TORONTO – The first thing you notice about Joe Biagini is the 95 mph fastball that earned him a spot in the Toronto Blue Jays’ opening day bullpen and allowed him to strike out David Ortiz in his MLB debut.
But while many relievers throw 95 mph, few can match a sense of humour that Biagini’s teammates describe as wry and out-of-left field. The Rule 5 pick himself says he has a dinner party sense of humour that’s creative, unexpected and hopefully not too annoying to others.
“I frequent dinner parties as often as possible,” he says straight-faced. “I crash them. Sometimes I walk down the street and try to smell if there’s some food being made and I knock on the door and say ‘Do you have an extra seat? Do you need somebody to creep you guys out, ‘cause I can do that.’”
Fellow reliever Gavin Floyd didn’t pick up on Biagini’s humour immediately, but during spring training, he came to appreciate it.
“I think at first people are like ‘is he joking, or is he serious?’” Floyd says. “The more you’re around him, the more you understand it. It’s different humour than most people. You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. You’ll be going one direction and he’ll take it in a different direction than you thought.”
“Very witty,” R.A. Dickey adds. “A nice, dry sense of humour. He can keep up.”
Between quips, Biagini had a strong enough spring to earn a spot on the Blue Jays’ roster, where he’ll have to stay all year or be offered back to the Giants. Upon hearing that he’d made the team, Biagini made an emotional call home to his dad.
“I said ‘you ready to hear this?’” Biagini recalls. “He goes ‘yeah, what happened, did you get waived?’ I said ‘I’m on the team’ and started crying. I’m not a huge crier, but I can pick my spots.”
Biagini’s father, Rob, spent two years pitching in the minor league system of the San Francisco Giants. After his professional career ended in 1982, he stayed near the Bay Area. Once Biagini was born in Redwood City, Calif., he started cheering for the Giants, so when they selected him in the 26th round of the 2011 draft, it felt surreal.
“I always imagined Major League Baseball through the Giants’ lens,” Biagini says. “When that happened I was certainly excited about it. It felt familiar and like it was almost too perfect.”
But the dream of pitching for the Giants gave way to an unexpected but welcome opportunity when San Francisco left Biagini unprotected in the 2015 Rule 5 draft and the Blue Jays took a flier on him. Given his strong debut and Arnold Leon’s rough outing Wednesday, Biagini’s roster spot seems more secure than it did a few days ago, yet no Rule 5 pick has a guarantee of staying around.
“I don’t usually get nervous watching games, but I get nervous watching him pitch,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins says. “Because of the situation that he’s in, he knows that he’s pitching for his job. There’s no hiding behind that, and he’s embracing that challenge.”
Though he’s now a long reliever, Biagini started in the Giants’ system last year, and hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen much since college. The 25-year-old right-hander complements his hard fastball with a curve that captured the Blue Jays’ attention.
“I like everything I’ve seen,” manager John Gibbons says. “He’s shown us a damned good arm.”
Biagini says he wouldn’t have reached the big leagues without the support of his mother, Michelle, and his father, who were both on hand at the Blue Jays’ home opener Friday to witness a three-up, three-down MLB debut highlighted by the Ortiz strikeout. Now he has an authenticated souvenir ball to prove it.
“It might have been picked up from the ground of the dugout, but I’m going to pretend that it’s (the game ball),” he said after the game.
“I didn’t know I was legitimate enough to be authenticated,” he added. “I’ll try not to drop it.”
Biagini finds parallels between the game and his Christian faith, since both require daily attentiveness. He explains, in all seriousness, that he’s now turning to faith as a way to balance the perks of a big-league lifestyle with his aim of serving others.
“I’m not a super-great example of what a Christ-like person should look like, but I’m trying my best,” he says.
Throughout the course of the spring, Biagini had the chance to learn from experienced MLB pitchers like Floyd, Dickey and Jesse Chavez. Floyd considers Biagini more of a friend than someone in need of mentorship, though he’s offered the occasional pointer on where to go, when to arrive and who to tip. While he’s the lone rookie on the team, Biagini’s played enough professional baseball to have what Dickey characterizes as “a good amount of common sense already.”
“You want him to feel comfortable and you want him to have a voice, demonstrate his own innate personality,” Dickey says. “We’re fortunate now in most clubhouses where the culture is such where you can do that a little more than you could when I was coming up. You were seen and not heard. Now it’s great that people can be themselves and not have to worry about being shamed for it.”
But even if he’s older than many rookies, Biagini’s experiencing the big-league lifestyle for the first time.
“I hope to never lose the wide-eyed awe,” he says. “Even if I get to play for 15 years you don’t want to lose the joy and appreciation of getting the chance to do this.”
So what’s different between double-A, where he pitched last year, and the big leagues? “I don’t know where to begin,” he says. There’s the team plane, first-rate food, uniforms made to measure. He’s living at the Renaissance Hotel in Rogers Centre, a constant reminder that he’s in the big leagues, and that his stay here could be temporary. He has little job security, yet his most immediate concern upon arriving in Toronto was the “challenging little brain game” of finding his way from his hotel room to the clubhouse.
“There’s a series of checkpoints,” Biagini said. “You have to solve a riddle.”
Not really — it’s just a matter of finding the right elevator — but there’s that sense of humour again. Ask Biagini if he’s always been a pitcher, and he replies “After I was born. I wasn’t really a pitcher before I was born.” Inquire where his parents live, and he deadpans “In a dumpster out behind the (stadium).” Suggest that he and Floyd, a fellow right-hander, are physically similar, and he says “We’re both very good looking.”
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Floyd says. “Left field thinking? Left field humour?”
“I enjoy it,” Biagini says. “Whether I’m good at it or not, the jury’s still out on that.”
The same could be said of his big-league prospects. Still, no matter how long his career lasts, he struck out a future Hall of Famer in his MLB debut. That’s a story he can tell with a straight face.