George Springer has just completed the first week of spring training with his new club. He’s been feeling his way around the characters in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, assessing the personalities and keeping mental notes. He’s compiled a pretty solid internal dossier, but one piece of intel is still eluding him.
Who is the resident DJ?
Bo Bichette controlled the stereo the other day, so it might be him, Springer thinks. But then again, other teammates have also taken charge of the music. Springer was the revered Spotify selectah during his time with the Houston Astros. He was adored for his ability to seamlessly shift through genres to please players and the coaching staff. One minute hip hop would be blaring through the speakers, the next minute salsa, then R&B or alternative rock.
“You’ve got to feel the vibe of the team that day,” Springer says via video call from his home in Tampa, Fla. With his workday now over on this Friday in late February, he’s wearing a black North Face snapback and red T-shirt, with a gold cross and two dog tags hanging from his neck. “Whatever’s on my mind that day, I throw it on,” he says of his musical choices. “And if we get a good response, I just keep finding artists from the same genre, and I go with it.”
He’s open-minded about his music, down to listen to anything. However, as the 31-year-old has grown older, his choices have become situational. Country and reggae rock are all-day staples — Springer counts Luke Combs and Rebelution among his favourite artists — but when he gets to the field, rap takes prominence. If he’s trying to chill, he may opt for jazz or something else with a mellow-out vibe. In other words, he’s got the necessary qualifications to take over the digital 1s and 2s in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, but that doesn’t mean he’s in a rush to snatch the aux cord.
“Nope, I’m just going to feel my way out,” he says with a smile. “Whoever has it that day, I might try to request a song and then maybe, when I get a bit more of an understanding of the locker room, I might one day just steal it.”
That day should arrive rather quickly, if you believe those familiar with Springer. The centre-fielder is a superstar because he possesses elite abilities on the diamond, yet his expertise isn’t limited to the space between the foul lines. “He has a way of reading the room,” says A.J. Hinch, who managed Springer for five years with the Astros. “The clubhouse is built with a lot of different personalities. But he has a way of dialing it up to get everybody pretty excited to play. Whether it’s how engaged he is with the best player on the team to the newly called-up rookie, he’s just a glue guy.”
That is a side of Springer usually reserved for those on his team. People close to him say he’s among the more private players you’ll meet, and he’s reinforced that in his limited interactions with media since joining the Blue Jays, keeping a comfortable distance in conversation and, while remaining polite and cooperative, not appearing overly eager to share personal thoughts and views. But sit down and really talk to the all-star, talk to those who have worked alongside him and those who know him best, and a deeper picture emerges. It’s a view of both George Springer the player and George Springer the man that goes a long way toward explaining why the Blue Jays made the decision to sign him in late January to the largest contract in the organization’s history — six years, $150 million. And it’s a view that opens up another: How this club and its young core will benefit from the addition of a new face of the franchise.
Torii Hunter made a promise to himself: There was no professional baseball team in Pine Bluff, Ark., when he was growing up, which meant he never got the chance to be around ballplayers. So, if the day eventually came when he was making a living in the sport, he would do his best to connect with youth. That ethos led to the centre-fielder playing catch with kids in the stands whenever the opportunity arose.
Springer was one of those kids on an afternoon in 1998. Hunter was with the New Britain Rock Cats — double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins — when he tossed the ball around with the eight-year-old boy. Hunter went on to carve out a strong 19-year career in the majors and in all the seasons that followed, he never forgot that specific child.
At times Hunter wondered how that eight-year-old’s life turned out. I hope he didn’t become a statistic. Maybe he’s a doctor. Maybe he’s a lawyer. He’s not exactly sure why, out of all the kids he played catch with over the years, this was the one who popped into his mind now and again. Perhaps because it was rare to see a young person of colour in the stands in Connecticut, he surmises.
In 2013, Hunter was with the Detroit Tigers during spring training when he was approached by his longtime friend, Bo Porter, who was the Astros manager at the time. Porter introduced Hunter to a star-struck minor-league outfielder with a serendipitous story. “I had tears in my eyes,” Hunter recalls of his reunion with Springer. “When things happen like that you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ I had chills.”
