers. They both had 19 home runs in 2012. Saunders played in a career-high 139 games, but also had the most strikeouts on the team with 132. Despite a 20-game stint in the minors during a rough mid-season slump, Smoak also set a career high in major-league games that year, at 132. “This game’s not easy,” Smoak says. “There are always ups and downs.” The two leaned on each other through those ups and downs the following two seasons in Seattle. And off the field, their young families grew together. Michael and his wife, Jessica, had their first son just a few months before the Smoak family welcomed a baby girl. Saunders struggled through an injury-plagued 2014 season, playing just 78 games. Smoak appeared in just 80 for the Mariners in a diminishing role at first base. He hit .202 and played 56 games in the minors. He was eventually placed on waivers, and the Jays picked him up in late October. He and Saunders both desperately needed new starts that off-season. So when Smoak agreed to his one-year deal with the Jays and found out just hours later that Saunders was coming too, they were thrilled that they were getting to go somewhere together. “Honestly, for me, there’s a comfort factor there,” says Smoak. “I didn’t know anybody on this team.”
For Saunders, it was also an opportunity to fulfill his childhood dream of playing for the Blue Jays. But that beginning was stalled when he stepped on a sprinkler in the field a few days into spring training and injured his knee. After surgery to remove 60 percent of his meniscus and ensuing complications, he played only nine games the rest of the season and was a mostly forgotten part of the team that went on to the make the ALCS. “It was something I was desperate to be a part of,” says Saunders. “I wanted to be out there battling every night with those guys.”
Smoak, who played in a platoon role at first base, knew how difficult it was for Saunders to watch from the dugout. “It was tough for him,” Smoak says. “He got to be here and be a part of that in the clubhouse, celebrating, but… I don’t know if it meant the same to him, not playing all year.”
Earlier in his career, the disappointment of a lost season would have been crushing for Saunders. But last season, he was able to lean on the experiences he and Smoak had been through together. He thought back to his mother’s life and the lessons she had taught him. And he thought about the lessons learned in losing her. That baseball really wasn’t all that important, anyway. He had his wife, his kids, his friends, his health. Baseball would return.
During the off-season, Saunders pushed himself to make sure he was ready to take back the role he’d missed out on a season earlier. He worked out at The Tank, a no-frills training facility in Colorado run by former Rockies infielder Jason Bates, who helped pound Saunders into shape. Aside from the physical conditioning, Saunders felt stronger mentally and emotionally than he ever had heading into 2016. Despite a near-trade that would have sent him to L.A. on the eve of the season, Saunders went on a career-best tear to open the campaign. He posted a .298 average, 25 doubles and 16 home runs in the first half, which earned him his first all-star spot.
At the All-Star Game in San Diego, Saunders took the field during a special Stand Up to Cancer moment, during which all the players and fans who had lost someone to cancer, or knew someone who had, stood up and held a sign in their memory. Saunders looked around at the thousands of people standing in the stadium. Missing his mother, the all-star found strength in the people who understood what she had gone through and felt what he had lost.
Back home, Smoak watched as Saunders was honoured among the best players in baseball and swelled with pride for a friend who’d endured so much, pulling for him to do well on one of the sport’s biggest stages. Saunders had been a huge part of the Jays’ push for a second straight playoff berth, and already appeared to have set himself up for a hefty raise in free agency, either with the Blue Jays or another team. Smoak—who was about to sign a two-year contract extension to stay in Toronto—knew that regardless of where his “gullible” lockermate winds up next, the “tall, Lurch-looking” Canadian would be pulling for him, too.
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