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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman throws against the Texas Rangers during first inning American League baseball action in Toronto.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A little before 8 o’clock on a perfect Florida morning in mid-February, Marcus Stroman was on the field at Dunedin Stadium, almost alone.

On the first official day of baseball’s spring training, the Toronto Blue Jays starter already wore his game face.

His fellow Blue Jays teammates had yet to straggle out of the clubhouse. Stroman, a set of white earphones snugly in place, played a little catch with Josue Peley, the club’s Spanish translator.

A couple of early-bird reporters idled nearby, sipping coffee at the side of the field behind a chain-link fence. The group included Alex Coon, a cameraman for Sportsnet. Earlier, Coon took advantage of Stroman’s unexpected presence on the field to shoot video of him throwing. Coon then joined the other reporters to shoot the breeze. His camera remained set up about 20 metres away, shut off.

Suddenly, Stroman grew angry. He started shouting over to the cameraman.

“You don’t need any more [film],” Stroman called out. “I’m trying to help the Blue Jays. You’re hurting.”

Stroman had been working on a new sidearm delivery he was thinking of incorporating into his repertoire.

He thought that Coon, by filming him, would be revealing his secret weapon to opposing batters.

Never mind that the day before, Stroman had already divulged the new move through his favourite form of communication, his social-media feed, by posting it for his nearly half-million Instagram followers.

Coon, bemused, turned the camera away from the field. Stroman later apologized for his outburst.

Welcome to the contradictory world of Marcus Stroman, a talented pitcher whose complex personality has often overshadowed his desire to prove that a 5-foot-8 athlete can find lasting success as a major-league starter, where the rule of thumb is the bigger the better.

A LIFETIME OF MOTIVATION


Devon Travis of the Toronto Blue Jays is congratulated by Marcus Stroman after hitting a two-run home run in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Washington Nationals at Rogers Centre on June 16, 2018 in Toronto.Tom Szczerbowski/GETTY IMAGES

Last winter, Stroman was upbeat that 2018 would be his best season yet. He said he was at ease with himself. He’d had a solid few years and was ready to improve on them.

“I’m very comfortable with where I’m at; I’m very confident in who I am as a person,” Stroman said during a comfortable one-on-one interview in spring training. “I feel like I don’t have to change any more. I’m happy with where I’m at.”

The 27-year-old is described by his friends as loyal and protective, but he can be hostile to his perceived enemies. He often seems to believe that it’s him against the world. Brash confidence has served him well on the mound, when things are going well.

But when they are not, which covers most of this season, his meltdowns against antagonists – even against his own team – can come in a torrent, oddly interspersed with positive affirmations and proclamations that he doesn’t care what transpires away from the baseball field.

This contrast was on full display last Sunday when Stroman tore into a reporter for asking a question unrelated to his outing against the Boston Red Sox. After three media outlets reported the outburst, Stroman took to his own channels to dispute the accounts.

The pitcher’s strong personality can be grating, but the native of Medford, N.Y., insists he is not about to alter the Stroman-against-the-world persona he has cultivated while becoming one of Canada’s best-known sports personalities.

Stroman has always had an edge to his character, a lot of it related to his life-long mission to prove that someone his size can succeed. And he has. When he made his first start for the the Blue Jays on May 31, 2014, against the Kansas City Royals, it marked the first time since 2007 that a pitcher his size had taken the mound at the start of the game, according to data provided by Baseball-Reference.com. You have to go back to 1977 before finding a pitcher of Stroman’s stature to win as many as 13 games as he did last year.

His height has influenced his decisions as a budding businessman, too, where Stroman doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve. On his heavily tattooed body he has his officially trademarked slogan – Height Doesn’t Measure Heart – inked into his chest.

And no one would argue he doesn’t play with heart.

“I can’t tell you how many guys at the end of the day hate me when I’m pitching,” he said. “But right after I step outside that field we go for dinner and then, ‘Like dude, you’re a completely different dude.’

“But … that’s the type of animal, that’s the dark place I need to go to when I’m out on the mound to be at my elite level.”

Stroman said his teammates have accepted his eccentricities. "There’s no more, ‘Stroman’s off his rocker. He needs to change it.’ I’m not going to change. This is me going forward, take it or leave it.

“I’ve realized who I am. I didn’t start clicking and really becoming who I am until I allowed myself to really be myself. Even my rookie year, I don’t think I was really at my potential because I wasn’t comfortable enough to … be myself when I was on the mound."