The veteran kept a close eye on Springer and began to glimpse shades of himself in the prospect. Both were first-round picks and right-handed hitters with power. Neither was ever cheated at the plate, always swinging with full force. Both became irritated when balls they couldn’t catch landed on the outfield grass. When firing throws to the infield, they would each use the momentum of their entire body, often flipping over after release. “He played the game with reckless abandonment like I did,” says Hunter.
That was by design, according to Springer. Ever since their fated game of catch, Hunter was his hero and someone he modelled himself after on the field. “The older I got, the more I could understand how he played the game, the passion he played with,” says Springer. “He wasn’t afraid to lay his body on the line.”
The two became good friends and stayed in constant contact, with Hunter often offering advice. Springer was mired in a deep funk at the plate during the 2017 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, collecting just three singles in 26 at-bats, when he received an impromptu call from Hunter, who told him that he was pulling the ball too much. Springer needed to instead focus on shooting it to right-centre field. That, in turn, would allow him to simplify his swing and stay on the ball.
Springer heeded the advice and exploded in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, hitting 11-for-29 with three doubles and five home runs en route to capturing series MVP honours as the Astros clinched in seven games.* “I’m watching it, screaming at my wife, ‘He’s doing it! He’s doing it!” Hunter remembers.
Says Springer: “As a younger player, when things start spiraling out of control and you don’t really understand why, any bit of help, any bit of guidance, means something. And then coming from the guy who I idolized for my whole career, he said something to me and I was kind of like, ‘Oh.’ I wanted to be successful, obviously, but I wanted to prove to him that I could do it.
“I’m extremely blessed to have that,” he adds. “To have him in my phone as a friend.”
When it comes to that aforementioned hardcore element to Springer’s game, Hinch has tales for days. There was the time the outfielder suffered a right wrist fracture after being hit by a pitch and lobbied to stay in the contest, telling his manager he could still bunt and play defence. Or the time Springer politicked to reverse Hinch’s decision to remove him following the first at-bat in his 162nd game of the season. (Springer singled to lead off the contest and was replaced on the bases by current Blue Jays teammate Teoscar Hernandez.) There’s also the time he sustained a concussion after sprinting full speed to track down a deep fly and crashing face-first into the right-field wall — during a blowout loss. Clearly dazed, Springer didn’t want to be carried off the field. He even refused to put his arms around trainers for assistance. He needed to exit the field entirely under his own power. And during that long, slow walk to the dugout, Springer repeatedly told Hinch that he was fine.
“He wasn’t in the lineup, obviously, for the next few games, but he continued to remind me that he made the play — that he caught it,” Hinch recalls. “That was important to him…. I mean, he’s got a football-player mentality.”
(It actually might be a hockey-player mentality. Springer has loved the sport since he was a child. He grew up 15 minutes from the Hartford Civic Center, home to the NHL’s Whalers until 1997, and often went to games with his dad. Today, he has the NHL package at home and catches games any chance he gets. “I think it’s unbelievable what those guys do,” says Springer. “They’re nuts, but I love to watch it.” He vows to frequent Scotiabank Arena to take in Toronto Maple Leafs games once fans are allowed to return.)
Springer earned a reputation in Houston as a lunch-pail guy who was easy to coach and would show up to work every day with a consistent attitude and do anything asked of him. He was one of the first players to take the field during spring training, arriving at 7:15 a.m., which prompted the Astros coaching staff to joke with younger players that they need to “try to beat George” to the ballpark one day.
“That is the good thing about George — he wants to be the best,” says Alex Cintron, Astros hitting coach. “He’s always looking for more, always searching for something that is going to help him get to the next level. He’s a hard worker. He likes to watch video. He likes you to tell him when he’s doing things right and wrong, to be honest with him. And he’ll sit down and talk to you about it.”
That quest extends to his life off the field, too. Four years ago, Springer and his wife Charlise — who played softball at the University of Albany and with Puerto Rico’s national team — were inspired by a TV show to try giving up meat for a day or two. That led to a week, which turned into months and eventually years, a move that Springer says has helped him sleep better and aided in recovery.
