The 6ix

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Marcus Stroman, Pitcher / Toronto Blue Jays - The Players' Tribune

I’m going to tell you something you probably didn’t know.

Toronto is a baseball city.

No, I’m serious. I know you probably don’t know this — especially if you don’t live here. You have to really experience it to know what I’m talking about. But just trust me.

Toronto. Is. A. Baseball. City.

Don’t believe me?

Check this out …

It’s the night before Game 1 of the 2015 ALDS against the Rangers. First time since 1993 — since Joe Carter — that the Blue Jays are in the postseason. You can feel the buzz around the city.

Some of my teammates and I go to the Air Canada Centre for the Maple Leafs game. The Leafs hooked us up, too. We got Leafs jerseys with our names on the back and everything. It was awesome.

So you got me and a bunch of my guys coolin’ it up in the box, and the arena goes dark. Up on the jumbotron, they play this sick Blue Jays hype video, wishing us luck in the postseason.

But that’s not even the coolest part.

After the video, the lights come back on and the camera pans to us up in the box. So we’re on the jumbotron, and the whole building goes nuts. Everybody’s clapping, cheering — the crowd just lost it.

Then the puck drops, and the whole arena breaks out in a chant.

Let’s go, Blue Jays!

Let’s go, Blue Jays!

I got chills.

We had a Blue Jays chant going … in a hockey arena … in Canada.

That’s baseball city status.

But Toronto isn’t just a baseball city. Let’s face it: Hockey is No. 1 in Canada. So Toronto is a hockey city. It’s also a basketball city these days with all the buzz around what Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are doing with the Raps. Then you got Drake, Bieber, The Weeknd — so it’s also a music city. It’s a fashion city. A food city.

And across all these industries, everybody shows love.

The Leafs show love to the Blue Jays. Drake and the other artists show love to us and the Raps. Nobody’s trying to dominate the city. They just rep The 6ix. And if you also rep The 6ix, they got your back.

Nothin’ but love.

That’s why Toronto is my favorite city.

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Which I can say truthfully because when I got drafted by the Blue Jays out of Duke in 2012, I was pretty upset about it. I didn’t want to go to Canada. I didn’t know anything about Toronto. All I knew was that it wasn’t New York, where I’m from. It wasn’t Duke. It was Canada. It was a different country.

But like I said, to understand Toronto, you have to really experience Toronto. You have to be there.

When I got called up in 2014, that’s when I got to truly experience Toronto, and I learned that it’s such a hip and trendy city — very up on the times. Perfect for a young guy like me. It’s a small city in the sense that it’s not overwhelming. I live right downtown, so I’m a five-minute walk from the Rogers Centre or a Raps game or a Leafs game. I’m 10 minutes from the sickest restaurants in the city.

I just fell in love.

I remember the first time I really felt like Toronto was my city. I had been up in the major leagues for about three months, and it was one of those Toronto summer days — afternoon game, sun out, dome open. We played the Tigers and I threw against Max Scherzer. I went nine innings, gave up two runs on four hits. I didn’t get the win, but we won in extra innings.

To understand Toronto, you have to really experience Toronto. You have to be there.

That was the game where I realized, I’m here to stay. I’m here to not only play, but I’m here to dominate.

That was the day I knew I belonged in the major leagues.

After the game, me and my guy Aaron Sanchez (#StroChez) went to Oasis, the rooftop patio over at Wayne Gretzky’s, to eat. There were tons of Blue Jays fans, some wearing my jersey. The highlights from the game came on TV, and everybody stopped what they were doing. It was surreal to be sitting there, seeing everybody so tuned in and cheering, knowing that it had been me out on the mound in that game.

People were looking at the TV, then looking back at us. They recognized me and Sanchy and started coming up to us to say what’s up. And everybody was so cool. Just giving love. It was awesome.

That was the day I knew I belonged in Toronto.

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Those two moments — out on the rooftop that night in 2014 and at the Leafs game a year later — are both so gratifying for me, but for very different reasons.

After that night on the rooftop, I felt like I had made it. I was at home on the mound, and in my city.

But in between that night and that Leafs game, I had probably the craziest year of my life.

***

“It’s torn.”

One tug. That’s all it took from the doctor. No MRI. No nothing. One tug on my leg, and he knew.

“You tore your ACL.”

It was spring training in 2015 and I had run off the mound towards the third base line to field a routine bunt. Josh Donaldson called me off. I planted my left foot in the grass to stop, and …

Pop.

“You’re done for the year.”

