SN Magazine: Rasmus wants focus on fun

March 30, 2012, 1:15 PM

Sitting in front of his locker with his long, shaggy brown hair flowing out from under his cap, something crept across Colby Rasmus’s face that was hardly seen last season—a grin.

Someone just asked the Blue Jays’ mercurial centre fielder about Springfield, and it all came flooding back. Those blazing hot Missouri nights when baseball was just fun, yhe unadulterated joy that coursed through his veins and made this game worth playing.

Life was good in Springfield.

Somewhere between Rasmus’s 2007 double-A season with the Springfield Cardinals and this, his first full season in a Blue Jays uniform, baseball became one of the most complicated things in his life. It became something he lived in spite of. Something he hated. There was a point, when Rasmus was toiling in St. Louis with a manager who disliked him and a fan base turning against him, that he considered walking away forever.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In Springfield, playing minor league ball in front of small yet lively crowds, Rasmus was having the best season of his pro career. He led the team, swatting 29 home runs and stealing 18 bases.

Rasmus was a fountain of energy, playing the game with a drive and exuberance that he hasn’t shown since. He looked forward to coming to the ballpark; he even stayed late signing autographs. He had fun and it showed every time his cleats touched grass.

But by the time Rasmus hit the majors, things turned pear-shaped, fast. In 2010, he hit well over .300 in the season’s first month, but in May his batting average was almost 100 points lower, and he was striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. As he always did when he struggled, Rasmus called his high school coach, with whom he won a national championship in 2005.

He never thought the fact that his coach is also his dad—Tony, father of four boys, three who have been drafted by MLB teams—would be a problem. Tony flew to St. Louis and started working with Colby on his approach, giving him advice that ran counter to what he had been working on. This enraged Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who felt Rasmus was listening to his father more than the professionals he employed. Egos were bruised.

But Tony Rasmus just thought he was doing what any father would do. "He’s my son," he says. "If he asks for help and I can help him, I’m going to do that. I knew Tony didn’t want me working with him. But I didn’t want to see Colby crash and burn."

Rasmus started to improve after his father’s visit, hitting .279 from June until the end of the season. But the damage had been done. He was ostracized and never again felt comfortable in La Russa’s clubhouse. By the end of 2010, Rasmus was so unhappy that he walked into Cardinals GM John Mozeliak’s office and let it all out.

He told Mozeliak he didn’t feel comfortable, that everything kept getting worse, that he wanted to be traded. But Mozeliak, who drafted Rasmus out of high school with the 28th pick in 2005, wasn’t about to give up that easily. He was reluctant to deal a player that Baseball America had named his best prospect three years running, especially with La Russa pushing 66 and seemingly nearing the end of his long, decorated career.

Mozeliak didn’t want to lose both. He told Colby to stick it out. Just wait and see. Things will get better.

At first, Mozeliak’s patience was rewarded. Rasmus started 2011 hitting .360 with three homers in his first 18 games. But by the end of April he was struggling again, hitting just .239 in the 18 games after his season-opening tear. Despite the fact La Russa had strictly ordered Rasmus not to have any contact with his father regarding hitting, Rasmus still called home for help with his swing.

But this time he didn’t get the answer he was looking for.

"You know what, I’m not going to get in the middle of that mess anymore," Tony told his son. "I love you, but I’m just tired of it."

This was a new kind of lonely. Rasmus never saw eye-to-eye with the Cardinals. But now the only coach he ever responded well to had turned his back on him. And the media and fans in St. Louis were starting to circle.

"I need to get clear of this place," Rasmus told his father. "I’ve got to get out of here. This place is killing me."

Tony gave his son what he thought might be his best option.

"Man, if it’s that bad, give it up. Come home," he said. "You can go to school, get your degree and do what you want to do."

That was as low as Rasmus had been in his short career. As far away from Springfield as he could get.

It was well understood that Rasmus was a good player—just not in St. Louis. But few expected La Russa to go on the radio and say exactly that, a move that forced Mozeliak to pull the trigger on a deal with the Blue Jays that sent Rasmus north of the border.

A clubhouse distraction is one thing, but this situation was becoming far too public. Someone had to go, and Mozeliak wasn’t about to fire the manager with the third-most wins in baseball history. So Rasmus landed in Toronto, swapped for some spare parts lying around Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos’s workshop.

Of course, Anthopoulos may not have anticipated just how fragile a psyche he was acquiring. Rasmus was an unmitigated wreck.

"Mentally, he was in real bad shape," Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy says. "He was really, really rough." His first night with the team, Rasmus started in centre field and went 0-for-5 with a couple of strikeouts. After the game, shy and dishevelled, he faced a larger-than-usual assembly of media.

"I didn’t really feel too comfortable at the plate," Rasmus said. "My mind was a little all over the place. I couldn’t really relax and settle down."

That would prove to be a theme for the next two months as Rasmus hit just .173 in 35 games with his new club. To make matters worse, he ran into the centre-field wall while making a catch at the Rogers Centre on Aug. 23, jamming his wrist and losing much of his grip strength. That, coupled with an oblique muscle strain from earlier in the season, dogged him the rest of the year. He never gave his body the proper rest it needed until the off-season, when he completely dropped off the map.

While many Blue Jays were active publicly this winter, making community appearances and doing media, Rasmus was neither heard nor seen. For the 25-year-old, this off-season was about getting as far away from baseball as he could. It meant long days spent hunting and fishing. It meant spending time with his pair of Rottweilers—an eight-month-old, 75-lb. female named Lady and a seven-month-old, 100-lb. male named Bosevis, whose toys include a shovel and a sledgehammer that he picks up with his teeth and throws around his pen.

It meant marrying his fiancée, Megan, on the third day of December. Anything that wasn’t baseball became a focus.

Still, those around him were concerned with what seemed to be an unwavering obsession with his time in St. Louis and a seething resentment toward La Russa. There were days when Rasmus couldn’t go three sentences without mentioning his former manager. Even as recently as March, when Murphy made a trip to Alabama to help Rasmus work on his swing, it was still consuming him.

"I had to get him to understand," Murphy says, "that whatever happened in St. Louis needs to stay there."

Murphy drilled that into him over two days working with Rasmus and his father in the batting cage. Murphy focused on cutting down a high leg kick that had Rasmus—already a pull hitter—yank almost every pitch into right field.

He also challenged Rasmus to change his mental approach at the plate, to realize he was going to get out sometimes and to look at a hard ground ball to the shortstop as a positive result rather than a failure.

A ball like that means Rasmus didn’t come out of his swing.

"Just hitting the baseball, that’s my focus," Rasmus says. "Wherever it goes, it goes. If my body’s in a good position, that’s positive."

The coaching made sense to Rasmus, something he hadn’t ever felt in St. Louis, where he made constant changes to his swing, trying to break out of slumps. Consistency, sticking to the plan, Murphy told him, is paramount.

It’s all a work in progress. He’s settled down his leg kick, and he’s bringing a more lucid approach to the plate, but sustaining that over a season will be his challenge. This year, he sees himself hitting .280 with 25 home runs. He’s also targeting more than 25 stolen bases now that he’s on a team that lets him run.

Rasmus is one of a few Jays with a green light from manager John Farrell, meaning he doesn’t have to wait for the steal sign. If Rasmus sees an opportunity, he can take off.

Of course, there’s one important difference about Rasmus today that stands above the rest. "You can talk to him now without him mentioning Tony La Russa," his father says, only half joking. "So that’s a damn plus. I haven’t seen him this way since he left Springfield."

That’s where it all comes back to; those hot Missouri nights when the game was just a game. No egos, no feuds. It was just baseball. And damn it was fun.

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