That drive and discipline, and the example they set, are part of what the Blue Jays paid for. Much has been made about Springer injecting a veteran presence into the franchise’s youthful locker room. The narrative goes that he’ll emerge as a de facto leader and mentor to a promising position-player nucleus that includes Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He won’t accomplish that by calling team meetings and offering clubhouse speeches, Hinch believes. “I think he’s a leader by example,” the manager says. “He’s not your guy that’s going to mentor by lecture. He’s going to mentor by engagement and style of play.”
Under Hinch, the Astros featured prominent all-stars such as Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, but he identifies Springer as one of the team’s key behind-the-scenes catalysts. Springer is someone who doesn’t seek out attention, he notes, but often ends up receiving it anyway. “He’s high energy and has an infectious personality that people are naturally drawn to in the clubhouse, in the dugout,” says Hinch, now skipper of the Tigers. “A tone-setter on so many levels. And he’s a positive influence on a day-to-day basis. I mean, one of the best I’ve seen at being a consistent person and presence.”
Former Astros teammate Michael Brantley is quick to point out Springer’s DJ skills, which he says helped foster a light and upbeat atmosphere in the clubhouse — a vital ingredient during the long grind of the major-league season. “He’s a sneaky dancer, which he won’t show out in public,” Brantley says with a laugh. “He’s got some moves for being how big he is — I’ll give him that.”
Upon joining the Astros in 2019, Brantley quickly forged a strong relationship with Springer. They were lockermates at the ballpark and even lived in the same neighbourhood. While driving to Minute Maid Park one day in Charlise’s Mercedes GLE 63, they suddenly needed to change a flat tire on the side of the tollway after running over a nail. There was a lengthy search for the wheel lock key, followed by a lengthier wrestling match with the jack and some time spent on YouTube. “Probably a couple hours to change a tire that should have taken us 30 minutes, because we’re both grown men,” says Brantley. “But we got it done. Teamwork.”
The 33-year-old left-fielder, who reportedly came close to joining Springer in Toronto before re-signing with Houston this past off-season, says that while his friend is entering an unfamiliar role as a clubhouse OG — Springer could be the only Blue Jays position player on the opening day roster who was born in the 1980s — he’ll do well because of his ability to blend in with everybody. “When you’re an open personality, you’re fun to be around and people want to be around you,” says Brantley of Springer. “When you are a phenomenal baseball player, but an even better person, who guys can rely on, guys can trust and talk to, it makes the players better around you. And it makes the team better, overall.”
Springer, for his part, believes that his ability to navigate the locker room comes from his parents, who preached the importance of being observant. “To be very aware of my surroundings and to understand what’s happening, understand the situation, the time, the place — just kind of be a fly on the wall,” says Springer.
“I say all the time, ‘It may look like I’m not paying attention, but I hear everything you say.’ I’ve been that way my whole life.”
The scene, down to the smallest detail, is etched in Patrick Hall’s mind. He was in Houston, attending the annual George Springer Bowling Benefit in support of SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. Hall, director of the Connecticut Blue Jays — Springer’s youth team — was standing 15 metres away, watching Springer and a child, proudly wearing a Springer jersey, relaxing on high stools, playing Xbox on a big-screen TV. The kid had a debilitating stutter, reminiscent of a 12-year-old Springer, who Hall remembers having trouble ordering food.
However, here he was now, all grown up and working to help kids who are similarly afflicted. The smile on the child’s face spoke volumes. “It was something that I don’t think the kid will ever forget, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” Hall says. “The way he sits with kids and makes them feel comfortable allows those kids to open up and be themselves and not be star-struck, because George just wants to have fun.”
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.
Springer says he’s already in talks to bring the event to Toronto, but the pandemic has slowed plans. Before signing, he conducted his own research into the club’s community arm, the Jays Care Foundation. The powerful platform and responsibility that come with being a professional athlete aren’t lost on him, but he also seems to genuinely enjoy his outreach work. “Whether that’s playing catch with kids or running around in the park somewhere, getting into a classroom and just listening to kids talk — I miss that,” says Springer. “I think it’s fun. You get the chance to walk in certain places and just shake hands and smile and have a normal conversation about life.”
