Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman isn't short on heart

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- You probably think you know what an ace looks like when you see one. But then a 5-foot-8 fireball named Marcus Stroman takes the mound, and all of a sudden he's painting a very different picture.

History tells us that No. 1 starters haven't looked a lot like he looks. Go searching for a list of 5-8 aces. You know what you'll find? That list is shorter than Tim Kurkjian. But you need to spend only about 30 seconds in the Toronto Blue Jays' camp this spring to feel the vibe that that's about to change.

Mention to Marcus Stroman that there has never been a 5-foot-8 Cy Young Award winner and he says: "I'm going for that." Mention to him that there hasn't been a 20-game winner his size in 63 years and he knows all about it. Tell him no 5-8 pitcher has started 30 games in a major league season in more than 35 years and he's incredibly up to speed on that too.

He has been hearing all his life that he was too short to be a first-round pick, too short to start in the big leagues, too short to do so many of the things he has already done. All that talk has ever done is pour more premium unleaded into the tank of one of the most positive, strong-minded and charismatic pitchers in baseball.

"It made me motivated," Stroman told ESPN.com, with his head stuffed inside a silver baseball cap stamped with his personal motto, HDMH (Height Doesn't Measure Heart). "It made me hungry. It made me angry. It made me say, 'I'm going to do everything I can to prove these people wrong.'"

Now here he is, trying to do that again. His team is built to win right now. His friend, David Price, doesn't work here anymore. For the Blue Jays to get where they want to go, they need a certain diminutive 24-year-old right-hander to step into a role no pitcher his size has ever really held: ace.

This team learned long ago that this fellow refuses to be defined by the outside world's definition of what guys like him can't do.

"He's one of those kids who, the day you meet him, you know there's something different about him," Stroman's manager, John Gibbons, said.

You'd think we would all know that by now. You'd think we would have learned. You'd think we would have resolved to never say there was anything Marcus Stroman couldn't do, after watching him pull off a certifiable medical miracle last year.

You'd think we would all remember last spring training, when his left knee crumbled during a routine March fielding drill and we were told his season was over thanks to a torn ACL -- only to look up in September and October and find him pitching games he was never supposed to pitch.

His good friend and teammate Aaron Sanchez still recalls the tears Stroman shed the day he got hurt, after doctors told him it would take 12 months for him to make it back.

"I think that was about the only time since I've known him that he was ever down," Sanchez said. "For a span of maybe 12 hours, from maybe 10 o'clock in the morning, when it happened, to when he went to sleep, it was pretty bad. It hit him pretty hard.

"But right after that, his mentality changed to, 'I'm coming back.' And when he said, 'I'm going to come back,' I had no doubt in my mind he was going to come back. Everybody else thought it was funny. ... I'm like, 'Just watch.'"

It took long, relentless, grueling work for Stroman to make it back to pitch the most important games of his life. But that's not all it took. It took a powerful mind and an extraordinary will to accomplish yet one more thing that the rest of civilization told him couldn't possibly be done.

"I'll be the first person to tell you that I think baseball, sports, life in general is definitely more mental than physical," Stroman said. "And I feel like my parents put me in a position where I could succeed mentally. I feel like I'm one of the strongest individuals I know, and I've dealt with a lot of adversity in the past, where I had to be strong. So I feel like, once I tore my ACL, I put it in the back of my head that I would make it back that year. Some people might call that crazy, but it was realistic to me."

Even more amazingly, over the next five months he didn't just work on healing his knee ligaments. In between rehab sessions, he found the time to complete his degree in sociology at Duke -- in his "spare" time. Who does that?

"It took a lot of will," Stroman said. "I mean, it was nonstop. It was workout, class, workout, class, workout. And even when I was home, it wasn't like I was just sitting at home. I was foam-rolling. I was stretching. I was doing stuff to make sure that my knee would be better the next day. So it was tough. It was every day, and it was nonstop. It was definitely hard mentally, but also physically and emotionally. But after that, after going through what I went through last summer, I honestly believe that I can go through anything."

"I want to be the best in the game. Mediocrity, honestly, scares me."
Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher

As he revisits the whole powerful experience, Marcus Stroman now finds himself feeling grateful that it happened. It could have been the worst moment of his career. Instead, it led him and even his team down a road they will never forget.

"It was a blessing in disguise," Stroman said. "Now that I look back at it, I was able to go back to Duke and finish my degree. I was able to rehab my ACL. I was able to make it back for playoffs. And everything happens for a reason. So I was out, and who knows if we would have gone out and gotten David Price or if we'd have made those trades if I would have been healthy for the entire year. So I just feel like everything happened so perfectly, and every piece fit in, like a puzzle, throughout the entire summer."

Maybe it was fate that he and Price wound up on the same team, cementing a friendship that had begun the year before, when Price sent him a message one night, out of the blue, that read: "You're one of my new favorite pitchers in the game." Then they found themselves teammates, which gave the relentlessly inquisitive Stroman the opportunity to observe, up close, how an ace starter truly goes about leading a staff, on and off the mound.

"David is the most humble individual that you will ever be around," Stroman said. "And the fact that he is arguably the best pitcher in the game or one of the best pitchers in the game makes it even more inspiring to see that. To see how he treats every single person he comes in contact with -- off the field, on the field, fans. First person to show up, last person to leave, all about team camaraderie. And that's all things that I feel I want to be."

