Blue Jays’ Lawrie: To the beat of his own DJ

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie.
April 16, 2013, 4:02 PM

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

Everything you’ve heard about Brett Lawrie is true. The boundless energy, the frequent Red Bull consumption, the lengthy vocabulary of movie quotes, college party proverbs and other assorted bro-isms—“RELAX,” “EASY, BRO” and “FIGURE IT OUT” are favourites—all said loudly and in a mock-direct tone, eyes bulging from their sockets. You can see it all on display before games, when Lawrie is generally much more jacked up about things than anyone else.

You’ll likely find him bouncing around the clubhouse, talking rapidly at whoever will listen or sometimes to himself, European house music pulsing at high decibel levels into his ears from bulky, red Beats By Dre headphones, as he sings along to the chorus, bobbing to the beat, slicing his hands through the air above his head like the world is his own personal rave. Yes, the mock Twitter accounts are accurate, more or less.

But this is dangerous business, simply writing someone off as being one way or another—taking what limited exposure you have to someone, especially a professional athlete, and making assumptions based on mere passing observations. Sometimes people can surprise you. Like when Lawrie tweeted a quote from T.E. Lawrence—the famed British Army officer whose autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is a well-regarded classic of literature. “

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity,” the quote, spread across two tweets, begins. “But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Pretty deep stuff. Not the kind of contemplative prose you would expect to appeal to a 23-year-old engrossed in the aggressively macho jock culture of pro ball. But that’s not fair. Maybe, just maybe, this was Lawrie flashing his more intellectual side, showing the serfs of the Twitter-sphere another face to this seemingly less-than-bookish fellow who plays baseball like he’s on fire.

Maybe when he’s done furiously chasing after every ball sent in his direction like a golden retriever at a dog park, he goes home and enjoys the more transcendental things in life, pouring a glass of Pinot noir, dialling up CBC Radio 2 softly in the background and slumping into an old leather armchair to catch up on his reading. Maybe.

“You see, that’s the thing. I’m not a big read guy,” Lawrie says. “I’ve just never sat and read books. I read a page and I forget what I read so I have to go back to the top. That’s kind of where it stops.”

Oh. Never mind, then. Turns out, Lawrie was sitting in his beachfront Florida condo bored and restless one spring training night and punched “positivity quotes” into Google to pass the time. Up popped the Lawrence passage and into Twitter it went, where it was retweeted and favourited more than 400 times by what must have been a mostly confused audience. It was certainly out of character, but it reflected a motif that has become very important for the young Blue Jays third baseman.

See, Lawrie has taken a particular interest in his own karma of late, and has made it his own personal accord to fill his life with as much positivity as he can. That extends to his work, his personal life, his family and—very important, this last one—his beats, all things that he keeps within arm’s reach. Lawrie is on a mission to surround himself with only the most thoroughly optimistic of things and to banish any elements of cynicism or despondency that may cloud what he hopes will be a pure existence. To be honest, it is a noble quest.

But why is Lawrie so interested in enveloping himself with good vibes? Well, if you asked him about the quest he’d tell you he’s simply a big believer in positivity and the effects it can have. Any catalyst for this enterprise is kept to himself and his inner circle. But what we do know about Brett Lawrie is that the 2012 calendar year did not go exactly as he had hoped. And that might be a good place to start.

After tantalizing fans with a much-anticipated 43-game whirlwind debut in 2011, when he hit nine home runs and put up a .953 OPS in just 150 at-bats, Lawrie’s 2012 numbers fell off significantly. It took him until July to hit his ninth homer—89 games and more than 350 at-bats—and his OPS dropped by more than 200 points. He had less success stealing bases—13 on 21 attempts in 2012 after swiping eight of nine in 2011—and was criticized for creating outs on the basepaths due to poor judgment.

There was a four-game suspension in May when two borderline strike calls sent Lawrie into a screaming, vein-popping meltdown. He drove his helmet into the ground so violently that it popped back up and hit the home plate umpire.

The limitless hustle and desire that endeared him to fans when he was originally called up suddenly became a liability, a reality evidenced in New York last July when he chased too aggressively after a foul pop-up and sent himself flying over a railing and into a deep camera bay, comically disappearing from view as if he had just plummeted into a bottomless pit. He hurt his right oblique muscle on that fall and, after trying to play through the injury for two weeks (which only worsened the damage), missed an entire month recovering from it.

