You look into Marcus Stroman’s brown eyes, see that powerful energy, feel his passion and suddenly realize how deftly he can fit a lifetime worth of experiences into less than a one-year span.
Spend a few moments with the 24-year-old and you understand that his zeal to become baseball’s finest pitcher is only a starting point, that trying to narrowly define the heavily-tattoed, bleach-blond African-American Toronto Blue Jay is almost as futile as pinning him down for just a few moments in a whirlwind winter.
Stroman, all 5 feet, 8 inches of him, was told his entire life that he was too short to reach the major leagues. Too small to handle the rigors of pitching nine innings. Or that his intelligence would somehow subvert his drive and hunger to star for the Blue Jays.
Today, Stroman is the future of baseball, the brightest and most irrepressible star of a new generation determined to push the boundaries of a sport that quietly roots for that to occur, the best to stay relevant to its young fans.
Spring training begins next week for most clubs, the natural marker for players to ramp up their baseball activities and ramp down everything else.
Stroman, a businessman, rapper, designer and graduate of one of the most prestigious universities, never ramps down, or so it seems.
It’s all part of a grander plan for perhaps baseball’s most mesmerizing and charismatic player.
“I’m just getting started," Stroman said recently. “I want to be the best in the game. I want to be the best off the field. I want to create a brand. I want to create a company.
“I have visions that are beyond baseball. I want to be multidimensional. I don’t ever want to be known as just a baseball player. That’s a reason why I got my education.
“I want to able to branch into brand marketing, branch into the business world and branch into the fashion world. I want a lane in everything."
These days, it’s more like his own eight-lane, cross-continental interstate.
He has a patent in two countries on his designer logo: HDMH (Height Doesn’t Measure Heart). He’s a darling on social media (@MStrooo6), with more than a half-million followers across his Twitter and Instagram accounts.
He jetted to Los Angeles for some face time in rapper Mike Stud’s music video, “These Days,” and dropped a few bars on a remix of the song. Last month, he joined his former Duke teammate on stage at a Tampa tour stop, rocking the mic in front of an overflow crowd.
“I was so nervous," said Stroman, who encouraged Stud to enter the music world when they wrote lyrics on their MacBook Pro in college. “People say, ‘Aw, but you can pitch in front of 50,000 fans.’ But it’s different when you grab the mic. It’s like a completely different feeling."
He went to Las Vegas in December, meeting several of his teammates, for the Conor McGregor-Jose Aldo UFC fight. Traveled to Miami for a charity golf tournament. Then off to Toronto for the Blue Jays’ winter caravan. Trekked through a January blizzard to accept an award at the New York baseball writers’ dinner.
And broke down during his speech with his family sitting in front of him.
“I didn’t realize how many emotions were going to come out with my family there," said Stroman, who grew up on Long Island. “They went through so many sacrifices for me. That’s why I get such a great feeling now giving back. I paid off my mom’s house and gave my dad a Rolex.
“I want to give everyone close to me a life that they never imagined."
A recent Sunday was spent at Jose Bautista’s Super Bowl party in Tampa, wearing a onesie along with the rest of his teammates. He’s launching a clothing line in March and is scheduled to pitch opening day April 3 at Tampa Bay Rays.
And he'll walk across the stage in Durham, N.C., on May 16, carrying his Duke University diploma with a degree in sociology.
“Graduating with a diploma from Duke, that holds a very special place in my heart," Stroman said. “That diploma means everything to me. The reason I went back to Duke is to show the kids that education is extremely important."
And if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Stroman, 24, says he would love to become the next face of baseball, doing his part to change the sport’s stodgy image.
“Baseball is very conservative," Stroman says, “but with the young wave of guys coming up, I feel like it’s starting to change. It’s a sport that slowly is starting to become more hip, more trendy and more modern. It lacks behind the other sports in that sense, but I feel it changing.
“With the (Bryce) Harpers, (Mike) Trouts, (Carlos) Correas and (Javier) Baezes of the world, there’s a core group of guys who can make baseball more appealing to the young kids, who can make baseball look fun. I feel that’s what baseball lacks sometimes, that fun element."