Stroman was already renowned for pelting questions at his wiser, more experienced teammates, from Mark Buehrle to Jose Bautista. But once Price was hanging out in the same clubhouse, it was like enrolling at the University of Ace-hood.

"I would just pick his brain about everything, just to hear his perspective," Stroman said. "I mean, he's been through it all, so just to hear the insight that he has on situations, on the field, off the field, I would just try to take everything in that was possible. At times, I'd just run back to my Notes page on my phone and write things down that he said. All the time."

But then in October came a moment that now feels almost like a passing of the torch. It was Game 4 of the Blue Jays' excruciating Division Series against Texas. If they could find a way to win, Price was scheduled to start Game 5, which would decide this series, two days later.

Because of the magnitude of the game, however, Gibbons sent both Price and Stroman out to the bullpen, just in case. But suddenly, in the fifth inning, the bullpen phone rang, and David Price got up to warm up. Once Stroman realized what was happening, "that's when it hit me," he said.

"When David got up to get warm, I said, 'He's not going to get up to get warm and then pitch tomorrow. That's not realistic,'" he said. "So I was looking around, and I said, 'I'm pretty sure that just leaves me in Game 5.' And I remember just getting excited. I was like, 'I cannot wait. I cannot wait to pitch.'"

Gibbons still isn't happy about the theories that emerged that day suggesting he would rather have had Stroman start Game 5. But either way, this was a decision that told the sport everything it needed to know about how much faith the manager had in a guy who had yet to pitch a full big league season and had made it to the mound just five times all year.

"I believe in the kid," Gibbons said. "I've got no problem pitching him in any type of game, regardless of his experience and regardless of how long he'd been pitching that year -- because I'd seen him. I know what's inside of him. I'm pretty tight with the kid. He's the guy I want out there when it counts. If our job is on the line, you really can't go wrong with him because you know you're getting the best effort and you know you're getting a fearless effort."

That word, once again, was "fearless." If you write down the five qualities you'd most like in an ace, "fearless" is on that list. Stroman, even in the short time he has been in the big leagues, has demonstrated that the Blue Jays have nothing to worry about in that department.

In nine career starts against the Yankees and Red Sox, he is 8-1 with a 1.85 ERA. He's also 8-1 with a 2.17 ERA in nine trips to the mound the past two Septembers. He is 7-2 lifetime against teams with winning records.

Then again, about all this guy has done since the Blue Jays first inserted him in their rotation on May 31, 2014, is win. In 24 starts (and one relief appearance), he has gone 14-6 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Only four other starters in the big leagues can match or beat his win total, win percentage, ERA and WHIP in that span. Their names might sound familiar: Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Gerrit Cole.

But it might not be the last time you hear all those names in the same sentence. Marcus Stroman is on a mission to be mentioned in the same breath as pitchers such as those.

"I want to be the best in the game," he said flatly. "Mediocrity, honestly, scares me."

There's an old expression in baseball that goes: The goal is not to beat Goliath -- the goal is to be Goliath. That's Marcus Stroman, a man constantly raising his own bar.

"You see it with players," his manager said. "They all react differently to the magnitude of the game because they're all human. And Stro is just one of those guys who, he wants to be the guy when it matters. He loves the spotlight. He's a showman. Stroman the Showman. He likes that, and the game needs that, you know?"

The game needs players who attack both life and baseball with passion they don't even try to hide. And that, too, is Marcus Stroman: blazing with energy on the mound, filling the world with positivity off the mound.

"Just the energy he brings into a room, it's amazing," his buddy Sanchez said. "For sure, he definitely does change a lot of negatives into positives. That's just who he is. He does have a lot of energy. He's one of the most positive human beings I've come across."

Away from the ballpark, he relentlessly tries to lift spirits on social media, with a constant stream of upbeat, inspirational posts. That has helped him connect with and raise the spirits of so many people. When he reads some of the messages he gets back, "I almost break down reading these things sometimes," he said. "Like, that's how inspiring it is."

You won't be reading any stories about this team trying to get this player off social media. Marcus Stroman gets it, and his team is grateful that he does.

"He's got charisma, man," Gibbons said. "Really, he's got it all going on. And that's why, if he becomes the player I think we all envision he will be, he'll be one of the faces in baseball, I think, for a number of years."

Given that constant smile and positivity, could it possibly be more ironic to hear Stroman talking about one of his little-guy heroes, Pedro Martinez, and saying: "He was nasty. ... People feared him. And that's what I want. I want to be feared on the mound."

In fact, he wants to be feared on the mound so badly that he just read a book about Bob Gibson. But mostly, he's just grateful to be on the mound at all.

Last year, because the pain from his knee injury was so fresh, he couldn't bring himself to watch on Opening Day, a game he'd once been scheduled to start. Now, just a year later, he is set to become the first pitcher 5-foot-8 or shorter to start on Opening Day for any team since Tom Phoebus did so for the 1971 San Diego Padres.

That start, this man envisions, is just the beginning. It's the beginning of one more journey to do things that guys his size are not supposed to do.

"And I want that," Stroman said. "I'm excited, man. I'm excited for this opportunity."