Jan. 10, 2015
By Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
Pardon me, but I’ve just had a real foot-in-mouth moment.
Speaking with Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey at the recently held National Coaching Clinic in Toronto, I make the mistake of bringing up “the ninth-inning.”
Of course, I’m referring to the final inning of his 2015 season - Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
More than three months have passed since the Jays 2015 campaign came to an end, yet those final moments continue to conjure up polarizing memories of being oh-so-close.
For Jays fans, it was a season that never felt like it was going to end. Then, just like that, it did.
But no matter how many bottles you threw at the wall or how many TVs you smashed (oh, was that just me?) be glad you didn’t have to experience the agony of that moment quite like Pompey.
“Man, it was tough,” he tells me. What else is there to say? “They made good pitches.”
You can see the hints of despair on Pompey’s face as he too is transported back to that moment:
Trailing by one run in the ninth, the Mississauga, Ont. native stole second and third with nobody out after pinch-running for Russell Martin, who led off the inning with a single.
However, from his vantage point a mere 90-feet away from home plate, Pompey could do nothing more than watch as his team’s dream season unravelled.
Do I even need to remind you ... ?
Dioner Navarro struck out . Ben Revere struck out (after a questionable strike two). Josh Donaldson groundout.
The season, c’est fini.
The Kansas City Royals ran onto the field to celebrate their second straight American League championship, while Pompey made the short and final walk from third base to the dugout.
After realizing my blunder by making him relive all this, I simultaneously conclude that in 23 years no Blue Jay has technically been closer to the World Series than Dalton Pompey. (I decide it wise to keep that epiphany to myself).
Yet, through it all he still attempts to lighten the mood.
“The guys like to joke,” he says. “They tell me I’m still standing on third.”
For Pompey to even have found himself in such a lucrative and potentially heroic position (let alone to have the guts to steal two bases with the season on the line), can only speak to his rapid personal growth as a player.
There was a point, not long before, when the opportunity for him to be a playoff contributor seemed not only unlikely, but downright impossible.
At only 22 years of age, Pompey broke from Spring Training as the team’s starting centre fielder - a spot, I remind you, he was never guaranteed.
But, almost immediately after the real season started, so too did his struggles.
He hit just .203 and struck out 20 times during the month of April. Even his defense, something that had always been a strength of Pompey’s growing up, became a liability.
The change in Pompey’s demeanour was evident, and prompted supportive comments from some of his friends and teammates.
Fellow Blue Jays rookie and good friend Devon Travis told reporters at the time that he thought Pompey was “probably putting a little extra pressure on himself.”
Travis, who went through a similar rough patch in the minor leagues, went on to say that it can be “hard to sleep at night” when a player goes through such a tough stretch.
After a particularly trying game against the Atlanta Braves on April 19th, Pompey himself confessed that he felt as if he was afraid of making mistakes - a recipe for disaster at the big league level.
In that incredibly candid moment, he admitted to reporters that he was “playing scared.” Less than two weeks later, he was sent down to the minors.
When the news of the demotion broke, Pompey posted a simple message to his twitter account:
“Nobody said it was going to be easy.”
That post turned out to be rather prophetic, as his confidence, swing, and glove did not appear to instantly return.
After 23 games with the AAA Buffalo Bisons, he was sent to AA New Hampshire, where he played 31 games for the Fisher Cats before heading back to Buffalo.
Forty-two more games with the Bisons (96 minor league games in total), and 2015 would finally grant him his chance at big league redemption.
Pompey was called to rejoin the Blue Jays when MLB rosters expanded in September, which could not have been an easy transition for any player, let alone one who may have recently been battling some confidence issues. He was not only joining a team that was currently on one of its greatest runs in franchise history, but one that was also in the midst of a heated pennant race with the New York Yankees.
Despite the pressure of the situation, Pompey appeared in 11 games down the stretch and apparently showed enough promise - mainly, his blazing speed - to warrant a spot on the club’s playoff roster.
Some would say, ‘redemption complete’. Others ... well they may feel more inclined to see what 2016 has in store.
Pompey proceeds to tell me that his goals for this season are different. They revolve more around developing a mindset rather than mechanics.
“My personal goals would be about showing up everyday and having fun,” Pompey says.
He admits that it’s been easy for him to take the game too seriously at times - perhaps something that may have held him back last year.
“It is our job, but at the end of the day it’s about enjoying your teammates and enjoying the times that you have. Because they don’t last forever. That’s going to be my mindset going forward, we’ll see where it takes me.”
He’s even decided to change his number from 45 to 23. An insignificant fact? Perhaps. Yet it could also be indicative of his willingness to change and adapt as a player. Only Pompey knows for sure.
Either way, with former Jays outfielder and leadoff hitter Ben Revere having been recently dealt to the Washington Nationals, the team has to hope that this revamped attitude will help Pompey become a key contributor, whether that’s as a starter or a dynamic option off the bench.
He’s personally not aloof of this fact either. He knows that Revere’s departure creates opportunities for guys like himself and fellow Canadian outfielder Michael Saunders - who spent the vast majority of 2015 on the disabled list.
Pompey doesn’t shy away from telling me that he’s had plenty of experiencing hitting leadoff in the past (hint, hint Gibby?).
“I enjoy it. For me, it’s more about getting in the game right away, not having to sit.”
There’s no doubt that his speed would be a great asset at the top of any order, provided that he can get on base.
But no matter where he plays or what his role is, one thing is clear. Pompey has faith that the Jays can build on the success of last season.
I ask him blatantly, with the Boston Red Sox and Yankees also bolstering their roster, can the Jays repeat as division champs?
“Obviously I believe in this team,” Pompey responds. “I think we’re capable of doing what we did [in 2015]. We have the same core group of guys that are coming back and now we all know what it takes to win and get there. I think it’s very possible. As long as everybody stays healthy I don’t see why we can’t push farther and deeper into the playoffs than we did this past season.”
It should be noted, he could already provide off-hand the projected date when the Jays might first see Red Sox pitcher, and former Blue Jay, David Price.
But whether he’ll get the opportunity to face him or not ... that remains to be seen.