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

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - BREN­DAN KENNEDY SPORTS RE­PORTER

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.”

DAN HAMIL­TON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

David Price and his love of pop­corn and pranks was just one fun as­pect to the Blue Jays this sea­son.

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