By Kristina Rutherford in Buffalo, N.Y.
By Kristina Rutherford in Buffalo, N.Y.
A strong defensive backstop with a big bat, Danny Jansen's future with the Blue Jays is looking bright — especially now that he can see it.

There’s a baseball bat sticking out of the big plastic garbage can at the end of the bench in the Buffalo Bisons’ dugout, nestled right in there with old tape and other trash. It’s not what you think, though: The bat isn’t broken or unwanted, and it wasn’t thrown out in a fiery rage, either. It belongs to Danny Jansen.

The Bisons catcher gets up from the bench. He retrieves his bat from the garbage and walks over to the on-deck circle at Coca-Cola Field to take some warm-up rips at air. None of his teammates even flinch watching the garbage extraction. They’re familiar with his routine by now.

Jansen’s bat has just served what he calls a “time out,” a term his two young nephews, Maddux and Maverick, know all too well. When the 23-year-old strikes out during a game, which doesn’t happen all that often, his bat heads into the garbage until his next turn at the plate, so it can have a good long think about what went wrong. “He usually hits a homer after a time out,” says friend and former teammate, pitcher Chris Rowley, who once jokingly put his right arm in a time out for 20 minutes, and swears he threw better during his next outing. “I think it’s hilarious, and it must work. He’s got it figured out.”

At some point last season, when Jansen started a surge up the Blue Jays’ minor-league system that saw him called up to the majors Sunday, these time outs started. Bisons manager Bobby Meacham, the former Yankees shortstop, has never seen anything like it. “Throw the bat down the stairs if you don’t like it, like most guys,” Meacham says, his head shaking in disbelief. “The garbage? That’s different.”

“If Danny stays on the path he’s been on, working the way he is, he’ll play in the big leagues for a very long time.”

There is a fair bit more you could classify as “different” when it comes to Jansen’s baseball career. He was nine when he decided that getting nailed by foul tips was cool, for starters. He was 22 when he got glasses so he could see clearly — just last year. (That’s no joke.) And now, after what he calls “a crazy ride” the past two seasons, Toronto’s 16th-round draft pick is playing at Rogers Centre. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said just last week that Jansen was “pounding down the door,” that “we’ll see how things transpire in the coming days and weeks, but we are very excited to see him here [in Toronto].” And with Russell Martin’s contract up after next season, Jansen, the kid from small-town Wisconsin, could well be the catcher of the Blue Jays’ future. “If Danny stays the course on the path he’s been on, working the way he is, improving the way he is, maturing the way he is, he’ll play in the big leagues for a very long time,” Meacham says. “He has all the skills to be there.” But it’s not as though Jansen threw on a pair of spectacles and, ta-da, career made. He’s battled through a fair bit of adversity to get to this point. And not too long ago — before the glasses, before the time outs — he doubted his future in this game altogether.

In two seasons, Jansen's gone from an injury-prone player with mediocre numbers to suiting up for Team USA at the MLB Futures Game.

It’s a sunny July afternoon, a couple hours before the Bisons earn a decisive win against the visiting Norfolk Tide, and a couple days after Jansen hit a two-run shot in the MLB Futures Game for Team USA and trotted around the bases in front of 38,000 people at Nationals Park trying not to smile, because he’s humble like that. He got back to Buffalo yesterday and walked into Meacham’s office wearing a huge grin, still high off that home run, and the enthusiasm hasn’t worn off yet. “What an experience,” he says. “Being able to do it on that stage is something I’m never going to forget.”

Jansen is sitting in the Bisons dugout, about to revisit the change he says is “70-per cent responsible” for turning his career around, what his dad, Steve, says “saved his career.” It’s basically a real-life version of Rookie of the Year, except swap out a medically impossible shoulder injury for a pair of spectacles and a hard-luck kid who makes good when he can finally see straight.

Jansen has the look of a ballplayer. He’s six-foot-four, big in the shoulders and legs, with dirty blonde hair that’s a bit longer down the middle — mohawk ready, if he were so inclined. He wears shorts, a red t-shirt, sandals and socks that say his last name near the toes. He also wears clear-framed Nike glasses.

The way he tells it, two seasons ago he went from never wearing glasses a day in his life to wearing them every waking hour. He’d figured the explanation for his blurry vision was because he was always tired. Then during a night game in the spring of 2016, he noticed he was having a hard time reading the scoreboard, that he couldn’t quite pick up the spin on the ball. Still, he mostly ignored it. “I didn’t want to believe I had bad eyes,” he says, with a shrug.

