TORONTO — Justin Smoak’s timing with the Toronto Blue Jays was never quite right.
When he arrived he was one of the weaker links on the club’s strong 2015 and 2016 teams — units that could certainly have used some left-handed power against tough righties. His role player status on those elite clubs is something he’s completely forthright about.
“Honestly, I would say I was a part of it,” he said. “But I was on the back burner. We had some really good players here.”
By the time Smoak broke out and became and all-star in 2017, the Blue Jays had fallen off a cliff. Over the last three years he’s had the thankless role of “steady veteran presence” as opposed to being a guy who could really push the team forward.
And yet, despite the less-than-ideal arc of Smoak’s Toronto tenure, it’s hard to argue with what he accomplished. Coming into Sunday’s season finale he ranked 14th on the Blue Jays’ home run list, right between Shawn Green and Josh Donaldson. His wRC+ of 114 is 17th, just below guys like Jesse Barfield (118) and George Bell (117) and above big names like Adam Lind (111) and Vernon Wells (108).
Smoak is undoubtedly one of the best hitters in Blue Jays history. On Sunday, the crowd at Rogers Centre almost certainly saw him wearing the team’s colours for the last time. Smoak is a free agent in the offseason, turns 33 in December and is coming off a tough year. It’s very difficult to imagine Toronto being the best place for him to be for whatever his next chapter looks like. If the team saw him as their immediate future at first base they probably wouldn’t have played him just 14 times in September.
That situation was at the forefront of many fans’ minds when the big switch hitter strode to the plate in the first inning. The crowd responded accordingly with a robust cheer. Smoak rewarded them with one of his best at-bats of the year.
After falling behind 0-2 to reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, the first baseman fought his way back and gave the Blue Jays a 2-0 lead, setting the table for an 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was the kind of trip to the plate that shows Smoak still has something to give at the highest level, with elite discipline and just enough thump. The question of what he has left will be asked by a number of teams this offseason, and it seems unlikely the Blue Jays will be among them.
When Smoak made his final at-bat of the day, the whole crowd was wise to its significance as the decibel level soared. The 32-year-old rose to the moment with yet another double — his 105th as a Blue Jay, which tied him with Donaldson on the team’s all-time list.
“Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple blared throughout Rogers Centre and both the fans and Smoak’s teammates took a second to give some love to the veteran.
Great reaction by both the crowd and the dugout to Justin Smoak's second double. pic.twitter.com/CU6f7cA3Ln— Nick Ashbourne (@NickAshbourne) September 29, 2019
“You could see the players, how they came out because they have so much respect for that guy,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’s such a team guy, and such a professional that it was a great moment. It was great to see. I couldn’t have written that any better than how it happened.”
Not only were the Blue Jays youngsters recognizing Smoak’s accomplishments, but the role he played for the team in the clubhouse, teaching them about life inside and outside the lines — a role he had never envisioned himself filling.
"It was different. As the season progressed I feel like I got better at being that guy for them when I didn't mean to be that guy. It wasn't all about me at that point it was more 'what can I do to help?'"
Montoyo also gave the crowd another chance to honour Smoak when he pinch ran for him, sending up another cheer from around the ballpark and inside the dugout.
As Smoak embraced teammates left and right, he looked like the ‘same old Smoakie’ to Montoyo, but it would be hard to imagine there wasn’t some emotion stirring beneath his famously stoic exterior.
"Smoakie doesn't get emotional very much, and I don't even know if he was today,” Clay Buchholz said of the moment. “But if I had to take a guess I'd say he was a little bit."
"No doubt,” Smoak said with a smile. “I don't know. Nobody knows what's going to happen."
Watching the longtime Blue Jay on Sunday wasn’t really about his impressive display at the plate, though it didn’t hurt. The game was made special because of the time thousands at Rogers Centre took to appreciate his contribution to the Blue Jays. As a player, the big South Carolinian was consistently productive, occasionally spectacular, and one constant in the midst of a volatile era of Blue Jays baseball. As a person, he was about as down-to-earth as humanly possible, a favourite of two managers and countless teammates.
“Everybody likes him,” Montoyo said. “He’s always got something funny to say. He stays even keel, I think that his best quality as a person. It doesn’t matter what happens he’s always the same.”
Smoak’s name won’t reside on the Level of Excellence when he’s gone, nor will he be a defining figure in the Blue Jays mythos. Early in his time in Toronto he was overshadowed by the likes of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. When he became a middle-of-the-order threat he was playing for clubs that Blue Jays fans will seldom discuss in the years to come.
He wasn’t someone who necessarily brought anyone to the park, but rather someone they were happy to see there. From his steady game to his steadier persona, Smoak was a comfort for fans and managers alike. His presence didn’t naturally draw the most attention to Toronto, but his absence certainly won’t go unnoticed.
As for what the future holds, the first thing on the veteran’s mind is just getting home on Monday. And as for what he’s going to do when he gets there? Just about the most on-brand thing possible:
"I'm either going to be in my boat or I'm going to be in the woods. Hopefully this weather follows me down there because if it's 50 degrees the deer will be walking. I promise you that."
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