By ROBERT MACLEOD
Thursday, September 20, 2018
TORONTO -- John Gibbons is in a pregame media scrum at Rogers Centre before his Blue Jays are to play the Cleveland Indians when his cellphone buzzes.
Since there is little else going on, the Toronto manager checks his text message and is delighted to discover he has been sent a picture from a Toronto reporter swimming in a lake, enjoying a weekend respite north of the city.
Gibbons then snaps a picture of his own, of those gathered in his office, and sends it back with a text message: "Misery loves company."
It is nearing the end of a long season for the Blue Jays, a year fraught with injury and intrigue, with the Holy Grail of the playoffs vanishing long ago.
The final few weeks of the season are the dogdays for any team out of the playoffs and Toronto is no exception as it plays out the string.
The Blue Jays begin their final homestand of the year Thursday night at Rogers Centre with the first of a four-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays. They wrap up with three games against the Houston Astros.
And while nobody is suggesting the Blue Jays are not taking their jobs seriously, the atmosphere around the team has certainly taken a lighter, more surreal, tone.
Inside the clubhouse before a recent game, veteran Russell Martin sat in front of his locker, staring intently at his laptop. The 35-year-old has seen his playing time dry up following an influx of younger catchers brought up from the minor leagues for the final month of the season.
Martin is playing Fortnite, a popular online video game.
A little farther down the room, a green putting carpet is spread out in front of Tyler Clippard's stall. The Toronto reliever is a scratch golfer and he is methodically practising his short game, which he will soon be able to put to good use.
Suddenly, the relative quiet within the clubhouse is shattered when pitcher Ryan Borecki, who made his major-league debut in late June and hopes to be part of Toronto's rotation in 2019, leaps up from his locker and shouts, "Oh my God."
Borecki, who is also playing Fornite online with Martin, apparently met an untimely end - not unlike the Blue Jays this season - and he kicked a cardboard box full of Styrofoam pieces across the room.
Later, after finishing with the video game and removing his headphones, Martin discussed what it is like having to play out a season that shrivelled up weeks ago.
It is not an experience that comes naturally to the Toronto native. In his first 11 years in the majors, playing for three teams, Martin was in the playoffs nine times, including in 2015 and 2016 with the Blue Jays. The past two years, nothing.
He agreed that the final month of a season gone awry can be a tough slog, especially for a veteran who has been used to more.
"You've just got to try to look at the bright side," Martin said.
"In this case, what you do, you get an opportunity to showcase your young talent. They get some experience, it gives the club an idea of what some guys can do.
So those are the positives.
"The other side of that is it's frustrating that you didn't accomplish what you set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year.
"For guys like me who have been around for a while, the only thing you're searching for is to find a way to get to that postseason and get a [World Series] ring, since I've never got one," Martin added.
The Blue Jays clubhouse is jammed with September call-ups from the minors, many of them making their major-league debuts. They're not as concerned about Toronto's dismal record as they are trying to make a good impression, which could lead to steady employment.
They bring a naturally infectious optimism into the room.
One of those is outfielder is Jonathan Davis, a triple-A call-up who played his first big-league game in centrefield on Sept. 5 against Tampa Bay.
Adding some impact to the moment, when he arrived in Toronto he was assigned the locker just vacated by Josh Donaldson, the team star who was traded to Cleveland.
"The other guys let me know right away that was Donaldson's locker," Davis said.
"They just let me know I've got big shoes to fill. I said I don't know about filling those shoes, but I'm going to do what I do."
Davis's debut did not go as he may have wished, 0-for-3 with three strikeouts.
After that tough outing, Davis said he was pulled aside by veteran centrefielder Kevin Pillar for a little peptalk.
"He encouraged me after that game, telling me it was just the first three [at-bats] of many," Davis said. "Just stay positive.
"Just hearing that from a guy like Pillar, he runs the outfield, man. He probably can run from foul pole to foul pole. It's awesome to hear it from a guy like that."
While it is tough for Martin having to take a regular seat on the bench with the season winding down - the last time he was in the lineup was Sept. 3 against Tampa Bay - he said he understands the rationale.
He was asked how he will attack the final two weeks of the schedule.
"I'm just doing other stuff, getting into the weight room a little bit, get a little jump start on the off season," he said. "I'm telling everybody, I dare them to show up in better shape than I'm going to show up in next year.
"It's going to be different. I don't think the expectations next year are going to be the same for us. At least for a short period of time. But that can be a good thing. You can use that as motivation, and it would be great to kind of surprise some people next year and put a really good season together."
There were few pleasant surprises this season and, in fact, a lot of the same old, same old.
Earlier this month, Gibbons attended the postgame news conference after his squad fell 4-0 to the Rays in another lacklustre effort. It was Toronto's 76th loss and really, what more could reporters ask the manager about how bad his team was. Still, Gibbons feigned indifference when he was asked only two questions.
"Fine," the manager said. "I'm giving you guys tomorrow night off."
True to his word, Gibbons skipped the postgame presser the next day, and who could blame him?
Consider that from the start of the season in late March through to the end of September, Gibbons met with reporters in his office before each game and then repeated the process on the field for the assembled television cameras. He is given Sundays off from this routine.
After each game he is also required to speak about what transpired.
It is no wonder that often the pregame sessions with reporters in his office, usually a relaxed, jocular affair, routinely veered to another of Gibbons's favourite topics - U.S. politics.
Over the six-month regular season, Gibbons will have met with reporters more than 400 times. And that does not include his countless one-on-one interviews.
As the sun sets on the Blue Jays season, there's not much left to say.
Veterans such as catcher Russell Martin have been sitting recently in favour of younger Jays. NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS