Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman the Pound-for-Pound King of MLB Mound Swag

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 28, 2017

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 17: Marcus Stroman #6 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates after getting a double play to end the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Chicago White Sox at Rogers Centre on June 17, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Hip-hop artist Mike Stud is cruising to the airport, and we are talking sauce. Technically, we are talking music. Hip-hop, rap and his close buddy, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman. But, sauce.

Sauce is the secret ingredient, the "it" factor, the mix that puts a guy over the top. Stud and Stroman met at Duke University, where they made music together both on the baseball field (the hardball kind) and in the tiny closet of their apartment (the recorded kind).

They have remained tight ever since, and whenever the Blue Jays are in Los Angeles, Stroman and Stud make sure to connect. Stroman already has performed—quite convincinglyin one of Stud's videos, "These Days," and he raps on another Stud song, "Shine." On the mound and in the studio, Stroman, one part pitcher, one part artist, is creating the type of cultural and diversified portfolio that will drive home baseball's ties with its next generation of fans. The sauce is included in the mix.

"Music's interesting because it evokes a feeling to a listener and you can't really put a finger on what it is exactly," Stud says. "When you hear an artist, subconsciously, you connect with that artist because you believe it. Marcus has that. Not everyone has that.

"When he gets behind a microphone, he sounds like an artist and people want to hear him. And when they hear him, they believe it. The songs we've made together, those are the best athlete verses on songs I've ever heard. Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, if you compare, no one sounds as good as him. I really do think he could be the best actual athlete who's also a musician."

Hip-hop musician Mike Stud shares a stage, and a microphone, with Marcus Stroman.
Hip-hop musician Mike Stud shares a stage, and a microphone, with Marcus Stroman.Photo courtesy of Mike Stud

These days, baseball is searching for the sauce, looking to create a feeling, and the would-be artists in the MLB offices on Park Avenue are working feverishly to put a finger on it. Baseball's culture is changing at warp speed, one Snapchat at a time. The world is zooming rapid-fire into the future, and on the field, trailblazers like Stroman are leading the way.

Take this spring's World Baseball Classic. Team USA had never finished higher than fourth, but suddenly this group became the breakout stars of the year on a March evening at Dodger Stadium. Stud was there, watching as his pal whipsawed through Puerto Rico in the championship game. The evening was a swirling kaleidoscope of colors, roars, trash-talking, incredible plays, taut moments, theatrics and, ultimately, a WBC title. Never had there been more interest in the WBC on North American soil, and with Stroman pitching, strutting and howling onstage, it seemed as if the tournament gained several thousand new fans every time he danced off the mound with another third out.

"Unbelievable experience," Stroman, who started the title game, says during a lengthy conversation with B/R. "Definitely life-changing. Playing for Team USA, that's an honor in itself, and to go out there and win a gold medal with all of those guys was pretty special. And then to win the MVP, that kind of put the entire experience over the top.

"It's pretty much like winning gold in the Olympics. It's got a lot of pride to it, a lot of honor to it, and the fact that the USA hasn't done very well in prior WBCs puts more emphasis on it."

After swooping from that moment straight into the Blue Jays' season, Stroman says he still hasn't assimilated. The WBC blended back into spring training, and then into Opening Day and then into the grind of the killer baseball schedule, which is the greatest enemy of the kind of pizzazz Stroman injects into his game. The relentlessness of the summer saps energy and discourages emotional outpourings because as soon as a guy pumps a fist or lets out a triumphant yell, the old school frowns and the game does something to humble you. But as that night at Dodger Stadium showed, Stroman has his own vibe, and it's too rhythmic to stifle.

Stroman was named the MVP of the World Baseball Classic after helping pitch Team USA to its first title in the event.
Stroman was named the MVP of the World Baseball Classic after helping pitch Team USA to its first title in the event.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

In the stands that night, Stud had "goose bumps," he says. "I was super proud of him. Knowing what he's been through and where he's come from, and to see him at that scale, performing at that level ... I'll never forget it. I've been to a million games, and I'm not surprised by anything he does, but you can't get any higher than that. It was an incredible experience to have him rep the country and, not only that, but to be the MVP of it."

As the airport gets closer, our chat moves from sauce to symbolism. The point of the "These Days" video is that two buddies are living vicariously through each other. It is Stud's voice and Stroman's acting.

"I always thought I'd be a professional baseball player, and he's living that life," says Stud, an old pitcher whose own pro dreams were dashed by Tommy John surgery in college about the time his music career started to move. So, in the video, it is Stud on the field in a jersey and it is Stroman living the celebrity's life in Los Angeles, strutting, jumping into a Ferrari.