Stroman is here to bring it.
You want entertainment? You want someone who turns a slow-moving three-hour baseball game into a thumping, pulsating concert?
Stroman is your man.
“I’ve never seen someone having the energy he has," said Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez, his roommate for the past three years. “He always wants to be around people, talking and laughing. I don’t know when he goes to sleep. I’ll wake up early some morning, and he’s already up. I’m like, 'Didn’t you just go to bed?’
“He’s the Energizer Bunny."
Stroman performs with a sweltering passion on the mound, screaming in elation, yelling in frustration and pitching as if he’s a combination of Pedro Martinez, Tom Gordon and Mark Fidrych.
Stroman, the first pitcher 5-8 or shorter to make more than two starts in the last 20 years, comes completely unfiltered, unafraid to test baseball’s boundaries.
“I feel like me being myself has allowed me to succeed," Stroman said. "It has propelled my career. You ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you, ‘Stro is the exactly the same guy you see on Twitter.’
“If you’re not myself and have to struggle to fit in, that’s when I feel like there’s a barrier that stops you from being as great as you can.
“I think I’m the best in the game. And to be the best, you have to believe you’re the best."
Stroman wants to be the one the mound when the Blue Jays win the World Series this year. He wants to become the shortest pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. He wants to innovate with his new clothing line, showcase his new custom baseball caps and perhaps even model his chic hairstyle, curly blond on top and dark brown everywhere else.
“There’s nobody like him. He’s very special," says Boston Red Sox ace David Price, his former Blue Jays teammate who nicknamed Stroman Tylenol PM.
“That emotion. That energy. It rubs off on everybody. I love watching him pitch. And to overcome his injury and go back to school to get his degree as an established big-leaguer, that makes him all the more special."
Who could have imagined that the horrifying morning of March 10, 2015, watching the team doctor yank on his left knee once and tell him he suffered a torn ACL that would end his season, would provide so many hidden blessings?
“I never thought I’d be saying this, but honestly it’s the best thing that ever happened to me," Stroman said. "I’m thankful I tore my ACL. If I don’t get hurt, maybe we never get David Price. If I don’t get hurt, maybe I never learn about my body, learning how to really work out with having nutrition become such a big part of my life. If I don’t get hurt, maybe I never go back to get my degree.
“I always believed everything happens for a reason, but this past year really opened my eyes."
Stroman suffered the injury during a simple bunt fielding drill, pulling up while trying to avoid third baseman Josh Donaldson, only to see his knee buckle. When team doctor Steven Mirabello entered the room and yanked on his leg, Stroman was told the diagnosis within five seconds.
Stroman asked to be left alone, then sobbed.
He called his father, Earl Stroman. He called his mother, Adlin Auffant. And then he called his best friend, Ryan Bahnsen, whom he has known since ninth grade.
“I just told him, ‘Man, I need you this summer. I need you to help me,' " Stroman said. "He didn’t ask any questions. He just said, 'When do we start?' And he quit his job and came to live with me all summer."
Said Bahnsen, a construction worker in Long Island: “I’ve never got a call like that in my life. He was so emotional and broken down. I couldn’t really understand him at first because he was crying so hard. When I did, I was just in shock. It’s crazy to think it might have been the best thing to happen to him."
Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays general manager before resigning in November, couldn’t believe it, either. It was going to be Stroman’s breakout season after he went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA as a rookie in 2014. He was going be the opening-day starter in his hometown of New York.
“I’m not a guy who cries and screams and throws things," Anthopoulos said. “I try to internalize things. So I just got into the car and drove for about 30 minutes along the water. It was very emotional. I had my own pity party and used that time to mourn.
“I figured he would be out all year.
“But I learned that you don’t ever tell him he can’t do anything. Nothing. He’s just such a tremendous teammate and competitor, and if I had a stronger word than tremendous, I would use it."
Said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons: “When I went in that training room that day, he says, 'I’ll see you in September.’ I gave the token, 'OK, kid.’ I thought, 'No way in hell.' I was just hoping he’d be ready for 2016."
