John Gibbons is wondering aloud whether his large, galumphing first baseman is a good dancer.
That would be the veteran Justin Smoak, not rookie Rowdy Tellez.
Galumphing in the clubhouse, where he cuts a pigeon-toed swath crossing the room. But probably, good old southern boy that he is, deft with a two-step on the dance floor too, the manager posits.
“For a big guy, Smokey’s kind of graceful. He doesn’t run very well. But watch the way he moves. He’s smooth. He’s like a natural. Some guys got that little something — good instincts, great feel. For a big guy that can’t run, he’s got real good feet.”
These pre-game confabs with reporters — which the skipper is clearly savouring in what are believed to be his waning days with Toronto — can meander all over the yak-yak map. The subject, before Tuesday’s repeat encounter with Houston, was Smoak’s marked agility at first.
Well, it has been a really long year, although foreshortened with no post-season.
Inside the wrinkles of this campaign are buried a handful of Jays grace notes, including a grand slam home run to take the lead over Yankees back in April (Smoak’s personal favourite moment) and a pair of walkoff jacks, most recently the other grand salami, against Tampa Bay last week.
So, swats, Smoak leading the team with 25 home runs. But for consistent value, has to be Smoak’s adroitness around the sack. That wingspan defies height (six-foot-four) and heft (220 pounds); he plain gets to the ball on throws from an often ragged and, lately, big-league neophyte infield gang. Sticks it. Averts errors on the long-limbed stretch. Compensates for the too-short hops or the errant throws that seem destined for the seats.
“Honestly, I feel that defence is what got me here to Toronto,” Smoak was saying on a personal day off from baseball toil, Tellez drawing the assignment at first. (Smoak, though, pinch-hitting for Tellez in the seventh with the bases loaded, striking out swinging.) “That’s why Toronto picked me up when they did.” From Seattle, where Smoak had failed to blossom as anticipated. “My whole life I’ve put a lot of emphasis on playing both sides of the ball.
“I think it comes from my dad. If I was in the cage for an hour-and-a-half, I’d go take ground balls for an hour-and-a-half, at a young age. I’ve been playing first base since I was 12, 13 years old, my whole life really. It something I feel I have a natural feel for.’’
Effectively, too, for the baseball-ambidextrous baller. Smoak leads MLB first basemen with a .999 fielding percentage.
Invaluable to the young ’uns that have slotted into the infield.
“It’s more just making guys feel comfortable,’’ says the 31-year-old. “Some of those guys, I made some plays at first base picking balls. So they can think to themselves, all I have to do is throw it, I don’t have to try to hit him in the chest every time. It makes you comfortable knowing, hey, I can just sling it over there.
“Next thing you know, you start making better throws. I feel like all of our guys over the past two months are getting better at that. The work they’ve put in, and the confidence, knowing that they can throw it anywhere and the majority of the times I’m going to make the play.”
Throwing hiccups, especially across from third, are common to newbies. (Although, it should be noted, Smoak covered yips from ex-teammate Josh Donaldson as well.) It’s expected, should eagerly anticipated Vladimir Guerrero Jr. break camp with the Jays at spring training next year, he’ll need some defensive assisting at the hot corner.
“Save him?” suggests Gibbons. “I guarantee it. That’ll be a big thing. The infield is going to be real young anyway. Those guys are prone to mistakes, wild throws, that’s part of their development. Guys like Smoky can make all the difference in the world.”
In recent weeks, Tellez has been picking Smoak’s brain. (To which Gibbons quipped: “Smoak’s brain? That boy’s from South Carolina. Not North. South.” Goose Creek, S.C., to be precise, his drawl more diphthong-y even than Gibby’s.)
“Rowdy’s really good and he’s only going to get better,” observes Smoak. “On the defensive side, yeah, there’s things he can work on. We’ve talked about that. Give him credit — he’s come to me and asked questions about stuff and I’m going to give it to him. I’ve been in that position before, where I didn’t always get what I wanted to hear. I told myself, I’ll never be that guy. I’m going to give everything I can possibly give. Because at some point, I don’t care if I’m 31 or 35, somebody is going to take my job away.
“You have to pass off the baton and give your knowledge to the young guys.”
Tellez, who’s rather round of girth himself, has emphasized the point that he can now touch his toes and has demonstrated it. This is an achievement. John Kruk once famously remarked to a female fan who recognized him in a bar and commented rudely on his physique: “I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a baseball player.”
Modern baseball players, in a high-performance department era, are now expected to be athletes.
And Smoak, who doesn’t appear remotely threatened by Tellez, is expected to be a Jay next season, with the team picking up his club option year. It’s been an exceedingly team-friendly contact at $4,125,000 (U.S.) each of the past two years. Smoak, with career-high seasons, isn’t grumpy about it.
“You’ve got to think back to the time that I signed it. I was going to be a free agent at the end of the year and not playing every day. When they offered me $4 mil plus for two years, I was happy to grab it. Yeah, it’s team friendly but it worked out for me too. It worked out for both parties. The biggest advantage is that I got an opportunity to play every day the last two years.’’
Asked about the option last night, Jays GM Ross Atkins said: “Justin has been an incredible influence on this organization, he’s been remarkable in the middle of our lineup for two years. He’s arguably the best first baseman in the American League. It would be very difficult for us to imagine this team without him.’’
Smoak is eager to stay a Jay, God bless him.
“We have some really good young players and some more really good young players coming, down the road. Honestly, I don’t feel like we’re that far away from competing again.
“This is also a place that me and my family really love and enjoy. And I feel that this is a place where I’ve kind of figured it out myself.”
Dance with the one that brung ’ya.