In February, while attending the Blue Jays Winter Fest at Rogers Centre, Stroman said that winning is all that consumes him. He insisted distractions would not get to him.

“I really don’t focus on anything from the outside,” he said at the time. “I know what it takes for me to be elite out there and that’s what I do. All the outside factors and noise is completely irrelevant.”

TALKING ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman smiles during spring training in Dunedin, FL on February 14, 2018.Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mount Stroman erupted last Sunday after a failed start in Boston.

Stroman had not pitched well and allowed four runs and five hits over five innings. The Blue Jays lost 5-2, the sixth defeat in eight games. Stroman’s record fell to 2-7 and his earned-run average climbed to an unsightly 5.86.

While taking questions in a media scrum afterward, Stroman remained composed – until the end of the interview, when a Sportsnet reporter asked him to reflect back to 2012 when he pitched briefly for the Vancouver Canadians, a Blue Jays minor-league affiliate.

After deeming the inquiry “irrelevant” to what had just occurred on the field, the cameras turned off when, according to several published reports, Stroman suddenly turned on the reporter and unleashed an obscenity-laced rant. Then, Stroman denigrated the play of his team, calling the Blue Jays “terrible.”

Later he went on Twitter to insist he was referring “right now” to both himself and the team as being terrible.

“Media asked me a question that had absolutely nothing to do with the game, team, or my performance,” Stroman wrote. “We just lost and it’s extremely frustrating. I’m not playing well. Neither are we as a team. After the camera shut off, I said, word for word … ‘I’m terrible right now. We’re terrible RIGHT NOW. It’s frustrating and that question isn’t relevant at all’ to a member of the media. They chose to run the ‘we’re terrible’ part only. That’s ridiculous. It’s frustrating losing. Playoff-level calibre is our expectation. My passion for my team and the city of Toronto is authentic and real. I love everything about being a Blue Jay. I truly have felt Canadian since I’ve come to the city of Toronto. I love this team and this city to the death of me. That won’t ever change. Regardless of what words are spun. I LOVE my team and this city. Always have, always will!”

It is not the first time that Stroman had taken to Twitter to vent his frustrations.

In February, after losing his arbitration case to the Blue Jays, Stroman wrote “the negative things that were said against me, by my own team, will never leave my mind,” while stating paradoxically in the same post that he was thick-skinned. In December, using the hashtag “communication” Stroman tweeted his distaste in having to learn through Twitter that light-hitting second baseman Ryan Goins was cut loose by the club.

A SETBACK THIS SEASON

Marcus Stroman hands the baseball to manager John Gibbons as he is relieved in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the New York Mets at Rogers Centre on July 4, 2018 in Toronto.Tom Szczerbowski/GETTY IMAGES

As the Blue Jays’ season has gone – the team left the all-star break 23½ games out of first place in the American League East – so, too, has Stroman’s.

He went into the season with high expectations after 2017′s 13-9 record and 3.09 earned-run average. He also exceeded 200 innings pitched for the second consecutive year, a benchmark for consistency and durability in the majors. Through his first four major-league seasons he turned into a pretty reliable pitcher, with a knack for coming up big in important games.

But before this season started, things went sour.

The right-hander was shut down for a large stretch in spring training with inflammation in his throwing shoulder, which caused him to miss what would have been his second opening-day start in three years.

After returning to the lineup and making seven starts, going 0-5 with a 7.71 ERA, Stroman landed on the disabled list with right-shoulder fatigue. He returned on June 23 and has made five starts with mixed results.

A HISTORY OF INTENSITY

Stroman throws against the Texas Rangers during first inning American League baseball action in Toronto, April 27, 2018.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Controversy has followed Stroman throughout his career, beginning in 2012 when the Blue Jays minor-leaguer was suspended 50 games after a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug.

During his 2014 rookie season, Stroman had to serve a five-game suspension after Major League Baseball determined that Stroman “intentionally” threw at Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph with a pitch that sailed past his head.

In a game last season against the White Sox, Stroman was at the centre of a bench-clearing incident following a heated exchange with Chicago’s Tim Anderson that was sparked when the batter was granted a time-out in the middle of his delivery.

About a week earlier in a game against Oakland, an incensed Stroman had charged home-plate umpire Will Little after he tossed the pitcher from the game following an exchange over a ball-four call. Stroman had to be restrained by teammates.

