Manoah has ‘special moment’ in Mother’s Day start with mother, grandma present

Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah calls out the baseballs after his start vs. the Guardians, says they weren’t worked in, and felt like they were straight out of the box, but says he's not here to make excuses.

CLEVELAND — “Mom!” Alek Manoah’s voice jumped out of the phone, a little startled, a little scared. “I just crashed your car!”

“Oh my God, Alek!” Susana Lluch responded. “You did what?”

Like Manoah said, he’d crashed her car. It was 2013 and Manoah was a 15-year-old freshman at South Dade High School in Homestead, Fla., about 45 minutes south of Miami. He’d been playing MLB The Show with his buddy, Donovan, when suddenly the game stopped working. Something wrong with the disc. A particularly frustrating turn of events considering Manoah had just bought it from the Walmart two blocks away.

He wanted his money back. An exchange for a functional copy, at least. But it was late and Walmart was closing soon. Manoah might not make it there in time if he walked. And he’d just received his learner’s licence from Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. So, he asked Susana if he could take her car.

It wasn’t just any car. It was a brand new 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee — white with black rims. The one Susana always wanted but never thought she’d be able to afford. Manoah’s uncle, Carlos Rodriguez, had just gotten a job as general sales manager at Planet Dodge in Miami. And he was able to pull some contractual jiu-jitsu to make the numbers work on Susana’s end if she was willing to take the plunge.

She’d never treated herself to anything, committing every spare dollar to supporting the baseball dreams of her two young boys, Alek and Erik, who was about to be drafted by the New York Mets the following year. She wasn’t entirely sure how she’d make the car payments work. But she always wanted that Grand Cherokee.

And she only had it for two months. That’s when she let Alek take it around the block to Walmart in pursuit of a replacement disc, a minutes-long journey that brought him to one of those four-way intersections where the traffic lights are flashing red in one direction and yellow in the other. Manoah’s light was flashing red. The light for the car approaching from his left was flashing yellow. Perhaps you can see where this is going.

As Manoah would have read in the Official Florida Driver Licence Handbook he obtained, heard in the Traffic Law and Substance Abuse Education course he completed, and demonstrated his knowledge of on the Class E Knowledge Exam he passed with a score of at least 80 per cent in order to gain his Learner’s License, in situations such as those any drivers approaching the flashing red light are expected to yield to oncoming traffic, while drivers approaching the flashing yellows are expected to proceed with caution.

“I stopped. I swear, I stopped,” Manoah says. “But I thought the other car needed to stop, too. You know, I’m young — I’m learning to drive. I didn’t know. I thought it was like a stop sign for everyone. I saw the other guy coming. But I assumed he was going to stop. So, I started going. And then it was just, ‘Bang!’”

As Manoah pulled his mom’s Jeep into the intersection, the oncoming car proceeded straight into his front driver’s side axle, sending him and Donovan spinning until they came to a stop in the middle of the intersection. And it was from that very spot that Manoah called Susana in a slight panic to let her know the dream car she couldn’t really afford was totalled.

“And she didn’t have a car for a while. For a couple of months at least. Probably longer. She had to find another way to get to work, to get us to baseball, to do anything. It was definitely a huge pain in her ass. Huge,” Manoah says. “That put her in a really tough situation. She already had so much on her plate. And now her car’s a write off.

“But I always told her, from that day on, ‘I’m going to get it back for you, mom. Don’t worry, I’m going to get it back for you.’ And at that time, it’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, Alek.’ Like, ‘Get it back? What are you talking about? I need to find a way to work in the morning.’”

Those tough, hope-and-hustle days were a distant memory Sunday, nearly a decade later, as Manoah took the mound at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Mother’s Day to make the 26th start of his burgeoning MLB career in what ended up a 4-3 Blue Jays loss to the Guardians.

Toronto entered the eighth inning with a 3-2 lead, but Tim Mayza coughed up a homer to Owen Miller before Adam Cimber let another run score on an Oscar Mercado single. And the Blue Jays offence couldn’t get anything going against Emmanuel Clase in the ninth, capping a quiet, four-hit, three-walk day.

Manoah wasn’t his sharpest, working with diminished fastball velocity and scattershot command to grind through five innings of two-run ball. Or at least he didn’t look his sharpest. After the game, Manoah said he had difficulty throughout the afternoon gripping the baseballs used in the game.

“They’re terrible. I know that MLB has a guy that rubs them up. Those balls were right out of a box. Some laces were huge. Some were fluffy. They were all brand new white balls. There’s no excuse. But, yeah, definitely the balls need to be better,” Manoah said. “You pitch. You can’t do nothing. You can’t call time and ask for a new bucket of balls. You’ve just got to go attack. It’s one of those days. Just got to find a way to continue to breathe. Stay within myself. And try to get the team a win.”

