TORONTO – Like so many others in this period of tumult, the Toronto Blue Jays are doing the whole Zoom thing on the regular, the video connection providing their frequent meetings a sense of proximity amidst the ongoing physical distancing.
Still, even as we crave connection, gathering online only can get old quick, which is why Charlie Montoyo recently decided to switch things up. Maintaining the usual work-driven formalities is easy, but recreating the casual, random banter that’s the lifeblood of a healthy clubhouse is far trickier. So the Blue Jays manager recently changed things up a bit, holding a Happy Hour conference call with his coaching staff rather than the usual business-only chat.
“Out of that came the idea of talking to the players for them to have their own conference call, to have their fun and stay connected,” Montoyo said during a conference call Thursday. “We had great momentum going into the season. Our culture was great and spring training was awesome. We don’t want to stop that. Right now, I believe this coming week, (the players) are going to do that and get together over the phone or a Zoom conference call, and they’re going to talk about whatever they want to talk about. That would be a good way to stay in touch.”
While there are clearly more significant concerns right now for the Blue Jays, not to mention society in general, trying to maintain a budding club culture on a team that only late last summer reset itself around a young core of players is an important challenge.
Once Bo Bichette arrived, notably the day after Marcus Stroman was traded, the Blue Jays handed over the clubhouse reins to the kids, having created the space for their personalities to take control. Over the final two months of the season, the team began moulding around Bichette’s flair and swag, Danny Jansen’s calming steadfastness, Cavan Biggio’s resolute determination and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s infectious energy.
This spring, bolstered by the additions of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and rotation stabilizer Tanner Roark, along with a return to health of Matt Shoemaker, the growth continued until spring training was abruptly truncated. To describe the current shutdown as an extension of the off-season would be inaccurate given that the need for physical distancing prevents many of the bonding experiences that typically take place over the winter, so like everything, that process is now on hold, too.
Montoyo concedes that it’s “awkward when a coach is talking to a player not knowing how long this is going to last,” and even for those who aren’t adhering to the necessary social isolation, these are still relatively speaking isolating times.
Hence, any and all connections matter, especially if the Blue Jays hope to pick up where they left off whenever the light turns green.
“What I like about us is that there are a lot of guys who want to lead and that’s great,” said Montoyo. “Danny Jansen, Chase Anderson, Shoemaker, Biggio — there are a lot of guys that want to lead. Ken Giles wants to be a leader and has been a leader. That’s great. The momentum we had in spring training and how the team was talking to each other, it was pretty awesome.”
When all that resumes is secondary to the more substantial concerns we all face amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but recent leaks of proposed plans to base all 30 teams in Arizona, or to realign the teams along Grapefruit and Cactus League lines, have raised hopes of a 2020 season in some form.
Montoyo carefully sidestepped any and all questions on that front, saying only that he appreciates the creativity and is focused on his players and the Blue Jays as a whole.
To that end, he and the other coaches have been reaching out regularly to all their players, while also connecting with minor-league coaches and co-ordinators, “because we want our entire organization to be on the same page.”
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.
They are also working to ensure each player can do what he can to stay in shape safely, whether they have a batting cage or pitching mound at home or a nearby park in which to get work done.
“One example is Chase Anderson, who at the beginning didn’t have anybody to throw to and then he just found a catcher and he has been throwing bullpens,” said Montoyo. “I know (Jordan) Romano and (Thomas) Pannone are staying together, so they play catch every day. That’s just an example of guys who have stuff. Shoemaker I believe has got a bullpen close to his house, so he’s been throwing bullpens. Ryan Borucki (working his way back from elbow tightness) has been throwing at the complex, building intensity and volume and he feels great with no setbacks. Our next step would be putting together a bullpen progression because he has a bullpen where he is. So it goes from guy to guy.”
Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.
On top of all that is trying to maintain the team bonds that extend beyond training regimens and work-flow instructions. Montoyo has been both calling and texting his players and has been intrigued by the discovery of how different some of them are on the phone versus in a chat.
“I’m not going to mention names,” says Montoyo, but “some guys who are really quiet talk more in texts. You’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s pretty cool, I’ve never heard him talk that much.’ All the guys are nice and relaxed but everyone just wants to play baseball. Right now the guys don’t really know what to do but they’re staying in shape. So it’s kind of fun when you hear guys talking back more than you’ve heard them before.”
In a world that’s suspended in an animation, hard to do much better.