NEW YORK — As he sat at his Yankee Stadium locker, his chinstrap beard gone, a pile of fresh navy blue cleats around his feet, an unfamiliar No. 30 on the back of his pinstriped uniform, Edwin Encarnacion couldn’t help but admit it was all a little weird.
“Yeah, you know, I used to play a lot against this team when I was on the Blue Jays,” he said. “So, putting this uniform on now is different.”
It’s no doubt a little jarring for Toronto Blue Jays fans, as well. What a strange timeline we’ve followed in which Encarnacion, objectively one of the 10 best hitters in Blue Jays franchise history, is now three organizations removed from his Toronto days, having passed through Cleveland and Seattle on his way to New York, one of his old team’s biggest rivals.
He played the Yankees more than 100 times with the Blue Jays, hitting home runs off everyone form Mariano Rivera to Hiroki Kuroda to Masahiro Tanaka. Now, he’s a Yankee himself, and having a throwback season, too.
Encarnacion was leading the American League with 23 home runs going into Monday night’s games, hitting nine of them at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park, a below-average offensive environment where the cool nighttime air knocks down fly balls. The Mariners sold high on him earlier this month, flipping Encarnacion to the Yankees for a prospect after he’d spent only 65 games with Seattle following an off-season trade from Cleveland, where he spent the past two seasons.
Encarnacion didn’t miss a beat, going deep twice in his first four games as a Yankee — the 402nd and 403rd longballs of his 15-year career — rounding the bases with his right elbow extended just like he always does. He’s now boasting an .856 OPS on the season, positioning himself to potentially be named an all-star for the fourth time in his career.
“I’ve been trying to do what I’ve been doing before. Keep working, don’t focus on my numbers,” he said. “Just focus on what I’m doing. And keep working hard, man. There’s a lot more games left. So, I hope I can finish strong.”
Some of those games are scheduled to be played in Toronto, which will be an awfully bizarre sight, as Encarnacion receives a rousing ovation at Rogers Centre while wearing pinstripes. He says he still gets a little emotional every time he plays against the organization he spent eight years with, overcoming persistent struggles in his mid-20’s to establish himself as one of the game’s premier sluggers.
“You know, every time I play against this team…” he said, trailing off in thought. “I’ve just got great memories with that team. So, I’m very excited to see the guys and play against them one more time.”
Of course, when Encarnacion looks across the diamond at the Blue Jays dugout, he hardly recognizes anyone in it. Toronto’s undergone a dramatic roster overhaul since he helped the Blue Jays reach the post-season in 2015 and ’16. Justin Smoak, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Joe Biagini are the only players left from his days with Toronto (Ryan Tepera and Matt Dermody are still in the organization, but not currently with the major-league team).
Players like Sanchez and Stroman were just breaking into the majors when Encarnacion was in his prime and putting up 40-homer seasons. He made a point of helping them acclimate any way he could, and encouraging them through times of struggle and disappointment. Now, Sanchez and Stroman serve that same role for a new crop of Blue Jays youth.
“Yeah, that’s really good to see, man. That’s what it’s all about. When you get up here, you learn from the veteran guys. Until you get your time to be the leader. Like they are right now. They’re the leaders on that team. And they know how to do it,” he said. “I think the biggest thing I told those guys was to play the game the right way. And respect the game. That’s all it’s about in this game for me.”
Even Toronto’s coaching staff is almost entirely different from the time Encarnacion wore a Blue Jays uniform. Gone is John Gibbons, his long-time manager and a man he developed a close bond with while grinding out long seasons year after year. Encarnacion says it was tough to see Gibbons forced out, even if it wasn’t entirely surprising.
“Gibby, man, he was great. Great guy. Great person. And he’s a great manager,” Encarnacion said. “But you know how this business goes. It’s nothing we can control. You can’t control that.
“And I know Charlie [Montoyo] from when he used to be with Tampa. He’s a great person, too. I hope he keeps doing well. He deserves it.”
It was 16 years ago when Encarnacion was a 20-year-old prospect in the Cincinnati Reds system, playing for the double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, and Montoyo was a 37-year-old manager at that level, helming the Orlando Rays. It was only a 10-team league, so the Lookouts and Rays played each other a lot.
Encarnacion was still relatively new to North America, still shy, still working on his English. But when he saw the Spanish-speaking Montoyo, he’d open up. Minor-league managers typically coach third base, and Encarnacion was still a third baseman at the time, which meant the pair spent a lot of games standing next to each other, shooting the breeze during breaks in play.
“I think he enjoyed talking to me because I was Spanish. I think I got him going probably more than somebody else could,” Montoyo said. “He’s always been a good guy, from then right up until now. Just always very nice. He’s always been the same since he was in the minor leagues — that’s what I like about him. And he’s always hit. You could tell back then that he was going to be a really good player.”
Encarnacion’s been watching Montoyo’s Blue Jays tenure from afar with keen interest. Not only because he knows him well. But because it’s still rare for a Latin American like Montoyo to get a chance to manage a major-league club.
“Yeah, it’s great, man. Just to see them give the opportunity to a Latin guy,” Encarnacion said. “It’s not easy for us, being Latin and being here. So, I’m very happy for him. And I know he has great experience. I wish nothing but good luck for him.”
And just in case you were wondering, yes, Encarnacion’s still in close touch with his old teammate Jose Bautista. They text or talk every few days.
After splitting 122 games between three NL East teams last season, Bautista went unsigned this winter and is currently biding his time in Tampa Bay, Fla. where he lives. He isn’t retired, officially. But is he enjoying his first summer away from the game in a couple decades?
“Uh, yes. But you know he still wants to play,” Encarnacion said. “But you know it’s not easy how this game is right now. He’s been enjoying the time with his family. He’s doing all right.”
Encarnacion’s not doing too bad himself. A league-lead in home runs, a renaissance season, a chance to play for a first-place team and hit in the heart of an absurdly dangerous Yankees lineup. It’s too bad the beard had to go, Yankee rules being Yankee rules. But it’s a price worth paying.
“It feels great, man — to be a part of this great organization and to put this uniform on, it’s an honour for me,” Encarnacion said. “We have fun. And we play hard. It’s going to be fun to watch what this lineup can do.”