TORONTO — Toronto Blue Jays starter Ryan Borucki’s faced pressure. He’s pitched before 30,000 well-served Western Canadians in Seattle; 37,000 rowdy Red Sox faithful at Fenway Park; 43,000 at Yankee Stadium, the bleacher creatures jeering every hit he allowed. But he’s never faced pressure quite like he did this winter.
It wasn’t long after 6:00 a.m., and Borucki was in the midst of a gruelling obstacle course deep in the woods of Fort Benning, a nearly 740-square kilometre United States Army post outside Columbus, Ga. An infantryman with the 75th Ranger Regiment — an elite special operations force headquartered at Benning — was pacing him. Borucki was already labouring when he came upon a station that instructed him to perform 50 air squats. And he really put himself in a hole when, after performing 30 incorrect repetitions, he was forced to start over.
Once he finished, Borucki knew he had to scramble to catch up to his long-departed pacer, and tried to rush to the next obstacle. But his legs, heavy with lactic acid, weren’t cooperating. Borucki literally hit the ground running.
“It was like Bambi — like a just-born deer,” he says. “I couldn’t run. I fell over twice. At the next station there was a table with some stuff on it you had to read, and I was holding myself up on this table, just dying. I couldn’t even tell you what I had to read.”
And that was just the first morning. Fortunately for Borucki and his 10 fellow Blue Jays who attended a four-day teamwork and leadership program with the 75th Ranger Regiment in December, the rest of their stay at Fort Benning wasn’t quite as physically demanding. The focus quickly shifted from what the Rangers do to how they do it. To the values, mentalities, and practices they’ve learned during conflict that athletes could apply to sport. To what a group of baseball players, whose worst outcomes end with a crestfallen walk back to their dugout, can learn from a group of elite soldiers, whose worst outcome is simply an end.
“We’ve spoken so often about leaders, teammates, and how important culture is to an organization. But, really, one of the biggest discussion points for us has been how important it is for players to drive that culture, to come up with what we’re going to stand for, to hold each other accountable to it,” says Gil Kim, the Blue Jays director of player development. “And out of that, we began thinking about, ‘What can we do in our development department to best help prepare players to become the teammates and leaders that are eventually one day going to drive this culture? What can we do to help guys develop those skills?’”
The connection with the 75th Ranger Regiment was made through Ben Freakley, Toronto’s head of mental performance. Before he was hired by the Blue Jays, Freakley worked as a performance psychology coach with U.S. Army special operations forces, including Army Rangers. Freakley’s father, Benjamin Sr., is a retired, three-star lieutenant general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Freakley reached out to contacts he’d built relationships with in his prior job, and pitched the idea of having a group of Blue Jays spend some time with the Rangers at Fort Benning. Soon, he was on a plane to Georgia to sit down with Rangers leadership and program the experience.
It was a unique opportunity. The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces Reference Manual describes the 75th Ranger Regiment as “the most elite infantry force in the world and the Army’s premier special operations raid force.” Typical Ranger missions include entering hostile environments to combat enemy forces, extract personnel or equipment, and seize facilities such as airfields or munition depots. To be a Ranger is to be in a constant state of readiness. They’re trained to learn of, plan for, and deploy on a mission within less than 18 hours.
Due to the often intense, life-or-death nature of their missions, trust, teamwork and organization are everything for the Rangers. And that’s exactly the atmosphere Toronto’s development staff hoped to expose its players to.
“We really care about our players and giving them opportunities to learn about the aspects that help a group become a team. Because there’s a difference between a group and a team — a common goal,” Freakley says. “And the Army Rangers put together an amazing program to help demonstrate that. We were very fortunate to get to learn from them and be with them.”
The Blue Jays and Rangers have taken measures to keep certain aspects of the program secret — non-disclosure agreements were signed. Beyond the players, the club would not confirm which staff members participated in the event, and has refused to share photographs taken at Fort Benning. A public affairs officer for the 75th Ranger Regiment declined several interview requests for this story, and said that the organization was also withholding photos it captured during the event at the Blue Jays’ request.
Even the participants were kept in the dark until they were on the ground, as Freakley and other members of Toronto’s development team who presented the idea to the players kept details purposefully vague.
