DUNEDIN, Fla. — It was in one of general manager Ross Atkins’ media availabilities at the winter meetings that the topic turned to the importance of veteran leadership, which is normally a sign the serious sports questions have stopped and we’re into bad amateur sports reporter psycho-babble. I mean, you know when you’ve stepped into that puddle that the dreaded ‘chemistry’ pit is beckoning.
But Atkins’ answer was interesting. Veteran leadership can be a factor, he said, when a team is going into the post-season and can rely on somebody who has been there. But in the regular season, for where the Blue Jays are now, performance and the ability to contribute on the field is more of a separator. For this re-tooling to work, the Blue Jays need to create an environment much like the one created by the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays, where a young core was allowed to impose some of its will on a collective, within the confines created by smart, attentive coaching and veterans such as Kevin Kiermaier to hold people accountable.
Thursday, Blue Jays closer Ken Giles threw an accountability bomb in a morning pitchers defensive drill, which focused on sprinting off the mound and covering first base. Seeing that 25-year-old right-hander David Paulino, who looked uninterested in his relief stint Wednesday in Sarasota and couldn’t get out of his inning, was skipping his turn, Giles exploded. He walked over to Paulino, got in his face and unleashed a volley of expletives (actually, it was one expletive – the universal one – repeated over and over and over again) pointing out that he (Giles) had taken part in the drills and had done so again after screwing up the first time. Giles suggested that Paulino might want to take part if he wanted to be part of the team (in a manner of speaking) before Marcus Stroman and bench coach Dave Hudgens intervened. It was witnessed by fans who had started to enter the stadium for a Grapefruit League game against the New York Yankees and a group of visitors behind the batting cage … plus one live radio show that was being broadcast from field level with extremely sensitive microphones.
“Believe me, I have been around the game a long time and that happens, a disagreement between teammates,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “Now they’re fine, I talked to both of them. It’s all good.”
Giles, who was battling a miserable cold and sinus condition last weekend, was supposed to pitch an inning Thursday against the New York Yankees. But he asked for and was given an extra day and Montoyo said he will pitch Friday in Clearwater against the Philadelphia Phillies, as will the recently-signed Bud Norris. Giles has appeared in four Grapefruit League games, walking five and striking out seven in 2 2/3 innings and reckons he needs 10-13 innings to get ready. “As close to what I’d get in a regular month,” he said last week. “A few multiple days and multiple innings, probably up to a max of 35 pitches.”
In an interview last Saturday, Giles was effusive in his praise of the tone of spring training, especially about the energy he’d seen and stated he was prepared to assume a leadership role chiefly through the manner by which he went about his business. Giles, of course, was acquired at the trade deadline last year in the trade that sent Roberto Osuna to the Houston Astros. Giles experienced a bit of a rebirth after being known mostly for having his manager lose faith in him in the 2017 World Series and some memorable meltdowns after he was removed from games.
Asked if he thought Giles’ action was a sign that he was comfortable enough in his surroundings now to exercise some influence, Montoyo smiled and said: “It’s what it looks like to me. All’s good.”
Accountability is, of course, a good thing but surrounding a young core with the right type of people to demand it can be tricky. The Blue Jays have identified a core group within their minor league system – the group that spent time this winter with U.S. Army Rangers – and believe other players such as Anthony Alford can form a type of organic leadership group over the next two or three years. It’s tricky, this business of creating the right environment. Norris, for example, joined the team only after Atkins talked to Montoyo, a selection of the clubhouse’s Latin-American players, and former teammates such as Matt Shoemaker over concern about some of Norris’s past remarks regarding the game’s evolving culture. And leadership isn’t always what outsiders imagine it to be: witness Omar Vizquel’s completely benign victory lap with this club that was, in terms of “leadership,” a dismal failure. Or the manner in which Russell Martin seemed to grow estranged from the Blue Jays last season when the team began preparing for the future.
The Blue Jays and Martin were like a married couple sleeping in separate beds, passing each other at the coffee machine in the morning.
I had a conversation with Canadian men’s soccer coach John Herdman last season, when the topic turned to the manner in which he was trying to breathe life into a barely-alive body, doing so by bringing in young, millennial players without any first-hand experience with the program’s decades of misery.
“The millennial generation expects more ownership of their career,” said Herdman. “What we strive for is an almost horizontal leadership structure off the field, almost a flat-lining. On the field? Yeah, then it can be hierarchical. But this isn’t the ’80s and ’90s where you walk into the team and dare not say anything because the veterans rule the roost.”
Compare Thursday’s outburst by Giles over a lack of participation in a drill with last year’s point of high spring drama: then-manager John Gibbons and current Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson getting into it because Donaldson brought speakers out to the field during a stretch despite the fact the Blue Jays had been asked to have the music that normally plays over the Dunedin Stadium P.A. system turned off for the morning because of standardized tests being conducted at a nearby school. The guess here is most of the stuff that will define how this group functions as a unit and co-exists will escape our gaze – the players will be treated to a performance by an improv group as part of a team-building exercise – but Thursday we got a wee glimpse of some of the organic leadership. This Blue Jays rebuild is such that most of the older players on this team – old as in late 20s – will be someplace else when the winning begins. Giles most likely will be one of those gone – maybe as early as mid-season – but it looks like he’s willing to leave a bit of himself here.