He didn’t need to do as much research on the city. Springer has family friends in Toronto and has always enjoyed his visits with the Astros. “I’ve always felt safe there…. It’s the only place I think I’ve ever been to where when my phone didn’t work, I didn’t panic,” he says, adding that he’s found joy in simple walks downtown.
What’s also exciting to him is the chance to contribute to the atmosphere at Rogers Centre. He remembers watching Game 5 of the 2015 AL Division Series, which featured Jose Bautista’s infamous seventh-inning home run and subsequent bat flip. “The best way to describe it is when you go watch the highlight, that camera is shaking from how loud and how nuts the stadium was going,” says Springer, waving his hands near his face to simulate the movement.
“Obviously, there’s [the game] when Edwin [Encarnacion] walked it off,” he says, referencing the slugger’s 11th-inning home run in the 2016 AL wild-card game. “That’s what you want. And that’s what us as players sign up to play for. To know that when we get there, that atmosphere will be waiting for us, it’s awesome to envision.”
From Bautista and Encarnacion to Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter, or even looking down Bremner Boulevard to the building where Raptors legends Vince Carter and Kawhi Leonard plied their trade, the city has a rich recent history of star players who’ve become household names and icons to generations of Canadians. Ask Springer for thoughts on his own legacy and the gravitas of potentially joining that pantheon and he immediately shifts the conversation. “I hope what they remember is the teams that I played on,” he says. “The team, as a whole, and what the team was able to do. I know there’s a lot of individual stuff out there, but this isn’t an individual game. This is about the team. And I think it’ll be more special for me as a player for the 2021 team to be remembered as the team that did something special — or the 2022 team, or whatever the case.
“I think [individual notoriety can be] flattering,” he continues. “But I represent a country. I represent the city. The ‘Blue Jays’ or the ‘Toronto’ on the front of my jersey. That’s honestly what matters to me.”
Hunter still has his fingers on the pulse of the game. He’s a special assistant in the Twins front office and, as a Texas resident, he keeps tabs on the Rangers and Astros. Every now and then he’ll find himself having conversations with clubhouse attendants. These are people who work backstage, handling a variety of tasks ranging from preparing food to washing uniforms or picking up dry cleaning. They’re privy to a different side of players than most others.
“When you get clubhouse guys talking good about you, you know you’re good, because most people show their character to clubhouse guys,” Hunter says. “They all talk great things about Springer. When you hear the clubhouse guys say some good things about a person, you better believe it. They love him.”
While the similarities between Hunter and Springer continue to manifest — Hunter was in his early 30s when he left the only organization he had ever known in Minnesota to sign a big-money deal with the Angels — there is one area where that little brown boy from the stands in New Britain has surpassed Hunter. “He won the World Series, so there’s no similarities there,” says Hunter. “I didn’t get to the World Series. I’ve been to the playoffs eight times. Never touched the World Series.
“I live through him,” he adds. “If they’re not playing the Twins, Angels or Tigers, I used to root for the Astros. But now, I’m rooting for Toronto, because of Springer. But if he’s playing the Twins, I’m not rooting for them — I’m just rooting for Springer to get a hit and lose.”
Blue Jays fans are set to spend the next six years cheering just as hard for Springer. He’ll no doubt thrill them while he’s on the field, though some of his most valuable contributions might very well occur behind the curtain, away from their eyes. And if he ever gets hold of that aux cord, he’ll be mesmerizing some ears, too.
*The Astros’ 2017 World Series victory was later marred by controversy when the team’s sign-stealing scheme, a violation of MLB rules, became public. “There’s no real way to express how much regret we have, how much remorse we have,” Springer told reporters in February of 2020. “I’m sorry we’re in this situation today. I regret the fact that we are in this situation today.” When asked about the scandal during his introductory media conference with the Blue Jays, Springer said: “I believe in myself. I believe in my performances. I believe in the team that was there.” One month later, when asked again about it during a Zoom conference with reporters, Springer said: “This is about the Blue Jays now. And I’m here. I’m going to enjoy my time here and I’m going to enjoy my locker room. And I’ll go from there.”
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