“Players like playing for him,” Ricciardi, now assistant GM with the New York Mets, said during a recent conversation in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “That goes a long way to having an environment where they’ll feel comfortable. He’s a cross-cultural type guy who will get along with the Latin guys as well as the other guys – no problem with that. I think the atmosphere he’ll create [will reflect his personality] – he’s an easy-going guy, and he will let the players play. That’s always conducive to players being in their best environment.”
In the clubhouse, there are obstacles in the way of chem-build. Fan favourite Brett Lawrie, suddenly just another tattooed player coming off an undisciplined sophomore season at third base, is out of action for at least two weeks with what the team called a rib-cage strain. The World Baseball Classic claimed a handful of players for up to two weeks including catcher J.P. Arencibia. An older clubhouse means less time clubbing, more time with young families back at the rented condo.
“It’s hard in spring training because guys are in and out,” Buehrle said. “Being a starting pitcher you don’t go to most of the games. You just do your work and go back. Most of us have families here. Once we get on a plane and head to Philly [just prior to the regular season] together for a couple of days, it’ll start. But I mean, the guys are coming together, we’re having fun, joking around, laughing, having a good time during the stretches.”
Nothing is planned in the way of events, such as a team golf tournament, to purposely bring players together. It will happen gradually over the spring. Bautista has the capacity to establish a mood, on the field and off, with his words and actions. He is likewise optimistic about what he is observing, to date: “All I can tell you is, I’ve seen the camaraderie even though half the clubhouse is new. I see we’re going to have a lot of fun, I see everybody’s allowed to have their own personality – nobody’s critiqued or frowned upon.”
Chemistry has propelled teams such as Mark Messier’s New York Rangers in 1994, and it has sabotaged the mission, such as with the Boston Red Sox last season. Sean Avery seemed to single-handedly destroy the Dallas Stars, yet plenty of teams have overcome locker room friction. The importance of chemistry is an x-factor and in the advent of this season, the Jays understand they have the requisite talent to compete. Otherwise, it’s early days.
“I don’t think it makes a good team into a bad team, or makes an excellent team into an average team,” Bautista said. “If you’re a great team, regardless of team chemistry, you’re going to win.”
When individual performance sags, there are coaches and trainers and nutritionists and clubhouse attendants to help players through the troughs, but sometime the most trusted voice belongs to a teammate especially in the midst of a game. The uniqueness of baseball as a team sport, Bautista points out, is that most actions involve individuality – making the pitch, hitting the pitch, fielding the grounder. Yet a teammate maybe sees a hitch in a pitcher’s delivery, maybe eases a moment of stress. When an infielder or a catcher comes to the mound, the pitcher had best be in a receptive mood.
“It helps in the dog days, and there will be those,” DaRosa says. “If everybody in the clubhouse knows how everybody ticks, knows their personality and character, conversation flows a lot smoother, and guys know it’s coming from a good place. It ends up getting you through the tough times. Anyone can get along when things are going good, but when you go through those down times in the course of a season, you can get out of them a lot quicker when you know the guy next to you cares.”
Buehrle got his ring with the Chicago White Sox, who swept the Houston Astros in the 2005 World Series.
“Everybody likes their chances in spring training but that’s why you play the season,” he said. “In ’05, we had so much go right for us, whether it’s the ball bouncing the right way. It just seems like everything has to go your way to win a World Series.”
A scan of several over/under propositions reveals that Las Vegas oddsmakers anticipate a tightly contested season, with no team predicted to win more than 92 games in a 162-game schedule. If that scenario plays out and team chemistry makes the difference between a couple of victories or defeats, it could make the difference between a trip to the postseason or another season of disappointment for fans of the Jays, who last went to the playoffs in 1993.