TORONTO — Marcus Stroman intends to reunite with Nikki Huffman after the head athletic trainer’s departure from the Toronto Blue Jays, tweeting that he was “crazy excited” to have her “back in my circle” in one message, while suggesting she was being “limited and under-appreciated” in another since-deleted post.
The club’s former ace sent the tweets about an hour after the team announced Friday that Huffman had decided to leave the organization to pursue other opportunities.
According to multiple industry sources, the team has also hired former Canadian national team player Jimmy VanOstrand from the Seattle Mariners to be embedded with the big-league club in a mental skills role, allowing mental performance head Ben Freakley to focus his duties at the club’s complex in Dunedin, Fla.
As well, assistant physical therapist Scott Peters was promoted to medical research co-ordinator, where his responsibilities will include helping with risk assessments in player acquisitions and the draft.
Huffman’s departure after two years as head trainer and four with the club is the most significant change, and Stroman jumped into the fray with the following series of tweets, captured via screen grab.
Huffman didn’t immediately reply to a text message seeking comment.
Multiple industry sources suggested that Huffman plans to start her own business working with athletes, and that she and Stroman would reconnect is no surprise.
She joined the Blue Jays after the 2015 season as its first ever physical therapist and rehab co-ordinator, following her work at Duke University helping Stroman recover from the anterior-cruciate ligament he tore in his left knee during spring training that year. In an interview two years ago, Stroman said, “There’s no one I trust more with my body than her.”
Their bond is what made Stroman’s cryptic tweets particularly intriguing. Before revealing that he’d be working with Huffman again, he tweeted that, “Sometimes you need to remove your people from toxicity in order to see them prosper.”
He then retweeted himself and wrote, “Impossible for growth when you’re being limited and under-appreciated. Time to change the world! @NikkiG_13,” a message he subsequently deleted.
What or who he meant is open to speculation, although given the ongoing friction in his relationship with the Blue Jays ahead of a fractious exit following his July trade to the New York Mets, stirring things up for the front office is certainly on the table.
The Blue Jays certainly didn’t limit Huffman, making her only the second woman to ever serve as head athletic trainer for a team in one of North America’s four major sports leagues after the 2017 season. She chafed at the distinction, wanting to be known for her work, not her gender.
“If we start drawing attention to ourselves as minorities or women or to gender-related differences, then we lose sight of being the best professional that we can be,” she said in a 2017 interview. “That’s always something I try to encourage (girls and women) to do. Evaluate why you want to do this. Acknowledge the obstacles. Don’t succumb to them. Don’t complain about them.”
Huffman was promoted when the popular and well-respected George Poulis left after 18 years in Toronto to reconnect with former GM Alex Anthopoulos on the Atlanta Braves.
A former basketball and lacrosse player at Averett University, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in athletic training, Huffman has a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.
She also completed a post-professional sports residency and Division I sports fellowship at Duke, which led to her work with Stroman.
Her absence creates an opening in a key medical position for the team, and the Blue Jays are expected to look both internally and externally for a replacement. Assistant athletic trainers Voon Chong and Jose Ministral remain with the club and are likely to be involved in the process.
Joining the staff is VanOstrand, a Richmond, B.C., native who was a key part of the Canadian national teams at the 2008 Olympics, 2011 Pan American Games and 2013 World Baseball Classic and played eight years in the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals systems. He spent the past three seasons as a peak performance/mental skills coach in the Mariners system.
The 35-year-old — who in 2018 completed a psychology masters from California Southern University — brings a player’s perspective into a role where building trust is pivotal.