I always have a great attitude. I’m always positive and upbeat. That’s just me. But when I heard those words — “It’s torn” — I just sank. I don’t even know what I was feeling. It was this frustration and sadness and disappointment, all mashed together into this one heavy feeling I had never felt before. I train like no other — I’m not afraid to say that because I know the work I put in. And the fact that I was going to miss the entire season made it feel like all that work I had put in that previous season was just … a waste.

I was in line to be the Opening Day starter, too. Against the Yankees. In New York, my hometown.

I was crushed.

Then, an idea popped into my head, and I thought, Wait, this is perfect.

Like I said, I’m a positive guy. So even when I do get down, I don’t stay down for long. I’m going to find a way to spin it in a positive way.

So I called my mom.

“Let’s get the ball rolling on Duke.”

I had always wanted to go back to Duke to finish my degree in Sociology. That’s why I went to Duke in the first place. Sure, the goal was always to get drafted and play in the major leagues. But I went to Duke to get a degree. I even overloaded while I was there so that when I left early for the draft, I only had five classes left to graduate.

I had already found my silver lining. I could go back to Duke, rehab with world-class doctors, and get my degree while I’m at it.

Perfect.

Then I looked at my calendar, and I circled September 19.

I’d heard about guys coming back six months after ACL surgery, and September 19 was exactly six months from March 19, the day for which my surgery was scheduled.

I just thought about my guys in the clubhouse. I knew what a special team we had. I could feel it. We could feel it.

So I decided I was going to be one of those guys — one of those six-month-rehab guys.

And I was going to do everything in my power to get back.

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That summer was the most work I’ll ever have to do in my life. People will never understand that because they weren’t there to see it — the only people who were there were my doctors and my best friend, Ryan, who was there with me the entire summer. But believe me when I tell you, it was a grind — I’ll never face anything more challenging than that schedule that I was on from sunup to sundown.

Weight room in the morning. Classes at Duke during the day for 4–5 hours. More rehab at night. I needed five classes to complete my degree, and there were two summer sessions. Normally you’re only allowed to take two classes per summer session, but Duke made an exception because of my circumstances, and they let me take three classes in one of those sessions so I could get my five for the summer.

But there were no handouts. I did everything just like I was a normal student. No special treatment. And it was an unbelievable amount of work.

As the summer progressed, I saw my teammates start piling up the wins. I was already going hard, grinding to get back. And seeing them win motivated me to go even harder.

It was such a fluke of an injury. A routine bunt, and … pop. But after that, everything worked out about as perfectly as it could have. I worked like a madman in the gym. I was able to get my degree from Duke. The team was on the road to the postseason, and when I came back there was a spot in the rotation waiting for me.

I had September 19 circled on my calendar.

On September 12, I made my first major league start after ACL surgery.

Against the Yankees.

In New York.

The start I would have made on Opening Day.

And I got the win.

***

“Make them eat their words.”

My dad always told me that growing up.

From a very young age, he told me that I was never going to be the biggest guy in the room. People would always tell me I was too small. I would always have to play with a chip on my shoulder. With confidence. Sometimes, cockiness.

We’re going to let our emotions show. And if you have a problem with that, you’re going to have to deal with it.

He was right.

So I played how he taught me to play.

I don’t believe in stereotypes. I’m 5′ 8″. That’s short for a pitcher. But I can do everything a 6′ 6″ guy can do. And just as well. Maybe better.

I remember my dad would get frustrated sometimes when I was a kid because, when he was training me, we would outwork all the other kids, but that didn’t stop people from judging me and categorizing me. They’d say I couldn’t do this or that because I was “too small.” Or that I had a low ceiling because I “didn’t have the size” to be an elite player.

My dad took that personally. And we would work even harder.

In high school, I would read every negative thing written about me. About how I wouldn’t make it at Duke. How I wasn’t good enough to play in the ACC. Even in the minors, I remember all the top 100 prospect lists I got left off. I would read everything and use it as fuel.

This is all stuff that’s in the back of my head when I’m on the mound.

“Make them eat their words.”

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Our team is a lot like that, too. We’re very aware of the outside noise that gets attached to our team — that it’s the Red Sox and Yankees’ division, and we just play in it. But the noise doesn’t affect us. It motivates us. We’re just going to do everything in our power to go out there and get a win every day. We’re going to have fun with it. We’re going to let our personality show. We’re going to let our emotions show.

And if you have a problem with that, you’re going to have to deal with it.

That’s why I think we’re as good as we are.

That’s why I think we can do something special.

It all comes down to the motto I live by: HDMH — Height Doesn’t Measure Heart.

I’ll never be the biggest guy on the field. But I’m going to go out every day and compete like I am. And Toronto will never be the biggest city. We’re not New York. We’re not Boston. We’re not Chicago.

We’re Toronto.

And we’re out to show everybody what that means.

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