J.P. Arencibia’s time with the Toronto Blue Jays wasn’t especially long, but it was certainly memorable, which is why news of his retirement from professional baseball on Jan. 18 saw him trending briefly on Twitter in Canada.
The fact that the 31-year-old chose Twitter as the place to make his announcement was fitting given the role the social media platform played in both boosting his popularity during his early days with the Blue Jays, and later contributing to the anxiety he quietly struggled with during his final days in Toronto and later stops in Texas, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
Opinionated, humble, introspective and never at a loss for words, we caught up with a relaxed-sounding Arencibia the day after his retirement announcement to get this thoughts on a number of topics including:
• What it’s like having Jose Bautista as a teammate
• That time he broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game with a 12-pitch walk
• His struggles with anxiety
• Why he believes Joe Maddon is a genius
• His advice for young star athletes on social media
Easy question. Why now?
“Early in my career I had always promised myself that whenever the time came, if I wasn’t a Major League Baseball player and I was just fighting to hold on and see what happened… that that’s not what I envisioned doing.
“I had seen a lot of guys — and that’s nothing against the guys that do this — but I’d seen a lot of guys try to hold on for too long. I’m still young. I’ve been very fortunate to have played in the Major Leagues. I’m not in financial distress. I can close one door and open many others.
“Seeing the deals that were coming in… if I didn’t have a chance to play in the Major Leagues and have a chance to compete in camp, then it wasn’t something that I was interested in. There’s always somebody younger and less expensive. It made the decision easier for me. I’ve been very at peace with it.”
Q: In terms of response to your announcement, did anything, or anyone surprise you?
“Never in my life did I think I would be trending in Canada, or Toronto, again, but it just shows the friends I made… business owners, media, the great people I’ve been able to meet throughout the country. That was a big surprise for me — the response from Canada. Obviously me and the media got into it a little bit, but it just showed how much love in Canada and Toronto I still had, because I didn’t know if it existed, one way or the other.
“I also saw a tweet from Riley’s (Martin) family, the young boy who passed away from cancer. It’s great to know there was a point in my life where I was able to make a difference in somebody’s life, even for just a day. And that’s the coolest thing about the opportunities I had in Major League Baseball.”
Q: Your arrival with the Blue Jays coincided with a host of other young, popular social media savvy athletes. The popularity of you and others seemed to rise along with increased expectations for the team. Then you and the team really struggled in 2013. What was it like being on social media at that time, facing heavy fan and media criticism for the first time?
“I can only speak on behalf of myself. Look, social media is such a powerful tool. I think a big part of why fans started coming out after 2010 was we were able to communicate with them on a personal basis.
“We hung out with (Toronto Maple Leafs Tyler) Bozak and (Colby) Armstrong. The fans are very passionate in Toronto. The Leafs and the Jays were always hanging together. Now, you’re out there on social media and I was out there all the time doing community events too. Then by doing that, you’re also accessible to the critics.
“I would have never imagined it, because I was always a happy-go-lucky guy. But then I spoke about the media and it changed. You have that open line — and that’s the tough part about social media — people telling you you’re a horrible person. It was a learning point for me. It was a real tough time for me, because I cared so much about disappointing fans.
“I’m thankful that all those things happened because I’m stronger and wiser now, but that’s part of life. I then began suffering from anxiety and later had to be medicated for it.”
Q: How did you know it was anxiety you were dealing with? Did you seek help?
“Like anything else these days, I went to the internet. I knew 100 per cent what it was, but I wasn’t tough enough in the sense that I didn’t want to talk about things and keep it internal. At the time I was dating (future wife) Kimberly and we’d be on the phone and I’d be crying in my apartment in Toronto saying I’m so embarrassed to even go out for dinner. If somebody was looking at me or not looking at me, I was just feeling like I was letting everybody down.
“I just figured I would get past it. It’s tough to play baseball, but when you’re driving to the stadium and you’re getting anxiety because you’re thinking about a situation in the game later and you don’t want to upset people. Or you’re on deck and hoping the guy in front of me gets on because I don’t want to let these guys down.
“The thing about anxiety is whatever it is in front of you, it becomes 1,000 times worse. It could be the smallest thing but for whatever reason your brain makes it to be the biggest, hardest issue. And I was now trying to hit a baseball at the toughest level in the world.”
Q: And then you got into a spat with the media.
“When I attacked the media and everything changed, and we kept struggling, I went from being the guy who was friends with everybody, to all of a sudden the next day my face was on a baby’s body (on the cover of the Toronto Sun).
“I was like, ‘holy smokes, what the heck?’ Then I started struggling more and started getting a lot more criticism from fans and then for me it just started building up internally. I’d go home where my mind would go absolutely berserk. That’s where it started. The toughest time for me was when I would get home and there was nothing but time to think. You have nobody around and now all of sudden your brain starts going places and now you can’t stop it. Those were the worst times.
“I got to a point where I didn’t care if I was the best baseball player in the world, the worst baseball player in the world… I just wanted to be able to enjoy a day normally again. You’d be fine for parts of the day and then you’d get hit with an attack and the rest of the day it was in the back of your mind.”
Q: When did you finally seek help?
“I didn’t really talk to anybody about it other than my wife. When I got to Texas and was finally sent down there was a psychiatrist and I told him what I was going through and at that point he told me there was medical help, but I didn’t want to take it. I wanted to see if I could do things without the medication. But the following year when I was with the Orioles and then with Tampa, I was finally like, “OK, I should get medicated. I had already gotten a little bit better, but I realized I needed more than what I just doing. It was a chance to change my life, change my perspective and get past those things.
“I was glad that I talked about it. I didn’t realize that many people deal with that stuff on a daily basis. It was cool to realize that I’m not alone.”
