BALTIMORE – The other day, in speaking about the way Kawhi Leonard’s calmness influences the rest of the roster, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made an astute comment that made me think of the Blue Jays.
"Most teams will take cues from their leaders or their star players," he said, "so I think that spreads around a little bit."
Different sports demand different vibes, to be sure. But during the post-season runs of 2015-16, the Blue Jays were led by Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, two uber-competitive and at times hyper-emotional players very much at the opposite end of the spectrum from Leonard’s unflappable self-control. Correspondingly, there was an element of excitability on those teams that makes for an interesting contrast to the current cool of the Raptors.
Simply put, those Blue Jays clubs ran at a much, much higher emotional frequency.
"Yeah, I would say we did," says first baseman Justin Smoak, whose trademark cool helped buttress the even-keel of Edwin Encarnacion as a counterbalance on those rosters. "We had a lot of guys that really didn’t give a … crap about what anybody else thought. We were going to beat the crap out of you no matter what. It was crazy. We’d get down early in a game, 5-0, 6-0 and by the seventh or eighth inning we’re winning 10-6. Those guys never gave away at-bats and that carried all the way through the team.
"I feel like you’re only as good as your leaders are, really, and those guys were so good for us. More than anything, when those guys showed up every day, hurt or not feeling great and just put it all out there, that made you want to give it a little more."
Amid the on-field carnage and mid-rebuild growing pains, who the young Blue Jays decide to take their cues from will lay some of the foundation for what this team’s heartbeat will be like down the road.
Currently, a roster largely bereft of grown-ups is anchored by Smoak’s poise and steady demeanour, the remarkable professionalism and determination of Freddy Galvis, plus the accrued wisdom of Eric Sogard and Daniel Hudson, among others. With so many teammates in survival mode at the big-league level, they’ve had to be resolute amid the ongoing losses.
Eventually, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Danny Jansen, Cavab Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and, when he arrives, Bo Bichette will set the clubhouse tone, set the team’s heartbeat. But not yet.
"The guy who’s been really good for us is Freddy," says Smoak. "He’s out there day-in and day-out, hurt, not hurt, not feeling great, whatever it is. As for myself, I feel I’m more a guy like Eddie, let’s say. I feel I’ve always been a lead-by-example type guy, but when things have needed to be said, things have been said. When you have such a young team, there’s so much pressure on them already. More can be too much, know what I mean? Sometimes you’ve got to let them breathe."
What’s the current emotional tenor of the Blue Jays, then?
"Young. Green. Trying," replies Smoak. "Look at Vladdy. He’s going to be around for a long time in this game. For a young kid, he shows up every day, no matter if he went 0-for-4 yesterday or 3-for-4, and he’s the same guy. That’s hard to do at a young age and he’s able to do that. A lot of that probably comes from being around his dad his whole life and seeing what his dad did.
"In the early going, you can tell with Biggio a little bit that he grew up around it because he’s kind of the same day-in, day-out. When you realize you’re good enough to play in the big-leagues, good enough to be here for a while, that’s when you start to relax and be yourself."
The coaching staff, obviously, has a critical role to play in that regard, too.
Manager Charlie Montoyo learned early in his coaching career that all eyes are on him so, to a degree, his demeanor sets a tone. He’s sought to be as level-headed as possible through the many lumps the Blue Jays have taken, searching for positives to accentuate amid the avalanche of negatives that have swallowed up his club.
"I learned later in my career as a player, that the more even-keeled I was, the better I got. The more excited and mad I got, the worse I got," says Montoyo. "If you can be even-keeled in baseball, that’s the best thing for you as a player. (The young players on the Blue Jays) are like that. And you can’t teach that – they already have it. That’s why I think they’re going to be good, because of that trait."
Of course, as the 2015-16 Blue Jays showed, there are different routes to the final destination. Along with Bautista, Donaldson and Encarnacion, those teams featured the steely fire of Troy Tulowitzki, the searing intensity of Russell Martin, the professorial acuity of R.A. Dickey, a run-through-walls Kevin Pillar and the brash youthfulness of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.
They drove opponents up the wall, were harder on umpires than any other club and offended the baseball sensibilities of so many self-appointed guardians of the so-called right way to play.
It wasn’t for everybody, but it was their way and it worked.
"In baseball, you definitely need a little bit of everything," says Smoak. "A lot of different cultures here, guys come from everywhere and the interesting thing is that when you get all these personalities, it can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. It’s how you transcend that feeling as a team, for veteran guys to turn that into one. Because you can have a couple of guys that are like, ehhh, but you’ve got to bring in those guys, too. It’s not easy to do but if you have the respect of other guys, then it’s easier to do it that way."
Identities as players, identities as a team, whom to take cues from, all like so much else right now for the Blue Jays, works in progress.