John Gibbons didn't have to ask anybody about Brett Lawrie's reputation. He'd heard about it second-hand and seen it when it made the news in 2012 – such as when his tossed helmet bounced and hit home plate umpire Bill Miller during a disputed strike call. Everybody, it seemed, had something to say about Lawrie and soon after Gibbons was appointed manager one Toronto newspaper forecast that the manager and his hot-headed third baseman were destined to clash.
It was though the ghosts of Shea Hillebrand and Ted Lilly had come back dressed up as a tattooed, barrel-chested, Popeye-armed third baseman. "Everybody told me about him," Gibbons said Friday, after Lawrie slugged his first home run of the spring in a 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. "Thing is, I think he's right where he needs to be this spring. In fact it's funny; I think he's slowed down a little bit. At least he seems more relaxed than what I expected."
The good news through a week of meaningless games is that it has not escaped Gibbons' attention that the Blue Jays are still showing the characteristic sloppiness of John Farrell's tenure. Bone-headed, base-running wanderlust, happy-hands infield defence (14 errors in eight games) and over-reaction to border-line pitches by the likes of Jose Bautista– there is still some expunging to be done, folks. There is time, thank goodness. The better news is that Lawrie has so far avoided falling into some of the traps of 2012. Whether it's the proximity of 15-year veteran Mark De Rosa, whose spring training locker was deliberately put next to Lawrie's as is also expected to be the case at the Rogers Centre, or the approach of the World Baseball Classic, the Langley, B.C., native seems to have fit in to a clubhouse whose transformation has only seemed to reinforce the callowness of his game and development as a professional – yet doing so in a manner that offers not cause for concern, but rather cause for hope.
One of his closest friends on the team, J.P. Arencibia, has maintained there is a depth of baseball moxie to Lawrie that is not always recognized. He was not surprised during an early round of live batting practice against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to see Lawrie moving up and then back in the batter's box, eventually becoming the first person in camp to make solid contact against Dickey.
"R.A. was the first guy I saw live in spring training," Lawrie said, chuckling. "I just wanted to see what happened if I moved up a bit against him. I was comfortable, I thought, hitting against Tim Wakefield, because he usually threw a knuckleball just one speed. R.A. has that fastball he'll zip in on you. He's got some other stuff besides just one speed."
The unravelling of Lawrie's 2012 season pretty much mirrored that of the Blue Jays, whether it was helmet-tossing, getting caught making bad base-running decisions on balls in front of him – famously making an out at third base in a game against the Boston Red Sox that for many people summed up the sloppiness of the team, and was an incident that many read as spurring Omar Vizquel to make his comments critical of a clubhouse culture that was short on accountability – or putting himself in the type of harm's way that mitigates against a long career, it was easy to assume that Lawrie was the guy being spoken about when former manager John Farrell was in some of his final pre-game media sessions and was giving his state of the team summations. "What was said will remain between us," Farrell said when asked about Lawrie's exit interview.
Lawrie became a big deal almost by default last season, in large measure because other than slugger Jose Bautista there really wasn't much in the way of star power. In the fantastical minds of some followers, Lawrie was going to be a Canadian-born version of Bryce Harper. Not quite – although De Rosa, who was a teammate of Harper's with the Washington Nationals, isn't quite so dismissive of the comparison.
"They have very similar personalities," De Rosa said earlier this week. "Bryce is a little more laid back than Brett is, but their passion for the game – their passion for wanting to be the best there is, for playing the game hard and wanting to play it the right way – is very similar."
De Rosa laughed when he was asked what he thought of his new teammate.
"I think he's an animal," De Rosa said. "When we're out there taking infield together, it's like he has enough energy for the both of us. From what I've seen, there's nothing he can't do on the field. His talent is off the charts.
"But, there are times when you have to pull in the reins a bit. Hopefully, I can become a sounding board for him when he needs to talk. Maybe pass some nuggets along the way that can help him break out. He has a God-given ability to hit the ball a long way, to play an unbelievable third base. Tools-wise? He does everything you can do on the field. I guess what I'd like to do is expedite things."
Lawrie has spent the spring getting ready for the WBC. Sunday, he and the rest of the Canadian team will gather in Arizona for a training camp. Their first game is March 8. For that reason, he has focused on seeing as many pitches as possible in Grapefruit League games and in batting practice. "The intensity level's going to go up pretty quickly," he said. "Everybody's going to be going pretty hard down there. You want to be in some kind of rhythm."
Gibbons has inherited a lineup full of speed – Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis – that will feature four switch-hitters. The top four is set and Lawrie could find himself hitting anywhere from fifth to seventh. But wherever he bats, Lawrie has already brought into the message that in 2013 it is about making the playoffs and winning a championship; if he needs added motivation, he can find it through the knowledge that nobody is yet talking about giving him the kind of multiyear, arbitration-covering contract that organizations give young, cornerstone players.
Last year was about hard-selling Lawrie to fans; this year it's apparent it will be a soft sell.
Lawrie has heard loud and clear Gibbons's message that errors in the field cost pitches and errors on the basepaths cost runs. He is aware of what happened this winter, and what the overhaul means to him.
"You look at all the talent and the experience on this team, and really all we have to do is just do what each of us are capable of doing," Lawrie said. "No one needs to do above and beyond what they can do. If we try to do things outside of our comfort zone, and try to force the issue? That's when things can go south."
Nobody, it seems, need tell this to Lawrie, and that in itself is a good sign. Do not bet against Lawrie giving people something else to talk about in 2013.