Photo Credit: John Lott
BUFFALO – With his usual candour, Devon Travis admits there were periods over the past 10 months when the classic macho temperament of the professional athlete did not serve him well.
He had won the second-base job with the Toronto Blue Jays as a rookie and tore up the league for a while. Then he tore up his shoulder. Eventually, he landed on the disabled list, just as the Jays were taking off. And quickly, it became evident they could do quite well without him.
Then came two shoulder surgeries, the second a strange and scary one. In all, he did not play in a game for 10 months.
“I’d say I was pretty close to being depressed for a while … There were days where I didn’t want to do therapy. I just wanted to sit in my room and sulk like a little baby,” Travis said Thursday.
Then came the day, early in spring training, when he discovered he could lift his right arm above his head for the first time since the end of October, when a surgical team fused two bones in his shoulder to correct a rare condition that normally corrects itself.
“Something so small was like the biggest victory to me,” he recalled of that day when he could reach high again.
He did not record the date, but he clearly remembers the moment.
“I’d say early March,” he said. “Probably about the time I started smiling again in spring training.”
Now he can taste the big-time again. Following four rehab games in Dunedin, where he spent the winter undergoing strenuous, tedious therapy, he is in Triple-A Buffalo. It is the final step on the way back. He is excited.
Actually, the excitement started last week, when they finally let him play a game in Dunedin.
“The biggest thing has been calming down,” he said with a smile before submitting to a media scrum in the Bisons’ dugout. “The anthem’s going and my heart’s going like it’s the World Series.”
And up the road in Toronto, a restive fan base is eager to welcome him back. The 25-year-old with all of 62 big-league games on his resume will return to great expectations, because his team has staggered through its first 42 games and desperately needs an offensive sparkplug.
The expectations are unfair. But Devon Travis was a remarkable hitter as a rookie. And he represents hope, which has been scarce so far for Blue Jays fans.
Their hope began to surge when they heard what he did in Buffalo on Thursday night.
It is one of baseball’s paradoxes: intense rivalry and deep friendship often go hand in hand.
During an injured player’s long rehab, one of his best friends on the team keeps calling and texting with encouraging words. All the while, both players know they are gunning for the same job. Each wishes no ill upon the other, but deep down each wants the other to lose the competition. In the end, one will be disappointed – perhaps even relegated to the minor leagues.
So it is with Devon Travis and Ryan Goins. Travis says he talked to Goins “more than anybody else on the team throughout this entire year. Probably one of my closest buddies on the team.”
Goins kept telling him to keep his chin up, that he’ll come back as good as new. And in April, when Goins failed to resurrect the groove that made him an offensive cog down the stretch last year, Travis returned the favour. Hang in there, he said. You’ll snap out of it.
To hear Travis tell it, they did not speak of the subtext. Travis did not say, even in fun, I’m coming for your job, Ryan.
Asked about that, Travis would only say: “I want to be the starting second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, no doubt. That’s without question. Goins and (Darwin) Barney are there now. My job is to be the best teammate I can be until I can get back there, and if I’m the guy that’s in the starting lineup that day, I’m going to be ready to go.”
He was also asked this: Does he have a date in his mind when he aims to rejoin the Jays?
“Man, I don’t,” he said, looking down, half-smiling.
Then: “I maybe kind of do. I can’t wait. It’s been long road, man. It’s been tough. Watching the guys in the postseason and watching now, I want nothing more than to be out there. Whenever they call me and tell me my time has come to go back, I’ll be ready.”
Before the scrum, Travis talked with awe about his first big-league opening day last year in New York. He hit a home run and fairly flew around the bases. It was probably the most exciting day of his life.
The Blue Jays return to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday.
Photo Credit: John Lott
Before the scrum, as Travis sat in the sun on the dugout steps chatting with a couple of Toronto reporters, teammate Darrell Ceciliani approached with a bat, and, using the small end as a mock-microphone, conducted a faux interview. He asked Travis if it’s true that he had a golden-topped coiffure before Marcus Stroman. It’s true, Travis said, dead-pan.
He was relaxed and constantly smiling, which was his standard demeanour during his good times with the Jays last year.
“I just come to the field every day and try to bring energy and try to make the guys around me better, try to loosen up the atmosphere,” he said. “Coming to the baseball field every day sometimes can be a little blah and you’ve got to find it inside you to pick yourself up and understand that this is your job and winning is the name of the game. As long as I do everything I can to help the team win, I hope that my numbers at the end of the year are somewhere where I can smile about.”
Without the shoulder problems, he likely would have been smiling at the end of last season. He batted .304 with eight homers and an .859 OPS. He is no Goins defensively, but he was solid, and occasionally sparkled. And as word spread of his performance his first Triple-A rehab game, the word “saviour” started to pop up in various Twitter feeds.
In his first at-bat, he slashed a single to right field. In his second, he pulled a rocket to the left-field wall for a double. In his third, he shot another single to left-centre.
The Jays, it would appear, are unlikely to leave him in Buffalo for long.
“I just miss the clubhouse,” he said before the game. “I miss being around the guys. I miss showing up in front of all those fans. I’ve never played in front of that many fans every single day … You can’t beat walking into that clubhouse and seeing your name on that locker and knowing that you’re playing at the highest level in the world. It’s something.”
By next week this time, it will be something again.