Repeated clashes with members of the media included a well-publicized social-media feud at the end of last season with former Blue Jays baseball analyst Gregg Zaun. “Can’t wait to have a home broadcast that defends its home players,” Stroman wrote. He has also called one Toronto Sun reporter “irrelevant” and accused a Toronto Star columnist of having racist views.

Stroman’s exuberant fist pumps after a big strike-out pitch, his death stare into opposing dugouts and his delivery-delay tactics, have angered hitters and opposing players on occasion.

“He’s emotional, he’s competitive, he’s fiery,” Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker said back in Dunedin. “He has a lot of the intangibles that you actually want in a pitcher. Sometimes we all wish we could tone things down a little bit, but it’s not his makeup.

“It’s something we’ve got to work with and constantly talk about. But he’s certainly a guy you want on the mound and you want competing for your team and your organization.”

Stroman has an uncanny knack for refuting conventional wisdom. The best example was in 2015 when he tore his knee during spring training and required surgery. He was through for the year, the team said, but Stroman, in typical fashion, wasn’t finished.

He worked his tail off rehabilitating himself while attending classes toward his degree in sociology at Duke University, and he came back to contribute immensely to Toronto’s memorable September stretch drive to the AL East pennant. Stroman went 4-0 in four starts with a sparkling 1.67 ERA and was on the mound when Toronto clinched first place to return the team to the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

That following spring, Stroman was selected to play for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic. He was the starter in the gold-medal game, in which the United States defeated Puerto Rico 8-0, and was chosen the tournament’s most valuable player.

AN UNQUESTIONABLE WORK ETHIC


Marcus Stroman pitches during the first inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Anaheim, California.Sean M. Haffey/GETTY IMAGES

On that lovely February day in Dunedin, Stroman was the first player off the bus that takes the team to the nearby Blue Jays minor-league complex, where most of the early part of spring training occurs. He is always at the front of the line for the calisthenics and running drills.

Stroman seems to be in motion even when he isn’t.

While jogging from one baseball field to another, he crosses the bullpen area where the pitchers throw each day. Stroman stops at one of the mounds, winds up and delivers an imaginary pitch to an imaginary catcher.

Veteran Toronto catcher Russell Martin has backstopped Stroman 61 times since the start of the 2015 season and has a good sense of what makes him tick. He said that Stroman’s strong nature has developed through an incredible work ethic.

“I don’t know anybody that works harder and is just more involved in everything,” Martin said. “It can be in the weight room, it can be stretching … it can be his open-mindedness to new deliveries.

“It’s like he’s an artist and an athlete at the same time, like a hip-hop artist. And you just don’t see that a lot in baseball. But he has that confidence and it’s not a fake confidence. It’s because he puts in the work and he knows he’s going to be good because he’s worked, he’s put in the reps.”

And when it comes to social media, Stroman admitted in Dunedin that he can often take things a bit too far.

“It’s very easy to screw up,” he said. “And I wear my heart on my sleeve all the time and that’s the thing. People will love you for the emotion you show on the field and when you take the same emotion to a tweet you’ll get kind of hammered for it.

“It’s definitely a balance, man, it’s definitely a balance.”

Chris Archer, the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays, is a close friend and confidant of Stroman.

Both are chips off the same block in that they are not afraid to display on-field emotion. No need to ask these two what side of the Jose Bautista bat-flip debate they’re on.

Archer said he got to know Stroman several years back when the Rays were in Toronto and he needed some advice.

“I sent him a message on Instagram because I needed to get a barber to cut my hair,” Archer said. “And he gave me the number and then we just kind of hit it off from there.”

He agreed that Stroman has a complex personality.

“He’s one of those dudes, if you’re in his circle then he’s very protective,” Archer said. “If you are not then he’s not going to – I don’t know how to word it. I know I’m his friend and he’s very protective of me and all of the people that are close to him.

“He’s outspoken, he uses his platform to do a lot of good, I know that. But like I said, people that are close to him he protects and he loves with everything.”

He feels that if Stroman were to try to change, or reel in his emotions and conform, he probably would not be as successful.

“It’s interesting,” Archer said. “I’ve heard Tom Brady talk about similar things. Things that happen to us when we’re younger, they shape us and they fuel us and they motivate us. For some people, it brings them down and for some people when they resurface those thoughts it helps lift them up."

Archer suggested Stroman uses others' negativity as a source of inspiration. "People being negative towards him, or being a naysayer towards him, helps him. That’s what he thrives off. He needs it.”