“Honestly, I went in expecting a bit of an annoying week, you know? Kind of having to do stuff that we didn’t want to do,” Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette remembers. “They wouldn’t give us a schedule. The only thing we knew was when we had to wake up.”
When the players arrived, they quickly understood they were in for an immersive experience. They were assigned dorm-style rooms in barracks, only two doors down from where actual Rangers sleep. Each room had two bunk beds, four twin mattresses, and four sleeping bags. Bichette, Billy McKinney, Danny Jansen, and Anthony Alford were in one room. Kevin Smith, Rowdy Tellez, Reese McGuire, and Jonathan Davis were in another. The final room was Borucki with Sean Reid-Foley and Santiago Espinal. That first sleep was a restless one.
“The first night there, I didn’t sleep much at all,” Borucki said. “There was definitely an anxiousness of just not knowing what we were getting ourselves into.”
At 6:00 sharp on their first morning, the Blue Jays were up and out of bed, dressed in fatigues, and lined up in front of their barracks. They were led off into the woods where an obstacle course awaited. Trying to keep up with a Ranger pacer, the Blue Jays took turns running through the course, encountering various physical and cognitive obstacles, interspersed with series of jumps, squats, and planks.
“We were all so done at the end of it,” Bichette says. “We kind of looked at each other, like, ‘What are we doing here?’ You know? ‘I don’t want to do this.’ But I think they had us do all that so that the rest of the time we were there, we kept thinking, ‘When’s the next time we’ve got to do something like that?’ They just kind of shocked us.”
After that first morning, the focus of the program shifted to team-building exercises and challenges that forced the players to problem solve under pressure and work collectively towards common goals. Broken into groups, the players would have to engineer their way over a broken bridge, or navigate a series of ropes and high cables from one location to the next.
At night, the players would sit together in the barracks and reflect on their days. Some of the players were getting to know each other for the first time, and the organization hopes the experience will provide a cameraderie benefit on top of everything else.
“They were long days — early mornings and late nights,” says Smith, whose room opted against the bunk beds and slept in their sleeping bags on the floor. “The coolest part was just talking to the Rangers, and seeing how they train and prepare. Hearing how important trust is to them, and learning why their culture is the way that it is.”
The Blue Jays shadowed Rangers throughout a typical day at the base, sat in on performance classes, and even joined them in the weight room. There were opportunities to ask combat veterans about their experiences abroad, and the strategies they use to complete tasks under extreme stress.
“I was really curious about, like, ‘How do you handle doubtful thoughts?’ Because you can’t have doubtful thoughts when you’re about to go into war,” Bichette says. “And they were like, ‘Honestly, everything happens so fast — we don’t have a choice.’ That kind of made us think, that’s why they’re so good. They never get in their heads. They just go. They rely on their work. I thought that was kind of cool. And I think their mentality would definitely work for us.”
A month after the program, at the Blue Jays’ annual development camp in Toronto, several of the players who went to Fort Benning presented in detail to a group of fellow players and staff, sharing what they’d taken away from the experience. A lengthy discussion ensued about how it could all be applied in a baseball clubhouse. Long after, members of the Blue Jays front office are still talking about some of the stories that were told that day.
“It was extremely…,” Kim began, pausing to search for the right word to characterize the session, “…awesome. I’ll put it that way. It was extremely awesome to see our players articulate and describe their takeaways from that experience. It was really a great moment hearing about how those guys bonded together. Hearing about them going through the experience of team building, of decision making, of completing tasks under pressure. And the recognition from the players of how they need to be the ones driving our culture.”
That last part’s the most important one for the Blue Jays. Toronto’s development staff know that they can only do so much. Ultimately, it will be up to the club’s players to create and foster the Blue Jays culture, and hold one another accountable to it. They’ll be the ones most tested when the team is struggling, losing games, and facing the adversity every MLB season brings.
And that’s what a group of baseball players can take away from four days with elite soldiers — how you react and respond under stress can be massively consequential, no matter your line of work.
“When the Rangers go out there, it’s life or death for them. So, they have to have this ultimate trust in each other,” McKinney says. “And that’s our goal — to have that same trust on the ball field. We really want to work on the culture here and be together. And I think what we learned there can really transfer over.”