TORONTO - With the hood of a Blue Jays sweatshirt pulled up over his head, Marcus Stroman leans back in the plush leather chair at his locker. It's a few hours before Friday night's game against the Yankees, and it's not his turn to pitch, so Stroman has some time between meetings and shagging fly balls during batting practice.
For the next 10 minutes, in talking about what his rookie season has been like, Stroman never stops smiling.
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Why would he?
"It's been a dream come true and more," he said. "That's why everyone strives so hard to get here. Everywhere you go, you get treated like royalty. It's a great life. Zero complaints at all. Just really, really blessed and humbled to be here."
Stroman, the former Patchogue-Medford High School star, forgot the part about being deserving of that spot in the Jays' clubhouse, a few stalls down from R.A. Dickey and across the room from Jose Bautista. Now 16 starts into his rookie season, he weathered a bumpy mid-August stretch to stabilize at 8-5 with a 3.88 ERA in the Jays' rotation.
For a Toronto team that lost its grip on first place in the AL East weeks earlier and now is stuck on the outer fringe of the wild-card race, Stroman has been one of the bright spots. Just 23, he's already proved himself as a pitcher who not only can succeed at this level but has the mental toughness to rebound from those inevitable nights when things don't go so well.
On Aug. 15, Stroman didn't survive the first inning, allowing five hits and five runs to the White Sox before being pulled with two outs. A week later, the Rays roughed him up for 10 hits and six runs in five innings.
That capped a deflating stretch of three consecutive losses for Stroman (in between, he had a nine-inning no-decision against the Tigers) after a 7-2 start. But he climbed off the mat to beat the Red Sox last Wednesday, allowing one earned run in 7 2/3 innings and striking out six.
"There's certain intangibles you look for in guys that can help you identify if they're going to be able to stay the course," Dickey said. "He's got those intangibles. Whether it's a level of maturity along with the confidence, or his work ethic or how he responds after a bad outing.
"I know guys that are much older than him that have a tough time not letting one outing carry into the other. That's a real demon in this game. He seems to be able to deal with that very appropriately."
Dickey's observation was echoed by his Jays teammates, who also praised Stroman for that even-keeled approach.
Plenty of young pitchers have the physical ability to throw 98 mph or snap off a lethal slider. But on some days, that 98 can't be harnessed effectively or the breaking pitches don't work, and the result can be ugly.
The key for Stroman is understanding that it's just one start. Or two. There's another chance to be dominant right behind those clunkers. That's what helps push him through the growing pains.
"I have a pretty thick skin," he said. "I usually think about the game that night, and the next day I wake up like nothing happened. I'm usually good to go. I don't dwell on things in the past. There's no point in it. I'm not going to sit there and beat myself up over a bad start for the next four days, be miserable and lock myself in my room. I'm still going to live my life."
New friend, new pitch
As much as Stroman can sound like someone who's been in the majors for longer than three months, he still can have his gee-whiz rookie moments, too. One of those happened earlier this month during the Tigers' visit to Rogers Centre when David Price sent Stroman a direct message on Twitter.
The 2012 Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star said he is a big fan of Stroman's and wanted to meet with him at some point during the series. So they did. Listening to Stroman describe that conversation, it was the first time he actually sounded like a rookie.
"He just told me about keeping my confidence, keeping my kind of swagger," said Stroman, who still texts with Price. "He said a lot of people may not like it, but it's what makes you you. It makes you unique. We talked about pitches, how he attacks certain guys in certain situations. He's awesome."
In addition to the counseling from Price, Stroman developed a new pitch in July: a two-seam fastball or sinker, giving him a rare six-pitch arsenal that also includes a four-seamer, curveball, slider, cutter and changeup. Stroman could never get the grip right before, but now he figures he throws the sinker more than his regular four-seam fastball. That kind of downward action is the perfect bailout when a pitcher is looking for a ground ball, and in Stroman's mind, six options are better than five.
Said catcher Josh Thole, "He always has weapons to go to."
A fan favorite in Canada
That makes Stroman, at 5-9, a more intimidating presence than people have given him credit for. Off the field, however, it's a different story. Stroman says he loves living a two-minute walk from Rogers Centre and exploring a Canadian city he had never been to before the Jays' rookie development camp in January.
One thing that still takes some getting used to is people recognizing him outside the ballpark. Stroman is a little guy by big-league standards, but his popularity in Toronto seems to be growing fast, no doubt fueled by his active Twitter account (@MStrooo7). He's already received a few marriage proposals on Twitter, but even that is starting to feel like just another part of the life. Along with the chartered flights and five-star hotels.
"Yeah, it's crazy," he said. "But I love the fan interaction. I wasn't supposed to be in the position I am today from the beginning, so I'm going to enjoy every second of it and everything that comes along with it.
"My whole time through high school, and coming through [Duke University], everyone said I wasn't going to be here, that I was too small to be here, that I didn't have the talent to be here. But I'm here now. And I keep those people in the back of my head when I'm working out. I'm excited to be here, but I'm nowhere near where I want to be yet."
Where Stroman is sitting these days is a pretty good place. But he's constantly trying to be better. He knows the only thing harder than making it to the majors is staying there.
His smile belies that daily struggle. But after talking to him for a while, you get the sense it's not going away.