ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — How did you meet your best friend?
Were you in the same third-grade class? Did you play on the same Little League team? Or perhaps work at the same crappy, after-school job?
It’s more likely than not it was through some sort of shared experience, one that wasn’t necessarily as exhausting or thrilling as working your way from the minors to the big leagues.
Toronto Blue Jays resident BFFs and starting pitchers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez can’t recall at this point exactly when and where they first met or when they initially connected as pals. It may or may not have been at a Tampa steakhouse, or on some dusty Blue Jays minor league Florida practice field in nearby Dunedin back in 2012. They did share the same agent when they were in the minors, so that first official meeting was inevitable.
At this point, four years later, all that matters to them, their Blue Jays teammates and a few million baseball fans in Canada is that they did meet.
They call each other “brother” so often it would be far more poetic if they played in Philadelphia. Sanchez and Stroman spoke to Bleacher Report in separate one-on-one interviews here this past weekend about their fraternal bond and how it has helped carry them to the majors.
For this “Duo of Brothers,” every day has become St. Crispin's Day.
“In the beginning, we were just friends. But we started hanging together in the minors,” Sanchez said. “Ever since then, we became brothers. He’s my best friend and knows more about me than anyone else. But he’s more my brother than anything else.”
For Stroman, the Blue Jays' Opening Day starter in 2016, his relationship with Sanchez has grown into a brotherhood thanks to shared time and purpose.
“It’s similar to the family aspect in a sense of the bond that you have between two individuals. It’s no different than having a brother—even though there isn’t blood,” Stroman said. “In baseball, you spend time with your teammates and your buddies more so than with your family. So from February to November, I’m with my brothers—we get to the clubhouse anywhere from noon to 2 on a game day, and we’re here until 11 p.m. at night.
"This is time spent with a new family, so obviously you become close to your teammates as if they’re your family. That’s why I love baseball so much because you get that dynamic. You’re playing with your family because you’re playing pretty much every waking moment together with these guys; you know everything about them and you grow.”
Stroman and Sanchez share a Toronto apartment, which has a spare room for visiting family and friends. They spend just about each waking hour together, whether or not they're at the ballpark.
"We enjoy being in [Toronto]. Toronto is not much different than New York. It’s much, much cleaner, smaller, nicer people, like a smaller New York City. It’s a very diverse place, and it fits our personalities well,” Stroman said.
The diverse geographic roots of its members are another unique component of this unlikely alliance.
Stroman is a determined, confident 5'8" starting pitcher from Stony Brook, New York. His parents were divorced when he was in the fifth grade. His father, a New York City police detective, spent considerable time with the young Stroman in fostering his baseball talent and his fearless attitude.
That discipline his father taught is evident in Stroman’s posture when he stands to speak to reporters. It is reminiscent of a police officer standing watch. Even postgame, he'll don a fresh warm-up suit, clean shirt and fresh black Raptors hat before the TV cameras are turned on. Then he hits the showers. All this attention to style and detail follows countless hours spent throwing, studying hitters, physical conditioning and a biting 94 mph fastball that snips off a corner of the plate.
Stroman is one of seven starting pitchers 5'9" or shorter in the majors, according to pointafter.com's sortable database. He has branded himself around a trademarked slogan that reads "Height Doesn't Measure Heart."
“That’s his personality,” Sanchez said. “He likes to prove doubters wrong, and he’s done it his whole life. You don’t see a lot of 5'8" starting pitchers in the game.”
Sanchez isn’t quite as loquacious as Stroman, but few are. The 6'4" right-hander was raised by his mom and stepfather, a former minor league ballplayer, in Barstow, California. The city of about 23,000 is located in the desert, midway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles—a milestone of sorts when driving in either direction. Sanchez’s biological father died when he was in fifth grade.
Sanchez told Sportsnet.ca’s Arden Zwelling in 2015 that he doesn’t remember anything about their relationship.
"The difference in our backgrounds goes along with our story," Stroman said. "We’re very different personality types. Our upbringing has something to do with it. I was brought up on Long Island. I spent a lot of time in New York and have been around cities a ton. Aaron is from a small-population city. Ever since we started hanging out, he’s kind of opened up and his personality started coming out."
Sanchez, 23, said any soft-spoken persona is often temporary. “If you know me, you get the full me,” he said. “If I don’t really know you, I’m kind of reserved. He gets to see the real me.”
How close are these two? “It’s definitely unique. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two guys who didn’t grow up together be so close,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said.
Gibbons goes so far as to suggest that this 40 percent of his starting rotation is attached by an “umbilical cord.” Stroman concurs with the otherwise anatomically impossible analogy. “We’re together 24/7. We’re together through every part of this journey. We practice together. We come to the field together. We work out together,” he said.
This common experience has led to an uncommon friendship.
“It’s unique between me and Marcus because we’re doing memories of a lifetime, doing something we love,” Sanchez said. “A lot of people don’t understand it’s nice to have that same friend with you because we go through a lot of the same (stuff) of being so young and being away. We’re there for each other and we know when someone is missing their family they always have that brother right there to feel comfortable and know that we’re going through the same thing together.”
Whenever one half of #StroChez is pitching, the other is emotionally along for the ride.
Sanchez exited this past Friday’s 6-1 win over the Rays after seven shutout innings, during which he allowed only two hits while fanning six. Sanchez mixed his fastball and curve, throwing 71 strikes on 103 pitches, a follow to his worst start of the season. He also dropped in his changeup at just the right moment.
“I had runners on base a couple of time and I could hear Marcus (from the dugout) saying ‘Come on, let’s go. Now’s the time. This is the hitter you want.’ Stuff like that,” Sanchez said.
