How fatherly motivation guided Riley Adams to Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays' Riley Adams celebrates his first hit in the majors, a double off Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Carlos Rodon, as White Sox's Tim Anderson, top, and Nick Madrigal stand nearby during the fifth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

TORONTO – The season-opener between Vanderbilt and the University of San Diego in 2017 was a heavily scouted affair and up in the public address announcer’s booth, Matt Adams struggled to keep it together. He’d just watched his son Riley, the starting catcher for the Toreros, take an 0-2 pitch from Kyle Wright, a top prospect eventually picked fifth overall by Atlanta in that summer’s draft, and line it over the wall in left field in his first at-bat. All Adams – along with his other son, Cameron, who ran the music system – wanted to do was scream and shout, but as the stadium announcer at Fowler Park, duty called.

“In that situation, there was a home run sponsor and you’re supposed to read the copy as he’s running around bases,” recalls Matt, who was the P.A. announcer at San Diego throughout Riley’s three seasons there. “Cameron is playing the Star Wars theme, and both of us are falling out of the booth trying not to cheer for him, trying to be professional. We had some moments where we probably could have been more professional. But, shoot, those are magic moments.”

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Roughly four years later, the family enjoyed another one of those magic moments when Riley, a third-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in that 2017 season, made his major-league debut June 8 at the Chicago White Sox. The clan had scrambled from Encinitas, Calif., to Oakland in early May anticipating a debut that didn’t happen and there wasn’t much clarity as to whether it was going to happen that day, either.

Danny Jansen was dealing with a strained hamstring and while the Blue Jays had summoned Adams from triple-A Buffalo, they hadn’t told him if he would be activated. Matt, Cameron and mom Shelly decided “it would make more sense for them to fly out for the chance” he ended up playing, and sat in the stands of Guaranteed Rate Field wearing Riley’s old jerseys, including ones from his stops with the Vancouver Canadians and New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

“There were a few parts in the game I was trying to look for them in the stands and I didn’t know they were wearing any jerseys,” Riley says. “I was looking for some Blue Jays stuff. But they were rocking some old things and … seeing them with that support is pretty cool.”

Without a doubt, and Father’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the impact of such supports, which for Riley came steadily from both parents.

Sports are an integral part of life for the Adams family, as Matt played basketball at the University of San Diego, Shelly was a decorated softball, basketball and volleyball player in high school and Cameron pitched at Washington University in St. Louis.

Though the boys grew up around basketball because Matt regularly did public announcing for tournaments in San Diego, Los Angeles and surrounding areas and some officiating as well, they gravitated toward and excelled at baseball.

Having seen lots of cringe-worth moments between parent and child through their own experiences and then Matt’s work, they made sure to use a far more supportive approach with their boys.

“The hard-edged parent that is driving the kid and using a lot of negative reinforcement is never an approach I thought would bring out the best in our kids,” says Matt. “Now, I’ve seen kids where that works great. While refereeing NCAA basketball, I’ve seen huddles with a coach dropping F-bombs on everybody in a way I would probably never do with my kids, because I just don’t think it makes sense for them. But he got the reaction he was looking for out of those kids at that time. So I defer to that coach in that experience. But as a parent, I wanted to make sure they were growing, they were learning from the experience, they were happy and having fun. That was a big part of it. Win or lose, we get to learn something from the game. We get to take away something.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t tough moments, but they were approached smartly, asking what could be learned from a mistake on the field, rather than something critical like, what were you thinking. And there was zero tolerance for finger-pointing or blaming others.

“We had to understand, no, no, no, that’s not the appropriate way to think about this,” says Matt. “What could you have done to make that experience better? And maybe there was nothing we could do to make that experience better and that’s OK.”

He sees the benefits of that approach in the way Riley handles himself as a catcher, a position that like a basketball point guard, setter in volleyball or quarterback in football, the priority is to make teammates better.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

“You can’t go to the mound and say, ‘Dude, throw a strike, what the hell are you doing?’ That may not work with most pitchers,’” says Matt. “More, ‘Hey, man, what’s up? The curveball was great two innings ago, now you can’t quite find it. Help me out here. What are we doing?’ Try to be a motivator from a more positive perspective in that moment, in that experience, because you’ve got to get the most you can out of the pitcher to have that game go our way.

“Riley understands how to read the room, how to know that what some guys want, others might not want and do the best you can to make everyone around him as good as it can be. I think he understands that and is motivated appropriately.”

That motivation carried the 24-year-old to the majors and Matt has gone from announcing his son’s name to hearing it on the sound system in a big-league stadium.

“You gush with pride a little bit,” he says. “When you start with the funnel that is baseball, youth ball, high school ball, college ball, and then you have this very limited number of people that get to play in the major leagues, you’re just gushing with pride at the hard work that it took to get here, the perseverance, the literal blood, sweat, tears, the whole thing. There’s an appreciation and gratitude for all the people along the journey, coaches, the moms that drive them to the games, just everybody that it took to get to where we are today. There’s a real deep appreciation for all of that.”

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