DUNEDIN, Fla. — The initials M-E-S are ornately tattooed across the back of Marcus Earl Stroman, whose unlikely rise to baseball stardom has been proudly associated with another set of letters, uniquely his: HDMH.
As a hashtag, as a mantra, as a rallying cry for underdogs everywhere, that’s shorthand for “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart,” and it’s why the 24-year-old righthander is beloved as a 5-8 wonder.
“I can’t tell you how many messages I get on a daily basis through social media. It’s about people battling adversity,” said Stroman, the former Patchogue-Medford High School star who will take the mound on Opening Day in five weeks, hoping to lead Toronto to a World Series championship. “Just the upbeat, positive mindset helps them get through the day. It’s something I’ve always said, so I figured ‘Why not get it trademarked?’ It has a lot of meaning and has hit home with a lot of undersized athletes.”
HDMH’s believers include Russell Wilson, the 5-11 overachieving Seahawks quarterback, and Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, himself just 6-feet tall. When Maple Leafs 5-10 rookie Brendan Leipsic made his NHL debut last week, he was greeted with HDMH reminders from fans in Toronto.
“It’s insane. It’s crazy how many people reach out to him,” said Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez, Stroman’s roommate on the road and a close friend. “He’s breaking stereotypes and defying all the odds on 5-8 athletes.”
Baseball, perhaps even more than basketball, can typecast players into positions based on their size — first basemen are long and lanky, and middle infielders are generally more like Stroman. Dominating pitchers are remembered like Randy Johnson at 6-10, the ball seemingly halfway to home plate before it leaves their hands.
Not Stroman, who after high school went to Duke and dominated enough to be a first-round pick in 2012. What’s more, after his knee injury last spring, he went back to school to finish his sociology degree. Baseball hasn’t had an Opening Day starter that short since the Padres’ Tom Phoebus in 1971, according to ESPN.
Even Stroman’s recovery time is short, as he showed unbelievably last season. He tore his ACL in March and recovered in time to pitch — and pitch well — in September, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts. He made three more starts in the postseason.
The typical knock on a starting pitcher is that he’s only helping the team every fifth day, but Stroman defies that as well. Centerfielder Kevin Pillar, a teammate since the minor leagues, said his energy in the dugout is a real lift, one the Jays missed last year when he was away from the team while rehabbing.
“There’s definitely no shortage of energy that comes out of that guy,” Pillar said. “The energy is not an act. It’s who he is. It’s infectious, it’s passionate. It rubs off on other guys . . . [Last year] it was something that we missed. When he’s back around, he’s definitely someone you notice, and he worked his [butt] off to get back when he did.”
Stroman is 15-6 in his short career, but he’s a center of optimism for Toronto, seeking to repeat as division champ and perhaps more. Telling him he’s not good enough or tall enough is all the motivation he needs.
“I’m a confident guy. I’m the most confident guy I know,” he said. “Once I put my mind to it, I think it’s possible, even if a lot of people don’t think it’s possible. They automatically say ‘He’s out for the entire year.’ Those people are the people who have been judging me my entire career. I’m not very concerned with their opinions at all.”