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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey, pitcher Brett Cecil and teammates arrive at practice at Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin, FL March 22, 2016. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey, pitcher Brett Cecil and teammates arrive at practice at Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin, FL March 22, 2016. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Kelly: R.A. Dickey’s more learned, lean as Jays ease into spring training Add to ...

The intruders set upon R.A. Dickey 15 minutes into his workout.

They’d cunningly breached the perimeter of the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium by riding their bicycles through an open gate.

They rolled by the Players Only entrance to the clubhouse and through the bullpen. They pulled right up to a door in the outfield wall. They put up their kickstands and stood 20 feet from Dickey, staring. While he threw lightly, they held up their phones and began Ansel Adamsing him. They were three women on vacation from Toronto and (in many ways) casual fans.

“Are we interrupting you?” one asked after a bit.

No one said anything.

“What’s with the bandana?” another one asked. (Dickey likes to practice a la Rambo.)

Dickey tried to ignore her. Pitching coach Pete Walker made small talk on his behalf.

“Who are you?” yet another asked.

“I’m the pitching coach,” Walker said. After a small beat, “And he’s a pitcher.”

“Ooooh,” they all said, mock impressed.

Walker dropped the hint: “Have a great day!”

He tried it a few times. They just stood there until a stadium official showed up to shoo them gently away. “They were telling me to throw the slider more,” Dickey said afterward, smiling despite himself. “It’s Sunday. I think we’re light on security today. It’s all good.”

If it had happened during the regular season, we’re in high-risk-takedown territory. But the rules are different in Florida at this time of year.

The kids don’t know enough to complain when things go wrong and the veterans don’t really care. Spring training is as amateur as big-time professional sports ever gets.

If you’re new here, you’re working very hard to be invisible to your peers and visible to your betters. People are making an awful lot of effort to look relaxed. Manager John Gibbons nicely captured the idea while explaining his own first spring training: “I remember being absolutely terrified.”

This year’s Jays’ camp starts with 27 non-roster invitees, aged between 19 (shortstop Richard Urena) and 37 (former all-star Brad Penny, who’s made four major-league starts in the past four years).

There are a lot of different sorts of terrified going around.

The established guys float above all that. Even the jittery and/or hyper-driven types are at their ease.

Wedged into a jammed dressing room, the regulars spend most of their time away from their lockers. They’re getting treatment or working out or absenting themselves altogether. It is the mark of the uninitiated that he is always at his locker when you look for him.

Dickey, now 41, doesn’t need to be at his locker. Most days, he’ll do his own thing and leave.

On Sunday, he casually revealed that he’d had off-season surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee.

“Same guy who did Saunders’ surgery?” someone asked. (After tearing his meniscus last spring, outfielder Michael Saunders was initially slated for return after a few weeks. He missed the entire season.)

“No comment,” said Dickey, amused. Had it been asked in August, he would not have been as jolly. But it’s spring.

Dickey spent the winter rehabbing. He says he’s feeling fine.

In February, everyone will tell you they’re in the best shape of their lives, but Dickey is noticeably leaner than in seasons past. Two-hundred-plus innings thrown over the past four seasons speaks to his resilience.

Like Gibbons, the knuckleballer cast back to his own first spring training – Port Charlotte, Fla., in 1997.

“Nineteen ninety-seven?!” thirtysomething bullpen newcomer David Aardsma yelped from a couple of lockers away. “I thought I was old!”

Dickey did not seem quite so amused as he had been a moment earlier. But it passed.

He should’ve been going. The room was starting to crowd up with guys just arriving from their physicals. Everyone in the organization starts their spring with one, including all those working on the administration side. This is how your company would do team building, too, if it had doctors on call.

There were no other boldface names in the crowd. They’d all cut out early.

But Dickey enjoys a nice reminisce, so he stayed. After a while, he tilted a chair toward himself, so that he could rest that right knee on it.

“At that time, the clubhouse culture was a little different. You were seen, but not heard,” Dickey said. “I’m thankful for the growth, as far as letting people express themselves in very different ways.”

Aardsma, perhaps wisely, showed no inclination to reinforce this point.

Gibbons, speaking later: “Now they’re spoiled rotten.”

He was joking. I think.

For the next little bit, Dickey got lost down a postseason rabbit hole, talking about the season just past. He recalled metaphorically sitting at Mark DeRosa’s feet a couple of years ago, listening to tales about October’s Promised Land.

“You got excited hearing about it, but you really couldn’t relate to it,” Dickey said. “Now that you’ve been exposed to it, you’re motivated to get back there in a way you couldn’t have done unless you’ve been there once before.”

A great deal will be said and done until the Blue Jays season begins seven weeks from now. That’s a lot of dead air to fill. There will be an understandable fixation on the details – Who starts fifth? Who hits leadoff? Who will or won’t re-sign?

Baseball takes a while to get going, but once it does, its inertia is inexorable. It has a way of pushing big ideas aside for small, daily ones. Because there are just so many days.

It’s only in this moment that this year’s goal seems clear – use what you had to get back to where you were.

Any spring training clubhouse is necessarily divided (though not against itself). This is the only thing in which all of them – young or old; settled or not; familiar faces or new – are as one together.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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