The seminal moment came about halfway through the 2016 season. Rowley, then Jansen’s roommate in A-ball, was driving the two of them somewhere. “Danny tried to read a sign on the road up ahead and he couldn’t,” Rowley says. “I told him he needed contacts, but he didn’t want to stick his fingers in his eyes.” Jansen also didn’t exactly rush to find a solution: He played out the end of that season, batting a mediocre .218/.316/.279, with a single home run in 57 games.

Then, in the off-season, he paid the optometrist a visit, found out he had astigmatism in both eyes and got his first set of glasses, with a -.75 prescription. He describes his level of sight as “half the things you see without glasses are blurry.”

Here’s what happened in his first bespectacled season, in 2017: He began the year in A-ball, and after a couple of quick promotions, he ended it in AAA with a final slash line of .323/.400/.484 across all levels. Jansen had 10 home runs in 104 games. Those numbers are solid on their own, but compared to his previous season, they’re plain ridiculous.

This year, Jansen is batting .275/.390/.473 through 88 games, with 12 home runs. Both his OBP and slugging percentage ranked in the league’s top 10 through the end of July — his OBP ranked fourth overall. “I take full credit for his improved eyesight, and the fact he’s hit .330 since then,” Rowley says, with a smile. The pitcher admits, though, he didn’t anticipate quite this level of improvement from his friend. “I mean, I always knew he was a great player, but to say you expect somebody to hit .320 over two years is a little bit unreasonable.”

It’s also unreasonable to assume it’s entirely the glasses that deserve credit for this offensive improvement. Jansen has a different approach at the plate, too. He stopped imitating big-league swings, for one. “I did change other things, like my mentality,” he says.

But he knows a good story when he lives one, too. “The glasses thing is crazy, and I do owe a lot of why I’m here to the glasses,” he says. “I get why people want to talk about it.” There’s a pause, and then Jansen laughs. “I mean, being able to see clearly is kind of huge.”

Jansen's been head-over-heels for baseball since he took up the sport at age five. When it comes down to it, he'll do anything he can to achieve his big-league dreams.

There was no question that young Danny Jansen had an obsession with America’s pastime from the moment he started playing tee-ball, at age five. That winter, during a big snowstorm in his hometown of Grand Chute, Wisc., he hauled his tee-ball stand out to the middle of the yard and started swinging through snowflakes.

He was a shortstop then, playing up with six-year-olds because he was big and talented. Three years later, in Little League, Jansen decided to make the change to catcher. His dad, who coached both his sons, had a system for finding catchers, a position he’d played himself in junior college: He suited up each player in full gear, one-by-one, and had them catch batting practice in a cage. The kid who complained least became the team’s backstop. “I put Danny in there and he got hit everywhere — I mean, he just wore it, you name the body part, he got hit,” Steve says, laughing. “But he stayed in there. He didn’t say anything.”

What happened next differs depending who you ask. When young Jansen emerged from the cage, he either told his dad “I love it” and stepped right back in (Steve’s memory), or he said, “That wasn’t too bad” and took a break (Jansen’s memory). Either way, the position was his and nobody was fighting him for it.

Jansen also played football and basketball growing up, but it was Frank Thomas who graced his childhood bedroom wall, and later Bryce Harper and Ian Kinsler, who are still hanging in his room in the home he returns to in the off-season. He was a Cubs fan, but loved watching big sluggers like Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and like them (though on a far smaller scale) Jansen was known for his bat. “I was pretty raw as a catcher, especially in high school,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was terrible, I just wasn’t flexible, didn’t have that great of an arm. I was OK at catching balls. But I always put good contact on the ball growing up.”

He was the starter as a freshman on his varsity high-school team. By junior year, he began thinking maybe he could play pro someday, especially since he’d attracted interest from at least 10 MLB teams. The plan was to turn pro out of high school. Then, three games into that senior season, Jansen took a foul tip off his left wrist and broke his pisiform, a small bone just below the base of his pinky. He needed surgery. “The worst timing,” he says now.

It was hard to miss the biggest moment of Jansen's career — a two-run shot at the MLB Futures Game he launched in front of 38,000 fans.