Add in the evening in June when Lawrie was walking up a flight of stairs at the Toronto Eaton Centre as a man opened fire just 20 feet behind him—five were shot and one killed in the food court where Lawrie had been idling 10 seconds prior—and the year was, to put it lightly, a bit of a calamity.

So it’s not a tremendous stretch to suggest this mission for all things positive has something to do, on a cosmic level at least, with turning around Lawrie’s recent string of misfortune. After all, there is some pressure on the young man to fulfill his considerable on-field potential as soon as possible—preferably this season.

He plays a premium position on the diamond, one in which the Blue Jays organizational depth could be measured in centimetres. If Lawrie gets hurt again—he already suffered a minor rib injury that kept him out to start the season—there isn’t a stud behind him waiting to take his place. There is also the matter of hitting in the middle of the batting order on a team with playoff expectations. The Blue Jays are built to win today and Lawrie is a key pillar in that construction.

The blip in his production was acceptable in 2012 when the team’s post-season hopes disappeared in July, but this year there will be scant room for failure. And, finally, there is the reality of being the only Canadian on Canada’s Team. It would be much appreciated by everyone involved if the homegrown kid turned out to be a star. Just three years into his young baseball career, it already feels like Lawrie has reached a watershed moment.

All that said, he should be fine. At least you would assume so when you’re dealing with someone who’s been groomed to do this since shortly after he got out of diapers. Lawrie started playing sports when he was four, under the watchful eye of his uber-competitive father, Russ, who took an amused joy in creating constant competition between Lawrie and his older sister, Danielle, and using the rewards of winning and the shame of losing to teach them lessons about life—namely, that you should always win.

Lawrie excelled at most everything he tried—he was once invited to play for Canada’s junior national soccer team but turned it down—but both he and his sister found a natural fit with the game of summer. Russ would take Brett and Danielle to the park every day after school to run, hit and field ground balls. If you wanted to find Brett during one of the family’s regular camping trips around British Columbia, your best bet was to go down to the lake where he would hit rock after rock into the water.

On one trip to Mara Lake, an impossibly gorgeous borderland near the Rockies, Lawrie was chucking apples that had fallen from a nearby tree, working on crow-hopping his throws to get extra muscle behind the ball. He threw one particular piece of produce so hard that it connected with the head of his poor Aunt Donna who was minding her own business some 100 feet away.

By the time he was 11, Lawrie was regularly competing against kids older than him. He played in the Cal Ripken World Series against 12-year-olds and was selected to the tournament all-star team. At 14, he played against 18-year-olds in the British Columbia Premier Baseball League, Canada’s top youth circuit. By 15, he made the Canadian National Junior Team and went to the World 18U Baseball Championship in Cuba where he was named to the all-world team as a left-fielder.

On one trip with the junior national team to Santo Domingo to play Dominican summer league teams, an 18-year-old Lawrie hit five home runs across a doubleheader against professional pitchers throwing him mid-90s fastballs.

Even his trip through the minors was brief as Lawrie reached double-A in his first season of professional baseball and was in the majors just three years after being drafted. That is an amazingly fast climb and reflects not only what a special talent Lawrie is but why the Langley native is a little rough around the edges, coming across at times as a brash frat-boy tweaking off endless amounts of adolescent energy.

Lawrie is well aware of this perception of him. It’s hard not to be when fans come up to him in airports and restaurants offering cans of Red Bull. He’s in his twenties, so of course he cares what people think—just not enough to change. For Lawrie, it is this hell-bent, relentless style of play—and life—that got him to the big leagues at 21; in his mind, doing anything differently would be terribly counterintuitive.

So he will continue to start every morning with a Red Bull—“I know people think I drink 100 a day”—and supplement his edginess with two or three more as the day goes on. He will keep flying over railings, pounding his chest after big hits, tossing equipment after calls that don’t go his way and running out even the most innocuous ground balls like he’s being chased by wolves. Because when Lawrie steps on a baseball field, he can’t help it. “When I’m around the boys, it’s easy to get pumped up. We get to go out and live the dream every day,” Lawrie says, sitting at his Dunedin locker, his knee excitedly bouncing up and down as he talks. “That pumps me up by itself—just saying that.”

Which actually says it all. Lawrie is just sitting and talking, yet he can’t seem to keep up with the beat of his own heart. That’s the truism when it comes to Lawrie; he can’t help any of this. He is who he is. A dangerous man. A dreamer of the day.

Arden Zwelling is a staff writer at Sportsnet magazine

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