Stroman, who had surgery March 19, knew inactivity would drive him crazy while he rehabbed his knee. So he went back to school at Duke, with two-a-day workouts and classes. He took five courses, including Intellectual Property and Innovation, Hip-Hop Cinema, Creative Renewal in Market and Management Studies, and wrote papers on 17th-century slavery and the media portrayal of male and female athletes.
“I like distractions. I’d much rather be busy than bored," Stroman said, “but this was so grueling and demanding. It was pretty much eat, go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again for four months. I was dead by the end of summer, but it was all worth it."
Stroman not only graduated with his sociology degree, he also was pitching in rehab games by August. On Sept. 12, he returned to Yankee Stadium to make his season debut. He didn't lose a game, helping lead the Blue Jays to their first playoff berth since 1993, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
He started the Blue Jays’ deciding Game 5 in the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers. He was scheduled to pitch Game 7 in the AL Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, convinced that if the Blue Jays had won Game 6 he would have beaten Johnny Cueto in Game 7 and Toronto would have gone on to win the World Series.
“There’s no doubt in my mind," Stroman said. “When I’m in my zone, I feel like I’m the best in the game. I want that ball. I want to be that guy in the spotlight.
“That’s the chip on my shoulder I have. My dad always told me, 'Be confident. Be cocky. No one’s going to be more capable than you.’ And I believe that."
You want proof? He actually has a chip on his shoulder. It’s a tattoo of a poker chip that on the outside reads: “Doing everything they said I couldn’t." Inside the chip: “Critics, Doubters & Haters."
To this day, before every start he makes, he thumbs back through the top prospect lists that didn’t include his name. When he decided to attend Duke on a full baseball scholarship, after also being heavily recruited by Harvard, one blogger wrote: “He will never line the fields at Duke.’’ The criticism stung.
“I read everything, including all of the negative stuff," Stroman said. “People say, ‘Don’t read the negative,’ but I feel that it helps me. I love it, because it angers me, and that fuels me.
“That stuff is in the back of my mind when I’m in the weight room. That’s the emotion that comes out when I’m yelling on the mound. If I didn’t have all of the negative, maybe I wouldn’t work this hard. Maybe I wouldn’t want to prove so many people wrong.
“I know what they’re saying: 'He’s a little guy. He won’t last.’ Don’t categorize me just because I’m undersized. It angers me so much."
The Blue Jays were skeptical themselves. Stroman was originally drafted out of high school by the Washington Nationals as a shortstop. And when the Blue Jays drafted him three years later, Anthopoulos and Gibbons wondered if he would be a reliever. These days, using an explosive 94-mph, two-seam fastball, Stroman is regarded as one of the finest young pitchers in the game.
And so he roots for those of a similar height: All-Star second basemen Jose Altuve and Dustin Pedroia, Royals reliever Tim Collins and another former teammate, outfielder Ben Revere.
“Look at those guys and their careers. That’s why I’m so against all of these stereotypes," Stroman said. “I don’t have respect for people who put labels or judge people on stereotypes. I’m the first one to tell you they mean nothing.
“That’s why these kids all reach out to me on Twitter."
The way Stroman sees it, he give undersized kids hope. His ACL recovery inspired the infirm because of his demeanor. He stresses the importance of education, just as his parents did, forbidding him from attending any college not known for its academics. Even at Duke, he was so busy with studies and baseball he saw only two college basketball games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I didn’t have the time to stand in line for hours to get tickets with all of the other students," Stroman said. “I’ve seen more Duke games since I left."
These days, he wants to be a role model, spreading inspirational messages via social media. He even gave a shout-out to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after the Super Bowl, calling him a role model “despite the fact that his personality and culture clash with mainstream society!"
“I get chills when I read some of these messages on my Twitter feed, how I inspire them to get through struggles and providing a positive outlook on life," Stroman said. "That’s why I like the social network. You hear people say so much bad can come from it, and so many people have tried to stop me along the way.
“Well, how about all of the good? I would never want baseball to define me, but baseball gives me the platform to help others in so many other ways.
“This should be what it’s all about, right?"