"You put a camera on him, and the camera loves him," Stud says.

   

GET TO KNOW Stroman, and it's clear he has enough substance that it's not just the cameras and the hipsters who love him. Old-school baseball people dig him, too. Toronto manager John Gibbons has the text messages from retired manager Jim Leyland, the skipper of this year's Team USA, to prove it. As Gibbons was running the Jays through camp this spring in Florida, his phone buzzed multiple times with texts from the crusty, 72-year-old baseball man: "I love this kid!"

Says Gibbons: "He's got as much confidence as any young kid I've ever been around."

On the field, opponents ask Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki about Stroman during games more than they do any other Blue Jays player. What's this guy's deal? What's he really like? Good guy or no? Yes, Tulo tells them all, smiling as he relays this. Great guy, great teammate. He's just emotional.

Stroman's emotion-filled approach to the game has won the allegiance of his teammates while, at times, rankling opposing players.
Stroman's emotion-filled approach to the game has won the allegiance of his teammates while, at times, rankling opposing players.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Teammate Kevin Pillar has answered those same questions from opponents and friends alike. He figures Stroman, 26, is just reaching the point where, after his postseason (2015 and 2016) and WBC accomplishments, all the inquisitiveness will begin to recede.

"With his consistency, and doing it in the WBC, I don't think opponents will view him as arrogant or cocky," Pillar says. "I think they'll view him for who he is. I think it's now expected that he's not a guy out there faking it. It's real."

The key to any artist's connection with their audience is authenticity. Stroman's demeanor is the same whether he's on the mound, on the team bus or on Twitter (@MStrooo6): high energy, enthusiastic, honest.

"I can't honestly think of a day I've been around him when he's down in the dumps or even keel," Gibbons says. "He has lots of energy. He knows he's good. And another thing is, he loves the game of baseball."

A first-round pick of Toronto in the 2012 amateur draft (22nd overall), Stroman, who is listed at 5'8" but might be a tad shorter, grew up on Long Island, New York. His father is a detective in Suffolk County, and his mother does community preservation and works in real estate in the Hamptons. Marcus played quarterback in high school but decided he was finished with football in his sophomore year. He played basketball through his senior year and stuck with his first love, baseball, all the way through.

"I've always been a talker," he says. "I've always been a trash-talker on the basketball court. I've always been that guy with a little chip on my shoulder who felt like he was going to get the job done in any circumstance. I think that's just something my parents instilled in me from a young age. ... I was never going to be the biggest guy in the room, so [my dad] always told me I had to be the most confident."

As the son of a cop, Stroman learned early that he better get his work done before it was playtime. He was never that kid out aimlessly screwing around, having a blast. He was doing his schoolwork or the extra reading comprehension exercises that his dad persistently fed him. And when it was time to prepare for whatever season was coming up, he was running hills, pulling sleds, building up his small body to keep pace with his sharp mind.

After his breakout performance in the WBC, Stroman has put together a 7-4 record with a 3.69 ERA this season.
After his breakout performance in the WBC, Stroman has put together a 7-4 record with a 3.69 ERA this season.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

"Why I'm so emotional, being myself, authentic, exciting is because when I'm out there, that's the most fun," he says. "I put in all of this work in the offseason, between starts, leading up to it—those are the grinding hours. Those are the hours of tears and blood that you put in relentlessly. So when I go out there every fifth day, I'm just trying to have fun because I know I can't be any more prepared."

If there was any doubt what he was all about, Stroman quickly erased that during the 2015 season. He tore the ACL in his left knee in spring training and was told he would be sidelined for the entire season. Instead, he worked his way back by that September and went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts down the stretch to help push the Jays to their first American League East title since 1993. While he was at it, he used his extra time that summer to finish his sociology degree and graduate from Duke.

"First time I met him, he came to get checked out by doctors after his rehab, and I saw him and said, 'Damn, that's all of you?' I thought there was a lot more," says LaTroy Hawkins, a teammate of Stroman's in 2015 during the final season of his 21-year major league career.

"He's a little guy in stature, but you know what, he walks around like he's 6'7", he pitches like he's Randy Johnson and, hey, the rest is history.

"I don't care how tall he is, he's got one of the biggest hearts I've ever seen."

   

SWAG AND STROMAN have been in step together for as long as infield and dirt, as his friends will testify. Before he was Mike Stud in the music industry, he was Michael Seander at Duke University. Rarely was he involved in hosting prospective freshmen on their visits because his own swag often put him sideways with the baseball coach at the time, Sean McNally. But come Stroman's visit, McNally recruited Seander to host because, well, he and Stroman were both from the Northeast and the coach thought the two would relate. Did they ever.

The way Stud recalls it, McNally, who resigned as Duke coach after the 2012 season, was a "hard ass" brought in "on a mission to clean up the program, bring it to the next level." Stud says the two were not copacetic, and Stroman, of course, leaned toward his new friend with an independent streak of his own. One clash in particular still stands out. It came during an intrasquad game when Stroman and his coach were arguing between innings.

"Marcus goes back out on the mound, and during the entire inning, he told every batter what pitch was coming," Stud says. "It wasn't to show up the players, it was to show McNally, 'I'm this good.' He literally told every batter every pitch, and he went through the inning 1-2-3. I was injured at the time, watching on the side and thinking, 'This kid's a star.'"

Two themes have been constants in Stroman's life: Always, he could do things others couldn't, and always, he's been doubted because of his diminutive size.

Even after he became the first Duke player ever to be a first-round draft pick, there were questions within the Blue Jays organization about whether he ever would be a starting pitcher in the majors. When the club first called him to the bigs in 2014, Stroman's first five appearances came as a reliever. Though his stuff set him apart, some of the Blue Jays' baseball people thought he would never survive as a starter because he was a little guy with no downward tilt to his delivery.

Since then, he's refined his sinker, curve and cutter and, with his two-seam fastball, has excelled at inducing ground balls. Last year, he had the highest ground ball-to-fly ball ratio in the majors at 2.4-to-1, and he had the highest ground-ball percentage at 61.4 percent, according to the Blue Jays. As Gibbons says and as opponents see, it's made him a completely different pitcher. And it's only bolstered Stroman's confidence—and swag.

Several Jays players say they notice a palpably different energy level in the clubhouse on the days he pitches. When one of them makes a particularly good play in the field, Stroman is the first to let the defender know how much he appreciates the effort. He hollers at himself, hollers at his teammates and every now and again, he gets caught up in the moment and chirps at an opponent, too.

"Probably the other guys don't like it, but that's their problem," Jays infielder Ryan Goins says. "He'll let us know that the other team has no chance."

Blue Jays players say they feel a different type of energy on days Stroman pitches.
Blue Jays players say they feel a different type of energy on days Stroman pitches.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In a game against the Oakland Athletics during his rookie season in 2014, Stroman engaged in a tiff with slugger Josh Donaldson, who had doubled earlier in the contest and came to the plate in a big spot with a runner on second base. Stroman fanned him, let out an exuberant yell and, when Donaldson stared him down, removed his glove and looked as if to say, "Bring it."

When the Blue Jays acquired Donaldson that November, many wondered how it would go with the two combatants now in the same clubhouse. How it went was that once they got to know each other, the two All-Star-caliber players became fast friends and terrific teammates.

"I love Donaldson," Stroman says. "I love how competitive he is. The edge he brings to our team is unbelievable, and that just shows you that between the lines, anything kind of goes. It's just a matter of knowing how to turn it on and off."

Even today, when someone brings up their past, the two still will have a quick laugh about it.

"That's why I try not to judge anyone until you actually meet him," Stroman says. "You never know what he's gone through or the experiences he's had to get to that point until you learn for yourself from a first-person perspective."

It's how, after he opted to play for Team USA in the WBC instead of Puerto Rico (his mother is Puerto Rican, thus making him eligible for that team), he and the Puerto Rico players could engage in public trash-talking during the WBC title game and yet emerge with no hard feelings. Every time Stroman threw a ball, many in the Puerto Rico dugout were informing him, in Spanish, that, essentially, they don't swing at that junk.

While Puerto Rico players verbally sparred with Stroman during the WBC, they congratulated him after he won the championship game.
While Puerto Rico players verbally sparred with Stroman during the WBC, they congratulated him after he won the championship game.Harry How/Getty Images

"Obviously, we were trying to get to him," says Cubs second baseman Javier Baez, one of the ringleaders that night in the Puerto Rico dugout. "I know him pretty well. After the game, I went up to him and I told him I was trying to get to him, and he just started laughing. I congratulated him."

Weeks later, Stroman chuckles.

"It's never too much," Stroman says of the jabbering and emotions on the mound. "Everything I do on the mound is authentic. It's me having fun with the game of baseball. It's me being myself. It's me letting myself show.

