There are a couple of images that instantly spring to mind when you consider the fledgling professional baseball career of Brett Lawrie, third baseman of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The first is from two years ago, at Yankee Stadium in July, when Lawrie made a harrowing headfirst dive into a camera bay trying to snare a foul ball. He flipped over the railing and wound up dropping about two metres onto an unforgiving concrete floor. He was fortunate that an injury to his right calf only kept him out of the lineup for a couple of days.
The second occurred two months earlier at Rogers Centre in Toronto when Lawrie became incensed at a called third strike by home-plate umpire Bill Miller. He stalked menacingly toward the startled umpire and then hurled his batting helmet to the ground, only to see it bounce up and glance off Miller's hip. For that fit of anger, Lawrie was fined and handed a four-game suspension by Major League Baseball.
Demonstrative, fiery, brash, overbearing and even childish have all been words used to describe the now 24-year-old from Langley, B.C.
But Lawrie has been making a concerted effort to curb those emotional outbursts this season, and the American League club believes the added maturity is paying dividends with his improved performance.
"Now just knowing how to keep things on the straight and narrow and just keep it under control for the most part," Lawrie said in a recent interview when asked about trying to play with a little more emotional restraint. "Just knowing what I can and can't do out there is the biggest thing."
That is not to say simmering emotion doesn't continue to drive everything he does. But apart from firing the odd helmet into the dugout wall after an unsatisfying visit into the batter's box, he has so far this season been able to keep his raging hormones in check. Where once a borderline called third strike for the third out would lead to a demonstrative outburst, Lawrie these days chooses to simply peel off his batting gloves and lay them gently on the playing surface and move on. A close play for an out at first and he will turn and head back to the dugout, lips sealed, no glaring looks at the ump.
"I don't know if describing it as being more under control is the proper wording," said Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista, who seems to have conquered his own anger-management issues. "The way I would describe it is that he is certainly more mature. I think he has a better idea and understanding of some of the things he needs to stay away from, like sometimes running too hard down the first-sbase line [and risking injury] all the time or jumping into camera wells to get foul balls, stuff like that."
Now in his third full season as the Blue Jays' regular third baseman – with occasional stints at second – Lawrie has emerged as one of the top young defenders in the game. With his remarkable athleticism, including above-average speed, Lawrie continues to make jaw-dropping plays seem routine.
Toronto manager John Gibbons has stated repeatedly that a Gold Glove award, symbolic of defensive supremacy, is in Lawrie's future.
Offensively, Lawrie's batting average of .237 is a bit troubling. But his 11 home runs, tied for third highest on a slugging Blue Jays club, has already matched his regular-season high over a full season, and his 37 runs batted in indicates an ability to deliver in the clutch.
"Nobody plays the game harder than Brett," Gibbons said. "He'll run through a wall for you. I mean, he plays to win and you wish everybody was like that. But the thinking is, he just needed to back down the intensity just a little bit. Defensively, I don't think he has to change, but offensively it can kind of work against you when you're too revved up stepping up to plate."
The Lawrie era in Toronto began on Dec. 6, 2010, when the Blue Jays, who always coveted his Canadian roots, sent starting pitcher Shaun Marcum to the Milwaukee Brewers to bring him into the fold.
The Brewers had selected Lawrie in the first round in the 2008 first-year player draft straight out of high school with the 16th overall pick, making him the highest Canadian position player ever chosen. But things did not go smoothly for Lawrie during his stint with the Brewers. There were rumblings out of Milwaukee that he was a bit of a problem child – headstrong and brazen, an unbridled colt who rubbed management the wrong way.
The Blue Jays did extensive background checks before they traded for Lawrie and they never viewed him that way. They saw a player with incredible passion for the game who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
Lawrie was raised a catcher but soon realized that position was too hard on his legs, as his speed has always been one of his biggest attributes. The Brewers tried to turn him into a second baseman while Lawrie coveted third, thinking that was his fastest ticket to the major leagues.
The Blue Jays had no need at the time for a second baseman with Aaron Hill comfortably settled in there, but they had an opening at third so Lawrie was welcomed aboard.
Starting off 2011 in Triple-A, he finally got the call-up to the big leagues in August of that year, and immediately made an impression. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI in his first game against the Baltimore Orioles, collecting his first hit with a single off Tommy Hunter in his first at-bat.
Two days later, Lawrie stroked his first home run, and on Aug. 10, in just his fifth major-league game, he clubbed his first career grand slam against the Oakland A's.
This season, the Blue Jays have tested Lawrie's patience by moving him to second base on occasion to keep the big bat of Juan Francisco – who can play third, if nowhere near at Lawrie's level – in the lineup when Toronto faces a right-handed starter. Lawrie has taken the move in stride and is prepared to keep running with it as long as it benefits the team.
But at some point he believes a decision will have to be made as to where his long-term defensive spot will be, just for peace of mind.
"If I'm at second base then I want to play there," Lawrie said. "I don't want to keep switching back and forth. I need reps, I need the opportunity to continuously go out there and play the spot because when I prepare for a day I prepare for that day."
Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said he sees third base in Lawrie's future.
"Look, we've said it, he's a third baseman, there's no doubt about that," Anthopoulos said. "He's doing something for the good of the team, which we're all thrilled about and it's what we need to do. I haven't even thought about a year or two years down the road. Right now he's playing both because we have a need there and that makes us the strongest club and allows us to win more games. I don't think anything has changed in terms of our view of him as a third baseman long term."