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Toronto Blue Jays' Colby Rasmus hits in the batting cage at the team's spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida February 16, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Toronto Blue Jays' Colby Rasmus hits in the batting cage at the team's spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida February 16, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Meeting great expectations a constant struggle for Jays’ Rasmus Add to ...

To the extent that his scraggy long hair, loping stride and placid expression give fans the impression that he doesn’t care, they camouflage a tormented individual.

Colby Rasmus ought to be having the time of his life as a 26-year-old centre fielder for a Major League Baseball team, pulling down $4.68-million (U.S.) in salary, stationed securely on a roster with bountiful support on the field, in the batting order and in the front office, too.

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No one in the Toronto Blue Jays administration is demanding superstar production from him, yet he carries the weight of surreal expectation as though a sack of corn is strapped permanently to his back. Staring into his locker, he portrays a person in need of sweet relief, a man besieged by the doomsayer notion that his best can never be good enough. Not for his father, not for the media, not for the people back home, not for the scouts, not for his teammates and coaches, and most grievously, not for himself.

Rasmus understands he must appreciate the privilege of what he has and where he is. Yet, like many professional athletes, he yearns for the place he came from, too, those days playing sandlot baseball in shorts and no shirt in a region of the country characterized by moonshine and unending acres of cotton and corn, in an atmosphere far removed from Twitterville.

“This got way too serious for me,” he says in drawled speech that gives away the southern Alabama upbringing.

“I never worried about nothing, just played and had fun playing. I made dumb mistakes once in a while, but that’s what made me good, because I didn’t sweat the small stuff. But the higher I got up in baseball, the more it was, ‘You got to be perfect – play every game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series.’ I couldn’t slow the game down no more.”

And so he works in the weight room, works in the batting cage, away from the public eye. Some fans perceive him to be a lazy loper, in part due to his gliding running style (“It’s a blessing and a curse, especially with people who can’t run, because they say, ‘That guy’s just barely running.’”), in part because of the reputation Tony La Russa tagged on him in St. Louis, in part because his stats have underwhelmed his five-tool billing.

The Blue Jays rather see someone who may be affecting his performance negatively – .223 average, 149 strikeouts in 2012 – by working too hard in the wrong ways, and even Rasmus says a goal this season is to “work smarter.”

Using an unorthodox batting stance, the left-handed hitter starts with his hands in front of his chest and over the middle of the plate, moving the hands back behind his ribs as the pitcher gets set to throw. Most hitters have their hands at shoulder level or higher. So far this spring, he’s averaging .130 with three singles in 23 at-bats.

Midway through last season, he was averaging .258 following a 2-for-5 outing against Miami. He’d hit a home run against the Marlins – his fourth in a span of six games, at the time – and driven in four runs for a 7-1 win. Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos recalls that some of the guys were going out afterward, to have a good time. Rasmus declined. Instead, he went to the batting cage to take 200 more swings.

“He beats himself up. We talked to him about it and slowly he’s learning to balance that a little bit,” Anthopoulos says. “Colby is hard on himself. He says, ‘I want to do so well, so badly.’ His expectations are higher than anybody else’s because he knows how good he can be. And he knows everyone expects him to be so much better.”

The son of Tony, a hard-driving baseball coach, Rasmus talks about his father asking him as a 10-year-old if he wanted to make the big leagues, about being forced to drink protein shakes, about getting a “whuppin’” if he poured them out.

At 12, he led the regional team to the Little League World Series as U.S. champion, then dad’s Russell County squad to the national high-school championship. He threw a 91-miles-an-hour fastball as a pitcher and broke Bo Jackson’s single-season state record with 24 home runs as a hitter.

Tony made it to the minor leagues in the Angels system, and the high-school stadium is named after him. Rasmus became a first-round draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005; his brother Cory, a pitcher, was picked 38th overall by the Atlanta Braves the following season.

Baseball America magazine dubbed Rasmus the organization’s top prospect for three consecutive years, starting in 2007. The scouts and media described him as the classic five-tool player: hit 30 homers, steal 30 bases, average .300, score 100 runs, drive in 100 … sure, why not?

The Cardinals made him a big-leaguer in 2009, at 22, the youngest by four years in a veteran-drenched clubhouse. Midway through his sophomore season, 2010, the manager, La Russa, subtly made known his dissatisfaction with Rasmus’s approach to the sport, including reliance on his father’s advice.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote on Aug. 30 of that year: “For whatever reasons, Rasmus bugs the manager, even though the manager would dispute that. Rasmus is a gifted athlete and natural talent who doesn’t consistently apply his skills. That was his rep in the minors, and we’ve seen signs of that in the majors.”

He would finish that season with his best numbers to date – .276 batting average, .361 on-base percentage, 85 runs, 28 doubles, 23 homers – and a completely dispirited attitude.

“In St. Louis, I just wanted to come up and have people like me and have fun playing baseball. But I hated baseball, hated it, hated being there every day,” Rasmus says. “Woke up in the morning, dreaded going to the field. That’s not what I dreamed of, growin’ up – to be in a place that’s just not fun. People constantly telling me that I wasn’t doing this-and-that, that I had the potential to do this-and-that – but I’m not Albert [Pujols], you know?”

The Cardinals traded him to the Blue Jays in an eight-player transaction in July of 2011, replacing him in centre with a La Russa favourite, Jon Jay. In the remaining 35 American League games, he averaged .173. Last season in Toronto, Rasmus hit 23 homers and drove in 75 runs, good production for his position, but endured a second-half slump. Along the way, he caught bad breaks, and umpiring decisions tore at him.

“The hard part is just letting it go, because you want it so much and people think that you don’t,” he says.

In 2013, a player with unfulfilled individual expectations finds himself on a team expected by its fans to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.

Starting the regular season in two weeks’ time, Rasmus is to be flanked by two outstanding defensive players, Melky Cabrera in left field and Jose Bautista in right. He is expected to hit in the lower middle of the batting order. He is being managed by John Gibbons, an up-front type of players’ manager. He needn’t feel burdened.

At the same time, into a generally relaxed clubhouse he brings a personality with a laid-back veneer coating a tense interior. On a team trying to encourage more contact at the plate, he describes a strikeout as “just another out.”

The contradictions made one major-league manager offer his opinion, in exchange for withholding attribution: “[Rasmus] doesn’t really fit with what they are doing. He looks out of place with the rest of the team, out of his element a little bit.”

The Blue Jays have numerous options in centre, with Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera and Anthony Gose, should Rasmus fail to put it together in his fifth season. But Anthopoulos believes that five-tool prospect will emerge into a standout big-leaguer, at long last.

“You can almost list anything and he has the ability to do it,” the GM says. “The power to hit 40 home runs one day? He has the ability to do that. Hit .300? Ability to do that. Gold Glove centre fielder? Ability to do that. Now it’s not easy to put that on someone. But far as I’m concerned … he’s got a chance to blow away the production [relative to the position he plays]. We have a deep lineup and he can just go out and play.”

Just close his eyes, relax, and imagine the Rogers Centre into an imaginary Alabama sandlot.

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