Blue Jays’ band of brothers prepare for post-season battle
Playoff-bound squad a tight-knit group that stuck together all season, bonding and enjoying themselves on and off field
The pack of motorized scooters is lined up outside the clubhouse like the toys of some teenage gang. Inside, hanging in each rider’s locker is a royal blue monogrammed bathrobe, which gives those who wear them the look of a cartoonish prize fighter. Remote-controlled helicopters, meanwhile, whiz by overhead, as shouts of a video game won or lost come from the locker room’s opposite end.
Welcome to the Blue Jays’ boys club, where grown men can still play like children and bond in much the same way.
“A lot of us who have grown up in the game, we haven’t fully grown up yet,” says 42-year-old reliever LaTroy Hawkins, the oldest pitcher in the big leagues. “When we’re in the clubhouse, we’re big kids.”
This band of scooter-riding, naptaking, bathrobe-wearing merry men, filled with outgoing characters and outsized personalities, is easy to like. They seem to genuinely like each other, too.
“We’re a family,” says outfielder Ben Revere who, like Hawkins, has only been with the team since the trade deadline. “We all hang out. Watching football, playing fantasy (sports), playing video games. We’re really close, like a band of brothers.”
What the Jays’ camaraderie means for the post-season remains to be seen, but it’s no accident. General manager Alex Anthopoulos did not hide the fact he underwent something of a philosophical shift in prioritizing “high character” players in the off-season in an attempt to inject a more competitive culture into a team that had consistently underachieved.
Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin — two players with post-season experience, who were also both known for getting the most out of their teammates — were the two most important off-season additions.
The players who departed the roster, either via trade or free agency, were also significant.
Even as he added five new faces at the deadline, including superstars David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, Anthopoulos raved about the quality of their respective characters. And after the Jays clinched their first post-season berth in 22 years this past week, the GM was emphatic about the importance of intangibles.
“I have to admit, I was wrong,” he told ESPN Magazine writer Howard Bryant. “Performance, analytics, numbers. It isn’t everything. Chemistry matters.” Whether winning breeds good chemistry or the other way around, the players see it as vital to team success.
“It’s probably a little bit of both,” says Price, of the chicken-egg dilemma. “But I definitely feel like good chemistry makes winning more fun. If you know your teammates personally and you’re with them away from the field, it keeps baseball the same game as it was when you were a kid. You’re not coming because it’s your job, you’re coming because you enjoy it. You want to get here early, you want to hang out with your friends, your teammates, your brothers. Whenever you have that in your clubhouse you can’t put a number on an amount of games it helps you win or however many times it’ll help you stop a losing streak, but it makes things a lot better when you have a team like that.”
Although Price joined the Jays only two months ago, he has orchestrated much of the fun-loving culture. He bought the scooters and the bathrobes, for instance. The scooters were an idea that came from the Ti- gers, his former club. Price used to ride a fold-up bicycle to and from games in Detroit, but several of his teammates had the motorized scooters.
“They were all flying by me and when I’d get back to the hotel or the field I’d be soaking wet ’cause I’d be sweating and they’re cold because they’re going 20 m.p.h.” Price added that he knew Toronto, with its downtown ballpark, would be “the perfect city” for a scooter, but he didn’t want to ride alone.
Same deal with the bathrobes. It would be weird if he was the only guy wearing one. “I hate it when people just get themselves something and don’t get everybody else something,” he said. “That’s wrong.”
Hawkins said the team’s culture was already in place before he and the other hired guns arrived.
“All winning teams have good chemistry,” he said. “But Alex did a good job bringing in pieces that wouldn’t disrupt what they already had.”
Various studies have shown that athletes who feel supported by their teammates will perform better because they are less anxious, less afraid to fail and more focused on the task at hand. Athletes in team sports are also more likely to give maximum effort if they care about their teammates. Given the marathon season, a little extra effort can add up.
“Chemistry is a real thing,” said R.A. Dickey, the 40-year-old knuckleballer who is heading to his first postseason after a 19-year professional career, which included parts of 14 seasons in the minors. “You don’t have to be on scooters and playing video games to have a good clubhouse, but having fun really does help. Like, being boys and enjoying one another and wanting to be around one another, those kinds of things are all proponents of good chemistry and that’s what we do and it’s not manufactured at all.”
The opposite — “When you’ve got a bunch of dripping faucets in the clubhouse who are negative all the time, that rubs off on everybody else” — is also true, Dickey said.
Winning certainly helps build team chemistry, Dickey said, but having good chemistry is most important in times of adversity.
“If you’re losing it’s miserable, whether you got great guys on the team or not. But I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a team that’s had great chemistry, a great clubhouse culture and has been a losing team. That’s the thing. I’ve been on plenty of teams that stunk and the clubhouse was really difficult. In my own personal experience I think that’s a big deal. The guys in here, how they play together, how they live together — because that’s what we do, we live together — how we get along, how professional we are to each other, how we respect one another, all those things are meaningful.”
“I think it’s contagious,” says Mark Lowe, who says he was immediately struck by the positivity in the Jays’ clubhouse as soon as he arrived at the trade deadline. “No matter what kind of job you do, in any workplace, if you’re surrounded by positive people you’re going to be more productive.”
“We really are a team,” says rookie closer Roberto Osuna. “Sometimes people call a team a team because it’s a team, but we really are a team. We’ve got a really good friendship and we work together and I think that’s why we’ve had a lot of success this year, because we work together and we support each other.”
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my career,” says Dioner Navarro, the Jays backup catcher who, ironically, asked for a trade in the off-season to a team where he could fill a starting role. “Scooters, bathrobes, video games . . . it kind of falls into my thing. I love video games, I like a lot of toys and I’ve got a scooter.”
“It’s like a melting pot of personalities and ethnicities and nationalities, but everybody genuinely cares about being a good teammate,” says Chris Colabello, who has played professional baseball for 11 years, seven of those in the unaffiliated minor leagues. “I think that’s what allows you to have individual success, when it’s not the priority. You’re not worried about your own stuff. You’re worried about helping the guys around you. It allows you to be the best version of yourself that you can.”
Manager John Gibbons snorts a little when the topic of team chemistry is raised the morning before the Jays clinched the division title.
“When you win a lot of games the clubhouse is happy. When you’re losing, it’s not,” he said, glibly.
The players the Jays added, both in the off-season and at the deadline, were more talented than the ones they replaced. Simple as that.
But Gibbons has also said throughout the season that there is “something different” about this team and he sensed it from the first day of spring training.
“The character end, for me, is that you’ve got guys that just keep pushing, keep pushing,” he said. “They’re not necessarily better guys, they’ve just got a different mentality.”
That’s what Gibbons said makes him most proud of his charges: that day in and day out, they never seemed to let up.
“But,” he said, “there’s no substitute for talent.”
David Price and his love of popcorn and pranks was just one fun aspect to the Blue Jays this season.