LOS ANGELES – Moments of unfettered joy are hard to come by amid the daily burden of a baseball season. Failure is omnipresent. Negativity breeds easily. Chances to celebrate are a release, which is why hand-wringing over post-game ice baths or aggressive chest thumping after a big win miss the point. The game is hard and relentless. Players should seize any little bit of happy they can grasp and savour it.
The All-Star Game is strand of that happy like no other. A gathering of the game’s very best. No real stakes. One epic three-day party, especially in a place like Los Angeles. It’s the ideal time to let it go for a night or three.
“Every time we're playing (during the regular season), you don't really get to enjoy it as much, you're just focused on attacking the next one and the next one and the next one,” Toronto Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah, an all-star for the first time, said Monday in the searing SoCal heat.
“This is one of those things where you don't have to worry about the next day. This is the day. If you give up 10 runs, who cares? There's no all-star game ERA. You just get to enjoy every moment. That's the biggest thing for me, enjoying the pictures, enjoying talking to you guys, enjoying the meals, enjoying just being in the locker-room and talking to some of the guys. Just enjoying the moment.”
For Manoah and his four Blue Jays teammates here at Dodger Stadium for the festivities, enjoying the moment is all the more important given the two weeks they’ve just been through. The grief for first-base coach Mark Budzinski, whose daughter Julia was killed in a boating accident. A breaking-point 1-9 skid as the games went on and their play went sideways. A nadir loss that turned when the webbing of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s glove broke on a relay to first. The firing of Charlie Montoyo and promotion of John Schneider to interim manager. A 5-1 run to the break, including a pair of too-close-for-comfort wins over the depleted Kansas City Royals.
“It’s been a lot, you know what I mean?” said closer Jordan Romano, another first-time all-star. “What happened with Bud was really tough on everyone there and then Charlie going shortly after, I’d never really experienced those two things in my life before. It was like a roller-coaster. But I feel like we're a little steadier now, if that makes sense. A bit more stability as of now. I feel like we're in a really good spot.”
Often lost amid the recent tumult is that the Blue Jays, at 50-43, are in position of the third wild card, two games up on their closest competitor. Yet among the all-stars, they may very well be the most dissatisfied players on a team in currently in possession of a playoff spot.
George Springer, who withdrew to rest his sore elbow and other ailments, was also voted onto the American League team, giving the Blue Jays six players named to the American League squad. That quantity of all-star calibre performance on a roster where others, Kevin Gausman and Bo Bichette in particular, may have merited spots too doesn’t compute with the club’s record.
“I can tell you this – we haven't played our best baseball,” said Manoah. “We might have, out of the first 3½ months, played a couple of weeks of our best baseball, and we're in a playoff spot. That alone will tell you a lot about our team and how good we can be. Expectations are expectations. Those are hypotheticals on what could, should, would happen. But what is happening is happening. There are things that we're going to have to deal with and continue to learn from and continue to be stronger through it all. And the biggest thing is we haven't played our best baseball yet. A lot of stuff has gone on and we're still seven games above .500 and in a playoff spot. Excited to see once we do put it all together. It's going to be pretty fun.”
The past couple of weeks largely lacked fun, especially as tensions mounted during the west coast swing through Seattle and Oakland.
“That's life – things like that happen,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr., MVP at last year’s all-star game starting at first base for the second straight year. “I don't believe in putting your head down. The best thing is you’ve got to turn the page and keep working hard, keep doing it as a team and I think we’re going to be fine.”
Guerrero, amid the unrelenting expectations put upon him, in particular has ridden the ups and downs of the season. Back in May, he conceded that he’s tried to do too much at the plate this season and at separate points this season, both Springer and Teoscar Hernandez have urged him to make sure he’s still having fun, one of his trademarks.
“I feel great right now. I’m having fun. I’m enjoying it,” he said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “But when you have teammates or part of the staff that sit down with you and talk to you about what’s happening in the moment, it’s a relief. It’s something that helps a lot. I’m thankful because that's what I have on my team and I’m feeling good right now.”
Alejandro Kirk and Santiago Espinal, the club’s two other all-stars, may be the two Blue Jays who have had the most to feel good about this season.
Kirk, elected the AL’s starting catcher, and Espinal, a late replacement when Jose Altuve withdrew, have been steady and consistent and have helped bridge the periods when others in the lineup weren’t as productive as they’ve been.
That’s why Kirk feels that “we definitely should have a better second half.”
“The type of team that we have, the type of clubhouse that we have, we are very together always. The chemistry is great,” he said through Lebron. “It's been very, very difficult the last couple of weeks. Very emotional, not just for me, but for the entire team. But we're very close to each other. What happened with Bud is tragic, we're very sad about that. But we've got to continue to go out there, find a way, grind, work hard and perform. But it's been very difficult.”
Working to put the upheaval behind them has helped get the club on a better footing, said Romano, as has Schneider’s style.
“He's pretty laid back, he's really fun,” said Romano. “He talks to the guys a lot so that's, I guess, a little bit different. … With the type of players we have and a lot of good seasons, we should be playing better and I'm not really sure how to put that into numbers or anything. But I just feel like we're going to get rolling and work together.”
A short pause and some joy during an all-star refresh won’t hurt, either.