In the scoot ’n’ scatter of a getaway day — getaway for good, circa 2019 — bags are packed and lockers emptied.
A single cubicle remained untouched: The one with a “Lost and Found” plaque where a player’s name would otherwise be.
As a metaphor for the Toronto Blue Jays, that works.
Some players, the kids, found themselves this season. And some will be lost, shed, before spring training rolls around.
Justin Smoak, who had become a kind of receptacle for institutional history, veteran of back-to-back playoff years, will likely not be back in 2020, a free agent looking for work. But nice way to go, with a pair of doubles and three RBIs in Sunday afternoon’s 8-3 win over Tampa Bay. That’s 321 ribbies across five seasons for the 32-year-old.
“For me, personally, it felt weird to get a couple of knocks in a game,” Smoak drawled afterwards in that raspy, good old boy voice. “But yeah, a good way to finish it off.”
The Rogers Centre has seen more than its share of poignant farewells these past couple of years, the last hurrah in front of spectators who knew a player would not pass this way again, not as a Blue Jay.
So, in the seventh inning, with Smoak standing on second, it was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who came out of the dugout, beckoning his teammate to come on in. Billy McKinney, sent out to pinch-run, embraced Smoak as they crossed paths. The rest of the Jays surrounded Smoak, group-hugs, as spectators rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
Which Smoak didn’t actually realize was happening, thus he never stepped back onto the field to acknowledge the crowd.
“Were they giving me an ovation?” he asked reporters, slightly dumbfounded. “I didn’t know they were doing that.”
Adding, in case he’d done something wrong: “It wasn’t my fault.”
Then joking in that self-deprecating Smoaky manner: “I kind of wish I could have given Vladdy my helmet so he could have maybe pinch-run for me.’’
Vladdy, whose father Vlad Sr. had once upon a time been Smoak’s teammate. There’s always been a historical connection there between these two. Entertaining to watch how they riffed off each other, neither one exactly having a strong command of the English language, must say. Smoak speaks gutturally, often mumbles, with South Carolina twang.
With that signature delivery, he observed wryly: “I told the guys when I came in the dugout there, getting pinch run for — man, you would really do that for a .200 hitter? You don’t see that every day.”
It weighs on him, that .208 batting average, two seasons removed from a career year and all-star game appearance. Been that kind of a miserable year for Smoak, despite putting up 22 home runs. Few hitters in Major League Baseball have been so victimized by the shift.
Or that Smoak saw his at-bats shrink through August and September, first base and DH duties split with Rowdy Tellez, the man who would take his job. Yet no Jay is more beholden to Smoak than Tellez.
“He’s been like a father figure, older brother,” says the rookie who may or may not inherit first base — just one of numerous matters that must be resolved. “Helped me on the field on defence, offence. Showed me how to carry myself, how to be a professional, how to be a man. Any time I messed up, he never yelled at me, never held it against me.
“He just always taught me to be better than what I’d been. He’d come and say: This is what you did, let’s change it, let’s do this. Pat on the back and here we go.”
It could have been awkward, the transition. But Smoak had been in Tellez’s shoes, as a younger man with often resentful teammates who felt threatened. He’d vowed to be different. And he has, utterly gracious even if his livelihood was at risk.
To Tellez, Smoak has been more than a valued teammate; he’s been a precious friend. Kept an eye on Tellez last year as the young man was reeling, watching his mother suffer through the late stages of brain cancer. He made his big league debut just two weeks after she passed.
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“Every time I struggled this year with real-life situations — Mother’s Day, my mom’s birthday, the firsts for everything — Smoaky was the first one making sure that I was OK.’’ Smoak had lost his own father to cancer when his dad was just 57.
“Every time I went home last year to see my mom, he was the first person to text me and make sure I was doing good. He’d say, you’re going to be fine. He told me how much he cared about me. Just all the faith he put in me, and confidence and support. It’s going to be an irreplaceable thing for me.”
Smoak emerged as a leader, a lodestone, in a clubhouse depleted of veterans. “He easily could have shut himself off and not helped us,” Tellez continued. “But any time there was a problem, he was the guy that everybody turned to. He was always there, always answered my questions professionally, gave me the honest answer whether I liked it or not.
“Just one of those guys that a lot of people took for granted, said he wasn’t a leader. But nobody who was in the clubhouse with him this whole time, the 25 of us that were in here, he was our leader.’’
Smoak: “Ever since the trade deadline last year, I feel like I was kind of one of those guys. Next thing you know, I was the old guy. As the season progressed, I felt like I got to be that guy, for them that needed me to be that guy. I felt like it wasn’t all about me at that point. It was more, what can I do to help?”
You can take the measure of a man in a clubhouse. You can see it in the youngsters — Vladdy and Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, who clustered around Smoak post-game, demanding that he sign the No. 14 jerseys they’d brought. Shoes, scrawled his signature on those too.
“Justin and Freddy Galvis, they were the ones that really embraced me here, opened the door for me,’’ said Guerrero. “What can I say about Smoak? He’s the best. If it’s up to me, he’ll be here next year and for years to come.”
Smoak seemed sweetly overwhelmed by the affection and respect shown him. Responded in typically droll fashion, though.
“I think everybody’s trying to kick me out of here. They know I’m not coming back. They just wanted something signed.” As in the past he’s asked for signed stuff from departing teammates.
“You’ve got a lot of players that in some way, I guess, looked up to me. I guess they saw me grinding my butt off all year. I feel like I’ve helped in ways and hopefully it makes them better, going down the road.”
His road will take Smoak home on Monday to Goose Creek, S.C. with Kristen and young daughters Sutton and Berkleigh. “I’m either going to be in my boat or I’m going to be in the woods. Hopefully this weather follows me down there because the deer will be walking.”
You keep walking too, big galumphing guy.