Why the Blue Jays’ Fortnite rule bodes well for their present and future

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo gets ready to throw a batting practice session during baseball spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Sunday, February 17, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. – In these instant-judgment, tsk-tsking times, there’s ample fodder for the righteous in a professional sports team seeking to regulate how much time its athletes spend playing video games.

On one end of the spectrum are those who indignantly preach that such distractions are a scourge that detract from invaluable pre-game preparation. On the other is the chill-the-hell-out set that argues there’s nothing wrong with a little fun at work.

Buzzy stuff for the attention-impaired.

For the Toronto Blue Jays, the most consequential element of their private conversation in the wake of manager Charlie Montoyo’s comments about limiting video-game play is not in the minutiae of how much Fortnite will be tolerated in the clubhouse. What truly matters, the part with the potential to have a lasting significance, is that the entire process was player-driven.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

This wasn’t Montoyo playing strict dad with the kids by cutting power to the PlayStation, although he certainly does believe in enacting limits. As he noted Monday – when the topic was first raised after ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Carlos Santana smashed a TV when he found two teammates playing Fortnite during a Philadelphia Phillies game late last year – it was in a meeting with “10 of our players about rules and stuff that one came up.”

Asked if the players themselves had raised it, Montoyo replied that “they raised it,” adding some felt the clubhouse gaming was excessive last year.

In a spring where the amount of veteran leadership on the rebuilding Blue Jays has been an ongoing talking point, having 40 per cent of the team taking charge on what’s essentially a personal conduct issue bodes well for a group trending younger.

After all, Montoyo and his coaching staff may be responsible for steering the team in the right direction, but the clubhouse is a domain created and managed by and for the players to be healthy.

As right-fielder and non-gamer Randal Grichuk told reporters, “I don’t think it needs to be a big ordeal that we’re making it out to be. It’s one of those things we can police ourselves and we can make sure everything is done properly. And the way a big-league team should handle itself in the clubhouse.”

Given the prevalence of the word “culture” in the Blue Jays’ organizational discourse, it’s important that the setting of boundaries, or “what we think is acceptable and not acceptable,” in Grichuk’s words, is being established by the group.

Absent the influential pillars provided by the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and J.A. Happ in recent years, a more collective leadership has been emerging this spring. Veteran players such as Grichuk, Kevin Pillar, Clayton Richard, Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales, John Axford, Matt Shoemaker and Luke Maile are all contributing on that front, helping create a set of expectations for everything from play on the field, to the rules around free time in the clubhouse.

The organic nature of that self-governance is an ideal outcome, especially given the tempest-in-a-teapot way gaming issues can quickly envelope a club.

The mini-melodrama that surrounded the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks back in October when Bo Horvat revealed the team had banned Fortnite during road games this year is but one example. Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine mocked the decision – “I think they just needed something to blame after last year,” said the avid gamer – and suddenly the entire matter was unwantedly viral.

Last May, David Price found himself in a similar situation when he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and it became linked in media to his Fortnite devotion. The frenzy that followed prompted to him to stop gaming at the ballpark, although he remained a devotee through the Boston Red Sox’s World Series run.

The phenomenon isn’t new. In 2015, the Kansas City Royals scaled back how much Clash of Clans was being played in the clubhouse after a mid-summer swoon, part of a turnaround leading to their World Series championship.

Clubhouse video games were common in the Blue Jays clubhouse that year, too, with players regularly competing in hockey and soccer. Same in 2016, when they made a second straight trip to the American League Championship Series, as well as the past two years.

Amid the relentless grind 162 games forces, easy outlets to decompress are a necessity. But it’s only cool until it’s not, and, to some degree, it became a concern for some of the Blue Jays’ players. The leadership group raised it with Montoyo and action was taken.

“It’s not my rule,” he said. “It’s our clubhouse’s rule.”

Said Grichuk: “We just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page and there are no grey areas when it comes to anything.”

Their workplace, their rules. Kudos to that.

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