That certainly explains Manoah’s troubles locating his pitches throughout the afternoon, including this one that flew out of his hand to the backstop:

Despite that challenge, Manoah still managed to throw 61 of his 95 pitches for strikes. He struck out three, walked one, and hit a couple guys. Jose Ramirez got him for an RBI triple, then scored on Miller’s sacrifice fly. But that was the extent of the damage.

If that’s how things go for him on a down day when he can’t grip the balls he’s throwing, things are bound to go pretty well when he’s feeling his best. Manoah didn’t see the sixth inning for the first time in his last 14 starts. But as he has time and again, he found a way to limit damage, get his team outs, and put it in position to win.

“I’m not here to make excuses. A lot of s— went wrong today. It is what it is. This team’s going to fight no matter what. I’m going to fight no matter what,” Manoah said. “Just got to go out there and compete. Sometimes God throws some things in front of you to see how strong you can be. I walked in strong today. And I’m definitely walking out stronger — learning to adapt, learning to adjust, and learning to deal with the adversity.”

Of course, for Susana and Manoah’s grandmother, Maria, who were there in powder blue Blue Jays jerseys watching from third row seats behind the club’s dugout, it didn’t matter in the slightest how Manoah performed. Only that he was on that mound at all.

“My first Mother’s Day in the show and I’m pitching with them there? How awesome is that?” Manoah says. “Talk about a special moment.”

Two weeks ago, when he saw how Toronto’s pitching schedule was lining up and that he was slated to make his sixth start of the season on Mother’s Day, Manoah got to place a more joyful call to his mom than the one he made from that Homestead intersection, telling her to clear her weekend schedule because he was flying her and Maria out to Cleveland to watch him pitch.

What he didn’t tell her was that he’d be pitching in a pair of pink-and-white, size 17 cleats he was having custom made for the day and planning to gift Susana after his start. One shoe features the same heart Susana had tattooed on her arm after Manoah was born 24 years ago. The other has a grid of diamonds within squares like you’d see on a baseball scoresheet wrapped around the heel, which is Manoah’s favourite part of all.

Throughout her son’s little league and travel ball days, Susana reliably took charge of team scorekeeping, keeping track of everyone’s statistics and results in a big scorebook from her front row seat. Some of Manoah’s favourite pictures from those days are of Susana driving him and his teammates around in a golf cart during tournaments, balancing that big scorebook on her lap.

“She was always our team mom growing up,” Manoah says. “She was always doing anything she could to help out. Whether it was cooking for everybody or doing the scorebook. She was kind of like a coach, honestly. She’d always get on me about running out ground balls and stuff.”

For Susana, being team mom was more of a commitment than it is for most. A single mother, Susana made great sacrifices to allow Erik and Alek to pursue their major-league dreams. She worked multiple jobs to afford registration fees; she spraypainted and repurposed old catcher’s equipment to make it look like new; she arranged early-morning rides to travel ball games with coaches, friends, and family when she couldn’t miss work; sometimes she gave up her own dinner so she could put enough food on the table for her boys.

At one point, Susana found herself between homes and shared an air mattress with Erik and Alek on the floor of Maria’s one-bedroom apartment. She didn’t have anywhere to keep her belongings, not that she had many to speak of. But when the weekend’s ballgames came around, Susana was there with her scorebook and anything else she could provide, telling her boys to hustle hard through routine outs, to turn the page on poor results, to overcome struggle through effort.

“Financially, it was tough. She went through a lot of shit to give us a chance to play ball. A lot of shit a mom would never want to have to do. But she’d put her pride aside and do whatever she could for us. She didn’t care. She would just grind it out,” Manoah says. “She didn’t have a lot to work with. But she was just like, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to try to take care of as much as I can.’ She’s just a generous person. She has a generous heart. She always put us before her. No matter what.”

And it only backfired on her once, when she let Manoah take her car to Walmart for a new video game. Manoah will never forget the remorse he felt that day. He knew how much his mom sacrificed for him. How that car was the only thing she’d ever treated herself with. He had no idea when or where or how he’d make it up to her. Only that he would. And he kept telling her from that day on. I’m going to get it back for you, mom. Don’t worry, I’m going to get it back for you.

Flash forward a half-decade to 2019, when Manoah was selected No. 11 overall in the MLB draft by the Blue Jays, and signed to a $4.55-million bonus. That can buy a few Jeeps. Forget the Grand Cherokee — Manoah could get mom into a Wrangler. But that wasn’t his promise all those years ago.

So, not long after he was drafted, Manoah went to see his uncle Carlos over at Planet Dodge. They ate lunch, shot the breeze, busted balls. Had a look at what Carlos had in stock. And there it was — a brand new 2020 Grand Cherokee. White with black rims like the one Manoah pulled up past that flashing red light. He drove it off Carlos’ lot that day, pulled up to the new house in a nicer Miami-area neighbourhood he bought Susana with his draft bonus, and made another call to his mom.

“Mom! Come outside,” Manoah’s voice jumped out of the phone, a little excited, a little proud. “’I told you I’d get that Jeep back.’”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.