Aaron Sanchez was luxuriating in a big, comfy chair at a swanky downtown Toronto sports bar on Monday morning, intently staring at a large flat-screen television while expertly operating a video-game controller.
The on-the-cusp superstar pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, a native of Barstow, Calif., was playing PlayStation's MLB The Show 17, the latest version of the franchise. Sanchez's picture graces the cover of the Canadian edition, while the U.S. version features Ken Griffey Jr., a member of the Hall of Fame. Pitcher Wei-Yin Chen of the Miami Marlins is on the Taiwanese cover.
"All my friends are calling me, asking me to send them one of the games with my picture on it," Sanchez said, his fingers and thumbs working the controller furiously. "I tell them they have to come up to Canada to get it."
It was a welcome off day for the struggling Blue Jays, who hope to bounce back from a tepid road start when they welcome the Milwaukee Brewers Tuesday night to Rogers Centre for their home opener.
But for Sanchez, this was still a working gig. Over the next several hours, he would continue to play the game while extolling its virtues to about 16 journalists, who were each granted 10-minute interview sessions with the pitcher.
It's all part of a new game that Sanchez finds himself growing accustomed to as his stature as one of baseball's rising young stars continues to grow. Sanchez is in high demand for media interviews, and his marketing appeal is starting to grow through the exposure he is getting from the likes of the video game.
He also turned more than a few heads early this year when he hired Scott Boras, the most powerful agent in all of sports.
Everything Sanchez does these days is under a microscope – to the extent that even a seemingly innocuous Twitter spat with teammate Marcus Stroman over the winter sparked headlines.
"I'm still the same kid that I've been my whole life," Sanchez said on Monday.
Last season was a breakout year for him. He won the American League ERA title with a mark of 3.00. And his 15-2 record was the highest winning percentage (.882) in baseball.
The Blue Jays are pinning much of their hopes of making the postseason for a third straight year on the continued advancement of their 24-year-old right hander.
He didn't disappoint on Saturday in his first start of the season in St. Petersburg, Fla., against the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing just one run off four hits while striking out six through seven innings of stellar work.
Unfortunately, the Toronto bats were mostly silent during the 3-2 Rays win in 11 innings.
All in all, it was a rough starting road trip for the Blue Jays, who lost five of their first six games. Tuesday night's game against the Brewers will mark the start of a nine-game home stand.
Russell Martin, the veteran Toronto catcher, has caught some of the game's premier pitchers since he entered the major leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006. Martin was behind the plate for the Dodgers on May 25, 2008, when Clayton Kershaw made his MLB debut, allowing two runs off five hits while striking out seven over six innings in a 4-3 L.A. win over St. Louis.
While he hates comparing players, Martin said he sees a lot of similarities in the way Kershaw and Sanchez conduct themselves both on and off the field.
"I caught Kershaw in his first start when he was, like, 20 years old, and you could sense the competitive nature right away," Martin said. "Away from the game he is a really awesome guy but with an edge when pitching.
"And you can see that in guys like Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. They give up one run and that's too many."
Despite their fumbling start, the Blue Jays remain confident that things will soon start to swing in their favour. A 1-5 record looks much worse at the start of a season than at any other time of the year, said Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson.
"But we feel very good about getting back home and getting playing in front of our fans," he said. "We're looking forward to that and kind of changing the momentum of where it's at right now."