When a team is as full of new faces as the Blue Jays were at the start of 2015 (Marco Estra-what? Michael Saunders who?) I try to wait a while before singling out a favourite. But that was made very difficult by the arrival of a then-24-year-old eager young pup named Devon Travis.
It sounds silly now, but at first glance, I found him to be outwardly similar to Russell Martin. Both were new to the team, both are somewhat shorter than their teammates, both had beards at the time, and both have warm, friendly smiles. While I’m still very fond of Russell (we share a last name and a nationality, how could I not be), ‘Devo’ soon blossomed to be my favourite.
It’s always dangerous to pin high hopes on a rookie, especially one who’s never played a single game above Double-A, but Travis lived up to the high bar he set by hitting a home run on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. That was his first-ever major league hit, by the way. In his third-ever major league at-bat. He was only the fourth-ever Blue Jay to homer in his major league debut.
If his season hadn’t been cut short by that weirdly hopping ball in Cleveland – and if a seemingly unexplainable shoulder issue hadn’t cropped up two months later, I can all but guarantee he would have gotten some Rookie of the Year votes. He was named the AL Rookie of the Month for April prior to being hurt.
In spite of the injuries (in 14 games in May he had just 10 hits), he still managed to keep his batting average for the season above .300. He reached the 5 home run milestone on April 24th – sooner than anyone else on the team – then added a 6th for good measure before the month was over.
This is not to knock Ryan Goins, whose defense I have always been a fan of (and whose hitting took a turn for the better last August), but Travis did a pretty solid job defensively as well. In 510 innings playing second base, he made six errors. The first of those wasn’t until after he was hurt, and the remaining five came within a week of his return from the DL. He made some remarkable leaping snags – remember, he’s only 5 foot 9 – and reliably backed up plays that his teammates failed to make.
Off the field, even in pre-season promos – whether he was doing interviews or leading an instructional camp at a Toronto school – he just radiated joy. There are some players who are so dialed-in, so focused, that you almost wonder if they’re actually enjoying themselves. Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with that – it takes all kinds to make a ballclub – but Travis sets himself apart by his enthusiasm. While it’s hard to pinpoint the source of his likability, Arden Zwelling put it excellently on Sportsnet’s At the Letters podcast, saying ‘Every time you talk to him, it’s the best day of his life’. There can never be a doubt on anyone’s mind that the guy just adores baseball. While there was a lot of the typical ‘aw-shucks’ rookie gratitude at the beginning of the year, it seemed genuine and brought a level of humility to him that I couldn’t help but like.
For some reason, he brings out a big-sisterly side of me (which is odd because he’s actually two years older). All I want is for him to do well. Only someone who truly loved the game would play as long as he did before seeking help for his ailing shoulder. Only a guy who wanted to get back onto the field as soon as possible would subject himself to all those surgeries and procedures in the hopes that something, anything would make him better again.
Which explains why he continued to play after he got hurt. Call it rookie bravado, call it naiveté – he admitted afterwards that he didn’t know how the DL worked – but he didn’t want to tell anyone when he was in pain, instead opting to ‘just play through it’. On some level he was trying to be brave just so he could do what he loved (like me when I sprained my ankle three weeks before prom and downplayed it because I REALLY wanted to wear my 4-inch heels. I wound up being fine. Him, not so much.) He made that sacrifice just so no one would tell him he had to sit out. Heck, even after that grounder hit him in the collarbone, he STAYED IN THE GAME until 3 innings later when it became clear how much it hurt him to swing.
And through it all, he’s managed to publicly keep up a brave face, always smiling, cheerful and optimistic. Look no farther than the grinning Instagram photo with his rookie teddy bear he shared from his hospital bed before going for exploratory surgery in September – and the caption.
He gave numerous interviews on the radio, on Sportsnet, and even on the odd podcast. Remaining incredibly upbeat, gracious, and polite, he spoke of how in awe he was of his teammates. He was overwhelmed by support from Torontonians, and thrilled to be playing in the majors. It’s hard not to root for a guy like that.
He live-tweeted the pennant race and playoffs, like he was just one of the fans taking joy from every moment. But when playing in the MLB is all you’ve dreamed of your whole life, your couch isn’t where you want to be.
Throughout the playoffs, he described the helplessness of watching the Jays battle back from 0-2 in the ALDS. He spoke of how strange it felt to be watching from home, instead of on the field taking part in history. I was overjoyed that he was able to be in the Baltimore dugout on September 30th (my birthday!) as they clinched the division, and welled up watching him, arm in sling, go around hugging his teammates after the victory. I was happy he got to share in that moment, and he probably was too. But afterwards, seeing everyone else accomplish something he himself should have been a part of, must have felt nothing short of lonely. It clearly killed him not to be out there, with his teammates, playing the game he’s devoted his life to.
Let his story be a cautionary tale to young players – if you’re hurt, tell someone. Instead of overworking his shoulder in the next few weeks and probably aggravating the problem farther, he could have been receiving therapy for it. He might have been disappointed to be shut down right away, but he also likely would have made it back a lot earlier than June 26th. In the meantime, his offense took a nosedive and people were criticizing him – ‘What’s with this kid, how come he suddenly can’t swing a bat?’. But no wonder, he was in a lot of pain. He just wasn’t letting on.
The story arc of a young athlete who shows promise, then suffers a devastating injury, is as old as professional sport itself. But seeing it happen right in front of your eyes, to someone you’re incredibly fond of, no less, is heartbreaking.
That’s why, in the aftermath of the Game 6 defeat in Kansas City, when I sat at my computer and tweeted a thank-you to every last Blue Jay, I was so happy to get the notification that he’d favourited my tweet (yes, they were still called ‘favourites’ in those days).
When you’re hurt or sick, people tend to say ‘Get well soon’. While their hearts are in the right place, it can absolutely be frustrating when that’s all you’re trying to do, but some measure of it is beyond your control. I didn’t want to do that. All I wanted to do was say ‘thank you’. To let him know that I was happy we had him, and that he was missed. I was glad that he knew some of us hadn’t forgotten about him. Although my message was a minor thing, and came after such a heartbreaking defeat, I hope it buoyed his spirits even slightly. Because every time he sets foot on the diamond, he certainly lifts mine.
Keep smiling, Devon. We’re all rooting for you. I hope you never lose that sparkle in your eye or the spring in your step. I’m proud to call you a Blue Jay, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
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