Only Wes Penick, a scout for the Blue Jays, kept in touch long enough to know Jansen had cut off his cast so he could play in the post-season during his senior year. The week of the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, Jansen had no idea what he was going to do next. “Nobody was really talking to me anymore, and I thought maybe I could go to junior college in Iowa and then Jacksonville,” he says. “I had options, but I figured professional’s not there anymore because of the injury.”

And then, while his parents were hosting his graduation party and running out of burgers because the whole neighbourhood had turned up, the phone rang. It was Penick: The Blue Jays wanted to take Jansen in the 16th round, and the scout wanted to know if he was game. “How about it,” Jansen says, grinning. “Biggest day ever.”

But the toughest test was yet to come. Jansen played a couple seasons of rookie ball, and then, during his first shot at A-Ball, in Lansing in 2015, a batter followed through on his catching hand while also making contact with the ball, after Jansen reached forward prematurely. He needed surgery again, and missed nearly three months. A year later, he had his third surgery on his catching hand, after breaking his hamate bone. He was out for another two months.

“I have a drive to be the best I can be and hopefully be in the Major Leagues. That’s what kept me going.”

Jansen figured his career was over. “After my third surgery in a row, it was very hard to — I wouldn’t say keep the passion, but it’s hard to un-spiral out of that dark hole when every year you’re getting hurt and missing two-and-a-half months, missing being with your teammates, missing playing ball,” he says. “I mean, this is your career. So you have that doubt. It’s just that mentality of, ‘Wow, am I going to get hurt again?’

“But you’re driven by the dream to be there one day in the Major Leagues. And I’m never going to quit — I wasn’t raised like that. I have a drive to be the best I can be. That’s what kept me going.”

He needed a healthy year, just to prove it was possible. “And that’s what I had in ’17,” he says. “It was so, so nice.”

It was right around the same time he got those glasses, too. What the improved eyesight did was add a solid bat to his already impressive ability to call games and his constant pursuit of improvement. “Hitting has been No. 3 on his priority list his whole career, and he happens to be very good at it,” Rowley says. “He told me in A-ball, that for him, a good game is measured by: No. 1, pitch calling; No. 2, defence; and then lastly, his hitting.”

Jansen knows that earning the confidence of the pitching staff is crucial. “It’s getting that trust going so you can say, ‘Hey, I think you may want to do this,’ and they’re not going to just blow you off," he explains.

The focus for Jansen is first on earning each pitcher’s confidence, getting to know his teammates the best he can. “It’s getting that trust going so you can talk to each other, you can say, ‘Hey, I think you may want to do this,’ and they’re not going to just blow you off because they don’t trust you,” Jansen says. “And I’m always asking, ‘Can I do anything better to help? Can I set up somewhere else?’”

After a pitcher’s start, Jansen will spend time talking with him, bouncing ideas back and forth. “That’s important so he can be the team leader you need,” Meacham says. “And you see that maturity now. You see him acting on instinct, instead of asking, ‘Should I do this?’ He’s more sure of himself, and also has a hunger to learn. It’s fun watching him mature and get better. Sometimes, as a catcher, I think it takes a little more time, because you are that leader.

“He’s gathering information; he’s been picking my brain, talking to pitchers, so now he’s armed with enough information to feel confident enough to take charge out there and not worry about his decisions.”

Jansen has done his homework on a few arms on the Blue Jays staff already. During spring training, he got a lot of help from fellow catcher Luke Maile, who he knew well after Maile’s rehab stint with Buffalo the year prior. They watched video together, so Jansen could see how Maile’s game-calling changes depending on the pitcher. “I think it was the most helpful thing in spring that I did, was watch these guys and see how Maile calls the games, to get an idea of what each pitcher likes to do,” Jansen says.

He’s been to Toronto just once before, back in January, for a week-long development camp. He had a chance to see the Raptors, his first live NBA game, and he loved it. “I fell in love with the city from Day 1,” Jansen says. “I was overwhelmed a little bit, seeing the CN tower, seeing that whole skyline, seeing the Rogers Centre.

“It’s incredible to think about, because with the Blue Jays you’d be playing for the whole country, which I think is the coolest thing ever.

“It’s a feeling that you’re never going to feel unless you’re there. You can only dream about it.”

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
Elsa/Getty Images; Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo; Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images; Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images; Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.