I had a breakout year in 2006, not just on the baseball field, but also off of it.
But, before there was 2006, there was 2005. (Cue dramatic music)
In 2005, for the first time in my career, I made the big league team out of spring training. I was expecting just to roll into 2005. You see, in 2004 I had a pretty good run. I was called up halfway through the season. I hit .271 with 19 home runs on a playoff team. And that was only half the year. I expected everything to go just like it did in 2005.
But, it didn’t.
The league adjusted and pitched me differently, and I couldn’t make the adjustment.
It was the first year I failed for an extended period of time. To say I was frustrated was an understatement. I had hit my whole life, and I wasn’t used to this. I hit .239, and my only saving grace was that I hit 22 home runs. I knew I was a better hitter than I showed. It was a struggle. I spent most nights staring at the ceiling trying to figure out what was wrong with my swing, and how I could fix it; however, when I wanted to turn my mind off from the constant analyzing, I would have a couple of drinks. Drinking clearly was not the answer, it was not healthy and it was a recipe for disaster.
When I look back on that year, I let myself get distracted by a lot of things outside of the ballpark. I had a major misconception of what being a Major League baseball player was like. I was trying to be what I perceived a Big Leaguer to be, which was, in my mind, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, beer and fun. I heard power hitters need to spend the night in the bar and show up the next day and hit bombs.
“Make sure you are ready by 7 p.m. and get the job done.”
The problem was, I wasn’t getting the job done. I wasn’t that good. I had to learn the hard way that the talent was too strong and the players were too good for me to go out all night and perform as I needed to the next day. I needed to get my rest.
From the outside looking in, baseball seems like a glamorous lifestyle: Playing in huge stadiums with large crowds, seeing the country, etc. And, it is. But, the dream also requires a lot of work.
There’s an old saying, “It’s easy to get to the big leagues, but harder to stay.”
The thought that it is easy to get to the big leagues is NOT TRUE, but the part of it being hard to stay is correct. It requires so much focus and concentration to go up against the best in the world every night, and I was not putting myself in a good position to do that.
I needed to change, or not………..
I started the 2006 season with a high. I played in the first World Baseball Classic. What an amazing feeling it was to put on the Team Canada jersey and represent my country. What an honour! (You’re welcome for the Canadian spelling).
South Africa, U.S.A, and Mexico made up our pool. We did not have an easy road ahead. Our first game was against South Africa. We thought, “An easy game to warm us up.” They didn’t think that! They took it to us. We should have blown them out, but they scored 8 runs off of us, and we had to come back to beat them 11-8. If it wasn’t for Corey Koskie’s two-run bomb in the top of the 7th, I don’t know what the outcome would have been.
Our next game was against the Americans, and we came to play. We beat them 8-6 in front of a stunned U.S.A crowd. I went 3 for 5 in that game against some tough Team U.S.A pitching.
We finished off our round robin against Mexico, and they killed us 8-1. When it was all over, Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.A were in a three-way tie. Only two teams could move to the next round.
Canada was the odd man out because of the run differential, Mexico and the U.S.A had beaten South Africa handily, so we were eliminated. I ended up hitting .300 for the tournament and was feeling good coming out of it.
We rolled into the season, and I hadn’t learned my lesson from the year before. I was still working my tail off on the field while spending too much time with my teammates and my old friend Bud Light off of it. Then it happened.
It was June 5th, 2006, and we were in Seattle for a series. Seattle was always one of my favorite cities to go to because it was two hours away from Vancouver. My buddies would come down, and we would get together off the field and stay up way too late. I didn’t want my friends that I had known since I was 5 to think that I thought I was too good to hang out with them. I wanted them to see that I hadn’t forgotten where I came from, and that we were sharing this dream. They would’ve understood if I told them I had to go to sleep because I had a game the next day. That’s how real friends treat each other. The problem was that I couldn’t say “No” to socializing and one more beer. I was having fun and living the life. All I wanted was to be a regular guy, hanging out with his high school buddies that I only got to see a couple of times a year. The only hiccup was that I had to face a Major League pitcher the next day, and they didn’t.
June 6th was game one of the series. I have 100 people on my ticket list. I am batting 6th(at that time I was hitting .237) but I am living like I am hitting .400. I end up going 0 for 3 with a walk. No biggie! It was time to hang with my buddies again.
Following the game, I had a rough night at the hotel. It was a Tuesday night, and there wasn’t much going on in Seattle, so we ended up in my hotel room. There were multiple noise complaints, and the hotel wasn’t very pleased. After a night of partying, I roll into the ballpark. As I am getting changed, the clubby comes up to me and says; “Hey Justin, Gardy (the Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire) wants to see you.”
“Ok, this is bad,” I think to myself. “Are they going to send me down? They better not be with all my friends and family here.” My heart is pounding.
I put on my shorts and walked into Gardy’s office. My stomach hit the floor when I saw general manager Terry Ryan sitting in the office with Gardy. I immediately thought the worst. “They were sending me down.” My dream of playing in the big leagues felt like it was slipping away, and it was 100 percent my fault.
They handed me a sheet with the time log of all of the noise complaints and visits of hotel security to my room from the night before. I was incredibly embarrassed. Two people who had control over my future were holding a minute by minute report of how their employee is preparing for work. We had a long talk about expectations and the focus that I needed if I wanted to be successful in the big leagues. Gardy wanted me to see what they saw: A young man with an immense amount of untapped potential. They didn’t want to see me waste that gift. I didn’t get sent down. I got a second chance; however, the incident didn’t go without punishment. I had to pay for the rooms of every single hotel guest on my floor, as well as the rooms below and above mine. And…………
I got benched that day.
Trying to explain to my friends and family who had spent their own money on gas, hotel rooms, etc. to watch me play that day why I wasn’t in the lineup, was……………….. Embarrassing!
From that day forward, I did everything in my power not to waste the opportunity in front of me, because I knew I wouldn’t get another shot.
What I learned
I knew what I was doing and the choices I was making weren’t the real me. My parents were always there for me, and they had taught me right from wrong. I grew up focused and dedicated to my dream. I needed to get back to that. I was trying to live up to this image that I had created of a superstar in my mind. That image couldn’t have been further from the truth of what it takes to be a Major League baseball player. In high school, I didn’t drink or party. I had bigger goals in mind, and I knew that lifestyle wouldn’t help me get where I wanted to go. I shouldn’t have let anything or anyone distract me from my dream. I can control my destiny, and I never wanted to look back and say, “I could’ve made it if…”