"A lot of times in this game, baseball wants to corner you and say you're supposed to act a certain way. And by doing so, it takes away from how you perform. It takes away from the level you could possibly get to when you allow yourself to show your emotions."

Yes, swag accompanies Stroman. Always has. You do not operate your own clothing line without it. Trademarked by Stroman in 2015 (and run by his mother Adlin Auffant, his sister Sabria Santos and his brother-in-law Adam Abdat during the season), HDMH: Height Doesn't Measure Heart extends his brand in ways that go beyond simple threads.

"It's more about the message than anything," says Stroman, who acknowledges that his house sometimes resembles a warehouse. "It shows people what I'm really about."

   

ONE DAY, AND it is coming, there will be no debate. Those in and out of the game will not be divided into old school and new school. There will be only one camp, and it will be the camp of baseball, a place where cultures have melted together and a slugger will not have to fear retaliation at the plate because he dared to smile and shout while celebrating a double.

Young players and fans do not frown and scowl, and they do not traffic in the unwritten rules of the game—or, of decorum. Many are expressive, and so many revel in the emotions that become not only a celebration of the sport but also a celebration of life itself. Stroman's talent places him on the extreme end of those who can lead the way in connecting with and winning a new generation of fans. His interest in social media, creating a personal brand and the greater good of all things baseball make him not just a willing participant but also an eager one.

"Absolutely, I feel like I'm part of the young wave in MLB, young stars," he says. "You have so many of them now to attract peopleMike Trout, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman ... You have so many young guys—Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, that entire Cubs team—they are unbelievable. They're ... all in their early to mid-20s, and these are who the kids are growing up with. They're watching each and every day, and they see the passion and emotion they play with.

"A couple of years ago, it was different. It might not have been as showy or as emotional like it is today. But obviously, there is a balance. It can't be too much. There are certain things—going over the top—where you can't disrespect the other team. Just as long as it's good-natured and it's in the moment and it's meant for you and your teammates and it's about celebrating a big out or a home run or a big pitch in a big time, then why not?"

Stroman majored in sociology and minored in markets and management studies at Duke. He's applied several of the principles he learned in his marketing classes to his HDMH business, and the sociology classes fed his interest in the world around him.

"I really love people, love meeting new people, and I love learning about how groups of people think," Stroman says. "I loved being a sociology major because I felt it put me in a better position to see the world, how society essentially is played out. Just because you may think that a situation is supposed to work out a certain way, it might not because of how society views things. Which is crazy."

Within the mishmash of cultures and beliefs that encompass the game's society, Leyland, incidentally, is not the only graybeard who has become enamored with Stroman. Buck Martinez is 68, played 17 seasons in the bigs (1969-1986), managed the Blue Jays during two summers (2001-02) and piloted the inaugural Team USA WBC club in 2006. From his nightly perch in the Jays' television booth, he appreciates Stroman for who he is, not what the old school may want him to be.

"I think in this generation we need to allow people to be themselves," Martinez says. "That's what the fans want to see. They want to see genuine emotion.

"We saw it in the WBC, and I think that's where everybody stepped back and said, 'You know what? This isn't a bad thing.' The NBA does it. The NHL does it. Football people do it. And baseball's always been behind the curve because they've said you've gotta respect the game. Well, what's that mean? ...

"[Baltimore Orioles manager] Buck Showalter talks about it all the time. He says, 'Every once in a while, I'll see somebody do something and I'll look down the bench to see if it bothers my players. And if it doesn't bother my players, it shouldn't bother me.'"

And Showalter is the guy who, while managing the New York Yankees in the early 1990s, publicly chastised Ken Griffey Jr. for daring to wear his cap backward during batting practice. Now 61, Showalter understands that any sort of litmus test for "respecting the game" is firmly going the way of flannel uniforms and artificial turf.

While Stroman is a break from the past (he says he fully intends to pursue a music career "when the time comes"), his rap life, he says, "is nonexistent right now. In-season, it's baseball, baseball, baseball." No matter how much of a modernist he is with his behavior on the mound, what could be more respectful of the game than that?

Just as the reserved Griffey steered the game through the '90s with his outsize talent, 1,000-watt smile and Nike branding, Stroman is among those who have everything it takes to become one of today's modern, multithreat poster boys. The game, the swag, the smarts, the sauce.

"[A] guy like Marcus, I don't call it changing, I call it evolving," Stud says. "This kid is a well-educated, family-minded, African-American adult who battled his way to the top. He's somebody you should root for."

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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