Yesterday the Toronto Blue Jays unveiled their new Player Development Complex, located at the former Bobby Mattick complex in Dunedin, Florida. The video below, clocking in at nearly four minutes, provides a comprehensive look at the state-of-the-art facility:
The Blue Jays’ high performance department
The new Player Development Complex is the culmination of years of planning and execution by the Jays’ high performance department, led by Dr. Angus Mugford. Mugford is an expert in sports psychology and high performance who joined the Blue Jays in 2015 to overhaul the way the club approached strength-and-conditioning, medical services, mental performance, and sports science. Mugford’s vision was to fundamentally shift the way minor league players were developed to capitalize on a market inefficiency – a key pillar in the Toronto Blue Jays’ culture shift. While other Major League clubs romanticized the notion of the “minor league grind” – players sleep five to a room and the four food groups consist of Kraft Dinner, McDonald’s happy meals, Mr. Noodles, and Chipotle on a good day – the Blue Jays sought to provide minor leaguers with the resources needed to succeed. Under Mugford’s leadership, nutritionists were assigned to minor league teams to ensure players were eating foods that would best help them perform and aid recovery. When players were on the road, the Blue Jays ensured the visiting clubhouse was stocked with healthy snacks. Pay for minor leaguers was increased by 50 per cent. Mental performance coaches were made available for players to consult with, because the game of baseball is as challenging mentally as it is physically.
In short, the high performance department’s mission is to help players overcome any uncertainties they have in order to consistently perform to the best of their abilities – and, as a result, contribute to the franchise’s continued success in the win column.
Old habits die hard
A prevailing ethos within baseball that lives on to this day goes a little something like this: you can’t make minor leaguers feel too comfortable or they won’t be as motivated to reach the big leagues. Around this time last year, the New York Mets made a small ripple in the baseball world by not allowing their minor leaguers to use the club’s upgraded spring training clubhouse. Per MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo:
The most striking part of the Mets' $57 million spring training renovation may be the home clubhouse. The Mets are only using it for Spring Training, not for the St. Lucie regular season, to give minor leaguers a reminder of the status they're working to earn. pic.twitter.com/k1b3vTTkj3
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 10, 2020
The underlying message here is that if a Double-A player in the Mets system gets to kick up his feet while sitting on a cushy leather sofa in a swanky clubhouse, his motivation to reach the big leagues will be diminished. What a crock of shit. This is not a viewpoint held only by the Mets, but a persistent ideology ingrained in baseball culture.
When the Blue Jays were renovating Sahlen Field in Buffalo to bring the park and player amenities up to Major League standards, there was some scuttlebutt about clubhouse upgrades being temporary to ensure the creature comforts of the Triple-A clubhouse were minimal for future Buffalo Bisons players. I don’t have a link to this, but I remember it being talked about for what it’s worth (not much).
Major League and minor league segregation
Back to the lecture at hand. While there has undoubtedly been a paradigm shift within the Blue Jays in regard to player development, the video above shows that at least one old school “baseballism” lives on: the two-tiered caste system that separates Major League players from minor leaguers. At the 2:00 mark, a beautiful and expansive Major League clubhouse is shown. At 2:27, the minor league lockers are displayed – impressive for minor leaguers, but considerably less impressive than the Major League clubhouse – and visibly separated. At 2:37, a sparkling Major League dining facility is revealed, only to be contrasted by a sparse minor league dining facility at 2:38. Why would there be a need for two separate dining facilities?
In my mind, there are two reasons that could possibly explain the structural separation between Major League players and minor leaguers. Firstly, big league players can be prima donnas and may not wish to associate with the riff raff minor leaguers. Toronto struggles to attract free agents due to Canadian taxes, the exchange rate, artificial turf, border crossings… the list goes on. It is in the team’s interest to minimize any points of friction that would add yet another reason to the list of why free agents don’t want to come to Toronto. That said, I don’t believe that having to share a dining facility with a minor league player would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a free agent considering Toronto.
The second reason is a little more nefarious. While I understand there may be logistical implications to keeping locker rooms apart, I don’t see any reason that there would need to be separate dining facilities. This could definitely be a case of, “Do you want a nice locker? Play better. Want a seat at the table with the big boys? Play better.” In other words, the hope is that keeping a minor leaguer’s conditions humble will serve as motivation for them to work harder. If that’s the case, I’m disappointed that a high performance department would still have such an antiquated mindset. Nicer clubhouses and swankier dining facilities do not deter prospects from working hard at becoming better baseball players.
While Blue Jays minor leaguers now have improved access to advanced technology, coaching, nutrition, and other performance-enhancing resources, there’s no substitute for mentorship from the people who are getting it done at the highest level. What better way for a minor leaguer to learn about baseball – and the challenges inherent in life off the field for a baseball player – than from a big leaguer? Spring training offers a rare opportunity for prospects to have access to the best players in the game. Alek Manoah, a starting pitching prospect who spent time at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site during the COVID-19-shortened season can attest to that fact:
“I got great feedback and that was amazing, because at the alternate training site we had guys like Reese McGuire, Derek Fisher, Forrest Wall, Josh Palacios — guys that are lefty hitters that can give me really good feedback on the changeup,” Manoah said. “You know, it’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it coming out of the hand?’ or [they’d say], ‘You kind of showed that one a little bit. The arm speed was good on that one.’ So being able to get that big league feedback was great for me.”
– Alek Manoah
While a formal mentorship program may very well detract from the ability of players to focus on getting ready for the season or securing a roster spot, separating current talent from future talent does no favours to the talent pipeline. How many foundational development opportunities are the Blue Jays missing out on by implementing barriers to player interaction? All things considered, maybe not a lot, since most of the learning happens on the field. But I keep thinking back to Sugar, a movie that follows a Dominican minor league baseball player as he tries to navigate American culture. One of the most memorable moments of the movie is when the protagonist struggles to order eggs in a diner because of a communication barrier with the server. I can’t help but think these types of situations could be addressed organically with a minor leaguer being able to have a chat over lunch with a big leaguer at a communal dining facility. By providing an additional venue for interaction, big leaguers can share relatable experiences and give advice to minor leaguers about overcoming the same challenges. It would only serve to inspire minor leaguers, and at the very least, make them feel less alone. By treating all players equally, the high performance department will be fulfilling its mission of helping players overcome any uncertainties – such as language barriers, financial illiteracy, cultural norms, and nuanced issues specific to being a pro ball player – in order to consistently perform to the best of their abilities.
Cool barber shop though!
Featured image credit: screenshot from the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex video