With future unclear, young teammates appreciate Smoak’s Blue Jays tenure

Toronto Blue Jays Vladimir Guerrero Jr. embraces teammate Justin Smoak on the last day of the season prior to the start of their American League MLB baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Toronto, Sunday, September 29, 2019. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO – As first pitch approached at Rogers Centre Sunday afternoon, the field was quiet. No batting practice, no infield grounders, only silence.

The season wasn’t over quite yet – still one last game to play – but within the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, players were preparing for the end. With flights home approaching, this was the last chance to pack up lockers, tip clubhouse attendants and say goodbye to coaches.

Or, in the case of Justin Smoak, the last chance to write his teammates some personal messages. Smoak, the switch-hitting first baseman who first joined the Blue Jays in an October 2014 waiver claim, hits free agency following the World Series. After five seasons in Toronto, his time here may well be coming to an end.

On a predominantly young roster, that experience stands out, and there’s an awareness among fellow players that this could be it for Smoak, whose 117 home runs rank 14th in Blue Jays history. As first pitch approached, some of them asked the 32-year-old to sign a keepsake. One by one, Smoak obliged, and by game time there were personally inscribed ‘Smoak 14’ jerseys hanging in the lockers of many young stars.

“He’s a father figure,” first baseman Rowdy Tellez said. “A brother. Someone who’s always pointing me in the right direction, has never steered me wrong. Whenever he’s said something he’s always honest, whether I liked it or not, whether it was kind or not. He’s a true leader and one of those players that as a teammate you don’t want to take for granted.”

Not far away, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had Smoak jerseys of their own on display. Fellow rookie Cavan Biggio had one, too.

“Guys like that, when you play with them they have that everlasting impression on you,” Biggio said. “It’s what the game is all about.”

If this was Smoak’s final game with the Blue Jays, it was a memorable finish. He drove in the first two runs of the game with a ground-rule double in the first inning and narrowly missed a home run in his next at-bat. On defence, he saved Richard Urena an error by scooping a wild throw in the fourth inning.

Then, with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning, Smoak doubled in another run with a drive to deep left field. The crowd started applauding, well aware that this could be it for Smoak. Within the Blue Jays’ dugout, manager Charlie Montoyo told Billy McKinney to grab a helmet – it was time to pinch run.

“It was awesome,” Montoyo said afterwards. “He’s such a team guy and such a professional. It was a great moment, great to see. I couldn’t have written that any better.”

Head down, Smoak jogged in from second as his teammates emerged from the third-base dugout to greet him. From the stands, Blue Jays fans stood and cheered in appreciation of Smoak’s contributions.

“Smoakie doesn’t get emotional much, and I don’t know if he even was today, but if I had to take a guess I’d say he was a little bit,” starter Clay Buchholz said. “He’s taught a lot of guys in there a lot of things on and off the field. It’s pretty neat.”

No argument on that front. But did the even-keeled first baseman get emotional?

“No doubt,” Smoak said afterwards, holding a can of Blue Light as he addressed the cameras. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s the last game of the year. We’ll go into the off-season and see what happens.”

“Hopefully I’ll be somewhere at some point in spring training.”

Should Smoak leave as a free agent, the Blue Jays would lose yet another link to the 2015-16 playoff teams. Devon Travis will likely be removed from the roster over the winter, and Dalton Pompey no longer has a 40-man spot, either. That leaves just Ryan Tepera, who will likely be tendered a contract even after an injury-plagued 2019.

A lot of turnover in a short period of time. As Smoak said, “I was one of the guys and next thing you know I was the old guy.”

The Blue Jays have been saying goodbye to players from those 2015-16 teams for a while, though. That in itself is nothing new, but Smoak’s departure would be a little different. He endured his fair share of this rebuild, for starters, and along the way he left an impression.

“You’ve got a lot of young players who in some way, I guess, looked up to me.” Smoak said. “I guess they saw me grinding my butt off all year. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve helped them in ways.”

Based on what Smoak’s teammates are saying, they certainly agree.

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