The First 1st Baseman To Make Me Forget About Adam Lind (if just for a while).
When we signed Justin Smoak initially I didn’t much care. My heart was (and truthfully always will) be with Adam Lind. He’s my number 1 first baseman. But as it often happens, he ran into some trouble at the plate and was traded to the Brewers for Estrada (admitedly, it took me quite a while to forgive Estrada for replacing Lind on the team even though they’re not even a little bit competition for each other). Edwin took over DH and first base priorities and Justin Smoak was his back up. The way conversation had it was that Edwin had his massive plate numbers and cute home run parrot elbow while Justin was just a second rate fill in for Edwin on his days off. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Edwin, it’s just more that a team is made up of more than one bat.
With Edwin at the helm, Smoak never made a splash. He was always just ‘there’ performing when expected to and back on the bench when he wasn’t needed. When we got Price in 2015, Smoak gave up his number so that Price could keep his 14. Even though in our hearts, we all knew that it was going to be a short layover for Price. You can’t tell me that people thought he would stay long term. He was pretty much in Toronto until he went to his new team and left us as ‘that clubhouse he hung out with for 4 months for a playoff run that Toronto had been dreaming of for 22 years’. Rather than pulling rank, Smoak donned 13 for Price’s duration in Toronto.
It was at that moment that I knew Smoak was my man! As small of a thing as a number is, at the same time it can mean everything to a player. For him to let Price keep his own number, that was just a really cool thing to do. At least in my eyes. I’ve never heard anything negative about him, he was there when we needed him and seemed fine to be hanging out in Edwin’s shadow. The Jays signed him for a 2 year extension and 99% of Jays Nation groaned. This meant if we had Smoak that was a sure sign that we wouldn’t have Edwin. If it’s between the two of them playing first and DHing, why would we want Smoak being mediocre if we could have Edwin. Again, remember I love Edwin and was sad when we went to Cleveland, but we had to know that Rogers was not going to pay him what fans (and Edwin’s people) thought he deserved to stay in Toronto.
What must have it felt like to be Justin Smoak at that moment? Fans annoyed and frustrated that he’s kept and Edwin’s let go? According to media, blogs, podcasts, fan accounts, Justin is everyone’s second (if even that high) choice for DH and first base. He’s not Edwin. It didn’t matter who Justin Smoak was, what his numbers were, he wasn’t Edwin. Even this blog, a blog about how Smoak is my favourite Blue Jay and its still one comparing him to Edwin. And still he was happy to be a Blue Jay. Kristin Smoak even tweeted how happy they were to be staying in Toronto where Justin loved playing and they loved living.
I was right there cheering with her, happy to hear he’d be staying with us for at least 2 more years.
Smoak could have been bitter. He could have said ‘screw the fans’, but he didn’t. He came every day and showed Toronto, showed the whole of Blue Jays Nation that he might not be Edwin Encarnation, but he is Justin Smoak. And as quietly as he came to Toronto, he began his breakout year. His numbers were phenomenal, his playing at first base all star quality. He pretty much showed Jays fans what he was capable if only given that opportunity to shine. He showed who he is, what he can do and remained so humble about it throughout the entire season. He was adorably awkward throughout the All Star promo. He more than did Canada proud at the horrible performance of O Canada at the All Star Game. I’m serious, that “WTF” expression on his face as it was butchered was classic and reminded me of why I adore him.
He’s not at all the showboat type and while I love players that have passion and enthusiasm for the game the fans and the showy theatrics, I can also respect the players that are there for the game without the bells and whistles. A good team needs both, and deep down, despite the baseball we’re playing right now, the Blue Jays are a good team.
Justin Smoak, to me, is that player every team needs. He is polite and friendly when doing interviews, but at the same time you can see the discomfort he feels from it. When he was being voted in for the All Star Game I always had a feeling that he was just waiting for it to be over and the attention to be focused on someone else. Not because he didn’t care, but because he genuinely seems like a person who doesn’t like the focus and attention on him.
He wants to play well, for his team mates, the fans and this country. And you can see that in his numbers, in how hard he hustles at first base and how he carries himself. He deserved to be at the All Star game last year. He deserves all of the attention and he’s earned starting at first base for the Jays.
His character is why he’s my favourite on this team. Why he has been for the past few seasons. Justin Smoak is a genuinely good guy who has struggled within the game and has come up to be the player he was always expected to be. It’s that struggle, that drive to work hard that defines what kind of player he is. And that is a player I want on my team!
Follow Jules on twitter: @obsessivejules