Q: You were among the first wave of prominent Toronto athletes to be active on social media. Your experience was both positive and negative. Any advice for others?
“One thing for sure I learned is that you don’t go at the media. It’s a powerful tool and you have to understand how powerful a tool it is. It can help you, but it can also hurt you. Another thing that I would say, as tough as it is, is try to engage with social media but don’t sit there and read every little thing. As much as everybody wants to say, ‘it doesn’t bother me,’ it does. You don’t want to ever make anybody upset.
“I don’t know if I have the perfect formula for how to succeed with all the pressures and that stuff, but it’s getting help if you’re having an issue and having someone to talk to. If I knew what I was getting into and I knew what was going on… my brain wouldn’t have gone to the places it did.”
Q: When you first arrived in 2010 Jose Bautista was in the midst or his 54 home run season. What was it like to play with him and how would you describe him as a teammate?
“Jose Bautista, sometimes in the media, and with other teams, comes across as having a different personality, or he’s not a great dude, but I’ve never been around a guy who’s a bigger student of the game or wants to make the guys around him better. Me and him still talk and we talked the day before yesterday (Jan. 17).
“He was a guy I loved being around and playing with. Every team I went to (after Toronto), I stuck up for him and said this guy is one of the best teammates you could have.
“He used to go into the media room and show guys pitchers’ tendencies, helping out the younger guys. He would bring guys down to Florida to train with him. There are a lot of things this guy would do behind the scenes that people don’t realize how far he would extend himself to try and make his team better. Bringing down a Ryan Goins. Bringing down a Stroman and all these guys. He wanted to make Toronto better and he wanted to win.”
Q: He certainly has earned a reputation whether it’s fair or not…
“Look, when I first came up in 2010 and people were going crazy for the Jays… it wasn’t because they were winning, it was because Jose Bautista was leading the league in home runs. People were buying tickets because they wanted to see Jose Bautista hit 50 home runs. He drove that market back in Toronto. He was instrumental in putting baseball back on the map in Toronto. People quickly forget that.”
Q: Were you surprised he returned to Toronto given how the off-season was playing out?
“Look, Jose is a forward-minded thinker. This is a guy who got his finance degree during the season and guys used to tease him on the plane all the time saying, ‘dude, why are you reading these books, what are you doing?’
“He’s very into his brand. He’s a businessman. As far as the player, if anyone were to tell you they don’t want Jose Bautista on their team, I think that they’re full of bologna. The dude plays smart. He studies. He’s a very cerebral person.
“When he was saying what he was saying in spring training (2016) about his contract, he was thinking about it as a businessman. No one’s going to think higher of you than yourself. It may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but he just valued himself as that kind of player.
“It would be awkward if he came out and was like, “I don’t know what I’m worth. Plus, I’m getting a little old…” (laughs). I thought he would have re-signed sooner, but I also never would have imagined him playing for another team because of what he’s meant to that franchise, that city, that country and vice versa.”
Q: Finally… what’s next? You were never shy in front of the camera. Do you want to work in the media?
“That’s something that I thought would always be part of the next stage of my life. I’ve always thought that that’s something I would love to do. I was the MVP in the minor leagues, came up to the big leagues as a big shot, then struggled and ended up back in the same minor league I was MVP of four years earlier. And then I made it back to the big leagues.
“There’s a lot of stuff I did that a lot of guys didn’t go through. For example, why Player A is a star and why Player B struggles to be consistent can be pure mental. The mental side of the game is something that’s going to be talked about more and more it’s something that I think I can speak to.”
On Joe Maddon’s true genius…
“He does all these little things that have people like, “it’s so stupid and quirky,” but you walk into a clubhouse and there’s a penguin in your clubhouse and you’re like, “Dude, this is awesome!
“I think he’s a genius because he wants the player to take their mind off the pressure of playing the game. The tough thing about baseball is it’s every single day. That was the tough part for me. When you’re in a 20-game stretch and you’re struggling, ‘you’re like geez the only time I can come up for air is 15 days from now when we have that day off.
“That’s why although some people think some of the things he does is childish, he breaks up the everyday grind to give your mind a second off the sport and making it more fun.”
On that time he broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game with a 12-pitch walk…
“I was more surprised than anybody else. I had been feeling good at the plate at that time. We got to the 3-2, and if you like at my career 3-2 count numbers, they’re almost at a negative. It was one of those mental counts for me.
“I knew he had a perfect game going. He’s going to throw fastballs at me and I just need to be ready to hit this thing, so I was cheating my tail off. Every pitch he threw after 3-2 was 100 m.p.h. or above. He was throwing missiles. There was part of me like man, I’m not going to get on the cheap way and break up this thing.
“We went back and forth, then I took ball four and I felt like, “I did something wrong.” I saw the pitch really good… that’s why I took it, but I remember wondering if the ump was going to ring me up.
“The next day I got on-deck and Verlander looked at me and said, “Swing the bat!” I got him to sign a jersey and it says, “Swing the bat, no-hitter.”
On his favourite pitcher to catch…
“I can tell you who my least favourite person was to catch and that’s R.A. Dickey (laughs). People didn’t give Josh Thole enough credit, because as Russell Martin and me realized — and Russ Martin is a very, very good defensive catcher, that thing is ridiculous to catch.
“But in terms of favourites, me and Ricky (Romero) had such a phenomenal relationship. The other one was Mark Buehrle because this dude was throwing 85 m.p.h. like clockwork and was still dominating. He is unbelievable and one of the funniest guys.
“One time he called me to the mound. And this is a guy who never shook you off so I thought I was in trouble. He said to me, ‘dude, I’m in trouble. I just tried throwing as hard as I could and only hit 84 m.p.h.’
“He laughed and then we went back to work.”