Page 85 - Sharp September 2021
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“The pandemic exposed our need for connection because guys typically bond shoulder to shoulder”
especially challenging during COVID, when players were scared, alone, and confused.
“It’s been two years that we’ve been away from Toronto, and it hasn’t been easy. But the guys have done a good job sticking together and staying focused and I think that’s because they get along so well,” he says, adding that you can see the selflessness of his players in the way Guerrero famously takes his at-bats. Guerrero is currently enjoying one of the finest seasons in baseball — he was leading the American League in hits, batting average, and RBIs when we spoke — but Montoyo says that what he leaves at the plate is just as impressive as what he takes.
“Vlad Guerrero, probably one of the best players in baseball — when he goes to the plate, if he doesn’t get the pitches that he wants, he just takes a walk and leaves it for the next guy, and that’s teamwork,” says Montoyo, whose closest friends to this day are his former teammates, including those from a stint with the Montreal Expos in 1993. All relationships require teamwork and reciprocity, but it’s hard to be close friends with someone you compete with. On a baseball team, says Montoyo, the guys help one another. If you play the game correctly, everyone wins. “Vlady’s approach at the plate is telling the team, ‘I’m not going to chase pitches. I believe in you guys behind me.’”
Andrew Reiner is an expert on men’s health and the author of
Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Great- er Courage & Emotional Resiliency. Reiner, who also teaches the “Changing Face of Masculinity” at Towson University, says the pan- demic placed renewed importance on the famous Thoreau quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“The pandemic exposed our need for connection because guys typically bond shoulder to shoulder — having a beer, gaming, mountain biking, working out. So the physical distance drove a wedge between us and our go-tos for feeling connected, less lone- ly,” says Reiner. “But the pandemic also did something else — the isolation was a splash of cold water in our faces. It reminded us of just how emotionally disconnected we are from our friends — and from ourselves.”
That disconnection, says Reiner, can be hard to identify, but seeps into our lives like an invisible ache. Of course, when we’re hurting, that makes it hard to perform, and while we might not be suffering from acute depression, it certainly — as anyone who lived through the pandemic can attest — makes life a grind. Montoyo says he is paid to keep those emotions at bay on the Toronto Blue Jays. Bo Bichette, the team’s shortstop and the guy in front of Guerrero in the batting order (he leads the American League in runs scored thanks to the hot bat of his friend), says teamwork goes beyond hitting the cut-off man. Bo knows guys on a baseball team live through a version of what men at the same company experience in the workforce, but with a dab of what it must be like being in a platoon at war, touring as a band, or making a big-budget Hollywood film.
“We’ve got each other’s backs,” says Bichette, proud that he’s picked up enough broken Spanish to communicate with the Do- minican players on his team, including Guerrero. “We play hard and care about each other, and that’s important. Not for individual success, but for the success of the team.”
During COVID, adds Guerrero, the Jays obviously couldn’t leave their bubble, so they’d order food for one another when getting de- livery to the hotel. Like real friends, they think of each other: when the team was travelling, they decided together on the dress code. “I think we actually became better friends due to COVID,” says Guerrero. “We had to rely on each other because we didn’t have anyone else.”
Players always talk about trust. It’s at the centre of any rela- tionship. But the pandemic raised the stakes of their honesty. If someone on the Blue Jays broke protocol, they could infect everyone else. Bichette says it never even came up.
“With all of the negatives surrounding our situation, we de- cided, as a team, to turn that into a positive,” he says, adding that the team, as a group, under Montoyo’s leadership, decided to keep things light. “There’s a little bit of a kid vibe. We get our work done and compete as hard as we can and play to win, but we play the game like kids, have fun, and root each other on. It makes it a joy to be on this team.”
Joy is an interesting, perhaps overused, word, and Reiner says it’s a step beyond what men should shoot for. Happiness, also, is a lark. If we expect our friendships to be like the Fast & Furious and our marriage to be like the Obamas and our kids to be like the Trudeaus and our fathers to be like Walter Gretzky, we’re screwed. Even Vladimir Guerrero can’t bat 1000. The Blue Jays expect to take losses. Feeling bad is part of life.
“We can’t always be happy, nor should we expect to be. Con- tentment should be the goal — contentment means that we’ve come to peace and acceptance with the reality that life will suck at times, there will be suffering, and that’s okay because it’s part of being alive,” Reiner says. “That said, if we’re also living authentically, then we’re at peace with the decisions we’ve made, with who we are becoming and how we’re living alongside our struggles. Contentment,” he continues, “is what’s key to success in life.”
The Toronto Blue Jays are obviously successful. They’re rich. They’re healthy. They spend their lives playing a game, and they’re bearing down on a pennant race. But even the best teams, the closest friends, fall apart. Guerrero and Bichette are both playing out one- year contracts that expire at the end of the season, and both are looking for more money. George Springer — the highest-paid Blue Jay, who the team picked up this year from Houston — is earning more than $20 million. Obviously, Bo and Vlady have to look out for themselves. But right now, back home in Toronto with an arm around his buddy, Guerrero says that he’s living out his dreams in more ways than one.
Growing up, he saw his father, Vlad Sr., in the dugout with his teammates on those great Montreal clubs. He witnessed first-hand endurance, streaks and slumps, and the bonds between men. He loves the sport: the sweet science, the mind games, the pressure of stepping into the box down a run with a man on and two outs in the ninth. But it wasn’t his father’s home-run trot that got Guerrero excited to play baseball; his dad was a clubhouse leader. He was a star athlete, and a good friend. “Since I was a kid, seeing my dad with his teammates meant everything to me,” says Guerrero. “I didn’t just learn how to play baseball from my father, but how to treat people. I knew those were the relationships I wanted to have.”

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