There is confident, there is cocky, and there is arrogant.
Then there is Brett Lawrie.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ third baseman, who is expected to make his major-league debut Friday night in Baltimore, is a unique Canadian ballplayer in many respects, foremost attitude. The country’s highest drafted position player isn’t a meek interloper in America’s national pastime. He’s more a self-assured superathlete who feels he belongs on the biggest stage.
“He’s the American kid we’ve all played against,” said Gary Mihic, a family friend of the Lawries. “The one who will shove it up your arse.”
He has been that way since his childhood in Langley, B.C. Lawrie could swim unsupervised at three, had upper-body definition by seven, and was dunking a basketball in Grade 9, even though he stood just 5 foot 9. He could also hit a baseball with power and from the right-hand side, making him an anomaly in the left-handed world of Canadian batters.
The Blue Jays acquired Lawrie from the Milwaukee Brewers last December for pitcher Shaun Marcum. Toronto called up Lawrie on Thursday from its Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas.
The 21-year-old is a precocious talent, but under the stewardship of his demanding father, Russ, Lawrie’s road to Toronto left sore feelings on B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“I don’t apologize for it, not one bit,” Russ says in the basement of his suburban home, a shrine to his children’s athletic achievements. “All those naysayers back then, well, you know what? The Lawries are fine.”
With all his talent and drive, Lawrie might have made the major leagues without a push. But Russ was taking no chances, especially given how naturally gifted his progeny proved to be at an early age. Father and son worked closely on his career, and were a combustible mix around the diamond, so much so that mother Cheryl had a rule: “Get in the car and argue so we can have peace at home.”
It brings to mind Colby Rasmus, the outfielder the Jays acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals last month. Rasmus’s father, Tony, coached Colby in high school and was accused of meddling by Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. It all contributed to making the centre fielder available in a trade.
But in a two-hour interview in his suburban Vancouver home, Russ Lawrie doesn’t mention swing planes, throwing mechanics or sliding techniques. Rather, he talks about how thrilled the family is to be with the Blue Jays and away from the Brewers.
“I talk to him about being the consummate pro,” Russ said of his frequent chats with his son.
Russ was a first-division rugby player for more than 20 years, won two provincial track and field championships, quarterbacked the football team and was part of B.C.’s top-ranked basketball team at Burnaby Central Secondary School in the 1970s. His guidance of Brett’s career involved workouts with sister Danielle, who went to the University of Washington where she was twice named the top softball player in the U.S. college ranks.
The children ran sprints – 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres – and performed baseball drills on a regular basis, often before games. When they complained, Russ turned drills into competitions, and Brett and Danielle drove each other.
To this day, the older sister is like a third parent for Brett, shooting him straight and deflating his ego.
“It was a mutual thing,” said Doug Mathieson, who coached Brett with the Langley Blaze of the B.C. Premier Baseball League. “Russ didn’t allow Brett to slack off, but Brett bought into it.”
Brett played T-ball once, but considered it a silly game because hitting was too easy. Langley Little League officials put him through a private workout and deemed him worthy of playing against older kids. In baseball terms, he skipped a grade.
Soon thereafter, Lawrie began hitting with the Blaze and competing in the BCPBL, a top high school circuit that has produced several draft picks. Even among serious ballplayers, Lawrie excelled, and he signed with the Brewers for $1.7-million (U.S.) as the 16th overall selection in the 2008 draft.
As an amateur, Lawrie’s reputation was one of Pete Rose-like relentlessness. He played with a chip on his shoulder, he played with a swagger, and he did not play to make friends. He was good, he knew he was good, and he didn’t enjoy playing with or against those who weren’t very good. For the Lawries, the major-league dream wasn’t going to slow down to the speed of the average player.
“I know some people take the arrogance the wrong way, but it’s on the field,” Mathieson said. “Off the field, he’s a good kid.”
“It makes him what he is,” Mihic said. “He’s confident, he knows where he is going, and he knows he’s going to be there.”
Brett chalks up the resentment to Little League jealousies, but adds that it made him a better player. Russ says some comments weren’t easy on his ears, but admits he’d take back some of the things he said in retort. Mihic says there are members of B.C.’s amateur baseball community who want Lawrie to fail, and calls it “disgusting.”
The clashes continued into the Brewers’ system, where Brett chafed. He said he felt the organization wasn’t going to challenge him, and planned on moving him up the minor-league ladder rung by rung. This from a player who considered himself major-league ready.
There was no line of communication to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, a Canadian, and Lawrie refused to participate in instructional league. Lawrie said he didn’t feel he had a support system, and his parents said he was unappreciated.
One day, a Milwaukee minor-league instructor was giving Lawrie a talk about how minor-league players are nothing special until they reach the big leagues, when the prodigy turned to his coach, pointed at every teammate and said: “I’m better than him, him, him, etc … ”
With the Jays, the temperature has changed.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, another Canadian, said he had the “elephant in the room” conversation with Lawrie once, and has let the past be the past. That presumably includes photos of what appears to be an inebriated Lawrie that turned up on the Internet in December.
“They don’t worry about your pants being up and collared shirts,” Lawrie said of the Jays. “They’re worried about baseball matters.”
A broken hand in June delayed a presumptive call-up earlier this season, but Lawrie says he is back to normal and over the frustration of missing his big break, and an opportunity to nail down the third base position. He has been shredding Triple-A pitching all year, and his defence at third base – his third position, after catcher and second base, since turning professional – is improving.
Lawrie says he is working on being “a better professional, a good teammate and a clubhouse guy.” He is already close with Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia and outfielder Travis Snider, and believes there are many people in his corner in Toronto.