You can't help but love the Jays' youngest starter, because he reminds us of our best selves.
When I have vivid fantasies about the Blue Jays winning the American League East, or the American League Division Series, or the World Series (come on, we all do it), I often think about each individual player’s unique reaction. I imagine veteran knuckleball pitcher RA Dickey saying something thoughtful, poetic and subdued, putting his hand to his face and quietly tearing up. I imagine long overdue slugger Jose Bautista’s bat-flipping bravado, cigar firmly in mouth, unafraid to announce to the world that we are indeed the best. I imagine Bringer of Rain Josh Donaldson stripped of his jersey and completely drenched in bubbly—proud, confident, yet still totally stunned that we came this far.
And then I imagine Marcus Stroman.
If you saw the photos and videos from the Blue Jays’ reluctant celebration after securing a playoff berth for the first time in 22 years, you’ll know exactly what I’m getting at. Stroman, who was only two-years-old the last time the franchise saw postseason baseball, could easily be described as the happiest human being alive if you go by that beer-soaked footage. He’s caught yelling and cheering, full out dancing to “Trap Queen,” taking selfies with teammates, mouth open wide in gleeful celebration. (That kid has the greatest smile, hands down.) It’s clear he isn’t exactly the type to quip “no big deal” and keep his baseball feelings hidden, and his feelings are without a doubt unrestrained elation. His enthusiasm, whether he’s being sprayed with a can of Bud Lite in the clubhouse, or he’s on the mound for an important out, actually mirror our own fan hysteria more than any other player on the team. We see our own authentic citywide joy in his face, and that joy seems limitless.
Stroman has good reason to unreservedly celebrate—he isn’t supposed to be here right now. He was our big hope at the beginning of the year–our potential opening day ace—and spoke fondly in spring training of his relationship with 37-year-old pitcher Mark “Papa” Buehrle, who was teaching him how to be a pro. In pre-season March, Stroman confidently told the media, “I’ve dealt with a ton of adversity already in my career. Honestly I feel like there’s nothing out there that I can’t deal with at this point.”
Only a few days after that oddly prescient March sound bite, a torn ACL during a practice bunt play appeared to dash all that optimism. “He hit the floor and he held his knee. It was just something you never want to see,” said close teammate Aaron Sanchez. “My stomach hurt instantly.” When the team announced his injury, and told us he would not come back during the upcoming season, people actually wept. And ever-emotive Stroman tweet-wept right along with us.
“Marcus is the kind of individual you just gravitate around, just because of his attitude and how good of a person he is,” veteran catcher Russell Martin told the media at the time. “He has good energy, and when you see a guy like that go down it’s tough. Especially a young kid with a whole lot of promise.”
It would appear that, with all his good energy, Stroman simply refused to go down. All reports suggest he threw himself completely into his rehabilitation, sometimes spending four hours a day in what National Post sportswriter John Lott called an “arduous” program. Immediately after the injury, he decided to use the spare time to complete his sociology degree at Duke University, his final research paper on the topic of representations of men and women in sports media. (Having since graduated, he aims to attend his commencement ceremony in May if the team will let him have the time off.)
And then, during the second game of a soggy September 12th double header, against all possibility and with his family supportively screaming in the stands, Stroman returned to pitch an important win against the New York Yankees.
Never give up on your dreams, hard work pays off, don’t lose faith—Stroman is the unlikely embodiment of every pat inspirational phrase you can think of, and at the risk of hyperbole, he’s made a whole city believe in miracles.
The first time I ever saw Stroman pitch was during 2014 spring training. I was down in Florida for my annual baseball pilgrimage, and he was invited for the first time after being ranked the number three prospect in the organization. I will readily admit that the real reason I liked Stroman right away is because he’s small—listed at 180 pounds and a mere 5’8”, he’s one of only six pitchers under the 5’10” mark to start in the MLB this century. His height gives him an immediate likability, an underdog quality, a kind of “disadvantage” that is so easy for many of us to identify with. He even trademarked the acronym “HDMH,” or “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart,” and speaks fondly of his now deceased grandmother and how she often asserted that good things come in small packages.
“I like beating the odds,” he told the National Post in 2013. “I’m never going to be one to sit here and say I wish I was six-foot. I like being 5’8”. That’s fine with me.”
Stroman didn’t exactly give great performances during those initial, meaningless spring games, but he was hard not to love and believe in. Watching him pitch was like watching potential in a human form—he was passionate and driven, fun and lighthearted, snapping a wad of pink bubble gum and throwing with surprising control for someone so young. Ever one to bounce back, he eventually proved himself and debuted in the MLB in May 2014, his first start with the Blue Jays providing a perfect first inning and a 12-2 win over the Kansas City Royals.
Coming from the small town of Stony Brook, New York, and having an unconventional physique when it came to baseball, people told Stroman he would never make it—and there he was, pitching a win in the majors. He’s famously described himself as the type that doesn’t worry. He says he always has a smile on his face, that he’s rarely in a bad mood, that he tries to enjoy every moment. He doesn’t stress, he doesn’t get mad, and he doesn’t hold grudges. Yet the one chip he carries on his shoulder (literally—he got it tattooed) is for those who said he wouldn’t make it, that he was too small, that he wouldn’t amount to anything.
In proving the doubters wrong Stroman has become a sort of stand-in for our own belief in doing things against the odds, against what people tell us isn’t possible, whether it’s because of a torn ACL or something far less tangible. At only 24 years old, the right-handed pitcher with the radiant smile has evolved into the kind of person we want to emulate—he’s confident but never cocky, and when the pressure is on he doesn’t fold, but is actually compelled to do and be better. Who wouldn’t want that kind of strength for themselves?
Manager John Gibbons has said that Stroman has a knack for dialing it up in crunch time, and my god is it ever crunch time. Tonight he starts against the Baltimore Orioles, aiming to bring us tantalizingly close to the AL East title we’ve all been longing for. I for one have never been happier that our collective hope comes in a small, smiling package. It’s great to finally be back at the Stro Show, and I look forward to seeing every winning reaction.
Stacey May Fowles is a novelist and essayist. She curates baseball feelings from across the league into a weekly newsletter called Baseball Life Advice.