To no one’s surprise on the Blue Jays bench, Stroman was the first player atop the dugout steps to greet him.
“You know that umbilical cord can only go so tight before it snaps back,” Gibbons deadpanned.
“I try to be that top-step guy, more so for him, because we’ve been through the trials and tribulations together. We know each other better than many other people know each other. I can go up to him and say 'I think you should focus on this a little more,' and it resonates more than if it was coming from someone else,” Stroman said.
Combined, they threw for 15 innings at Tropicana Field, allowing just nine hits and one run, while striking out 15 Rays in their two starts here. Toronto won its games by a combined 11-2 score.
“When Marcus is pitching, I feel like I’m out there with every pitch. The thing about Marcus is that he trusts and values my opinion, as I do for him. If I see something when he’s pitching, or he sees something when I’m pitching, it’s easy for us to have that dialogue together, as opposed to someone else coming up to him,” Sanchez said.
Sunday, Stroman recorded 24 outs on his 25th birthday in arguably the best outing of his career. He was in full attack mode from his first warm-up. He fanned nine while giving up just one run and three hits in getting the win in a 5-1 victory. Sixty-six of his 103 pitches were strikes.
“He’s such an emotional guy. He’s so anxious to pitch,” Sanchez said. “When he’s out there, it’s more like me telling him to ‘calm down’ or ‘keep control.’ It’s more about staying in the moment. It’s about knowing that if you get the ball on the ground and stuff behind you doesn’t go the way you want, you need to just keep going.”
“It was awesome,” Stroman said to handful of reporters afterward. And the words of former teammate David Price—“If you don’t like it, pitch better”—were in his head. “I get pretty frustrated out there, but I don’t take it start to start. The day after, it’s pretty much washed.”
Sunday afternoon’s stellar performance was likely “washed” by 8 p.m. as Stroman and teammate Jose Bautista were back home in Toronto and sitting courtside cheering the NBA’s Raptors to a Game 7 playoff win over the Indiana Pacers.
Just another benefit of downtown life in “The 6ix,” a topic Stroman covered in a recent story for The Players' Tribune.
(Potential spoiler alert: For Stroman’s 25th birthday, Sanchez said he commissioned an original “sick painting” of his roommate by a female artist whose work Stroman admires. There was no completion date available.)
Gibbons sees plenty of benefit in the #StroChez dynamic. “They’re basically out there with each other whenever one of them pitches. They push each other, they encourage each other, and they get on each other. If I need to talk to one of them about something, and it applies to the other, I can say ‘just go see your buddy, too.’ So you don’t always have to go to the source to get your message across.”
When the two do talk baseball away from the field—a rarity—the conversations are forward-focused and center around approaching a hitter or a certain lineup.
“We sacrifice a lot. We work unbelievably hard. At the end of the day, we know we’ve maximized whatever we could have done to get better. This game can consume you. So we do everything we do to get away from the game,” Stroman said.
These are professional athletes living the dream in the big city and enjoying every coveted minute away from baseball. On an off night, you might find them “playing games, laying low or going out to eat at a cool restaurant,” Stroman said. “We’re normal people.”
There are no disputes over who’s the messy one, or when it comes time to cook the occasional at-home meal.
“We have a good dynamic. We don’t fight, ever.” Stroman said. “We have two different personalities. I think we kind of round each other out. There’s a great dynamic.”
The Blue Jays are relying on that dynamic in part to sustain a rotation that lost Price to the Red Sox via free agency in the offseason. Where Price was once the unquestioned lead dog in the Jays' 2015 rotation, that role has been ceded to whomever can fill it.
Oftentimes, it’s been Stroman.
He hosted a onesies-only Super Bowl party for his teammates at Chez #StroChez.
On March 11, a year and a day after Stroman’s 2015 ACL injury that sidelined him for six months, he threw 4.2 innings of shutout spring training baseball against the Red Sox. But he delivered his most explosive pitch during his postgame media-scrum defense of teammate Jose Bautista. The slugger had been blasted by Hall of Famer Goose Gossage as "a f--king disgrace to the game" in an interview with ESPN.
"He's one of my mentors. He's taken me under his wing from day one. I see what he does on and off the field. How he trains. How he goes about his business. And he does it professionally, and he works harder than anyone else in the league," Stroman said that day, all while wearing a "Joey Flippin Bats" T-shirt.
(Bautista famously flung his bat after belting a three-run homer to give the Blue Jays a seventh-inning lead in Game 5 of the American League Division Series vs. the Texas Rangers, a game Stroman started.)
For six months post-surgery in 2015, Stroman was undergoing two days of rehabilitation each week at Duke University while taking classes there three other days. He returned to pitch for Toronto in September. He will walk at the Duke commencement on May 15 in Durham, North Carolina, after receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology over the winter.
Often attacking batters metaphorically with his fastball or occasional cutter, his volatility on the mound earned him a six-game suspension in 2014 for throwing near Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph's head.
He was even accused of being “disrespectful” to his teammates and Gibbons by team announcer Gregg Zaun, after he was taken out of a game at Chicago with a lead on April 25 that the bullpen eventually lost. Stroman said the “disrespect” charge was a “media creation.”
“I can’t describe the camaraderie in this clubhouse to someone who isn’t here all the time,” he said.
And Sanchez's constant presence, Stroman said, remains a calming, stabilizing effect.
“It’s good to have someone there that you can bounce ideas off of and someone there that knows what you’re going through lately. It limits stress. It limits the tough times that you go through because you have someone there that’s usually going through the same thing you’re going through,” he said.
All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report unless otherwise specified. Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.