Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brash, cocky and TALENTED

What's not to like about Brett Lawrie of the Blue Jays?

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Alex Anthopoulos did not want to trade Shaun Marcum, but he desperately wanted Brett Lawrie, so he offered prospects. The Milwaukee Brewers insisted on Marcum. Finally, Anthopoulos said yes.

Then he said no.

Marcum was the Toronto Blue Jays' opening-day starter in 2010. He had won 13 games with a 3.64 earned run average. He was a bulldog on the mound. Trading him would make the 2011 team worse, Anthopoulos knew.

So he said no.

"And then two days later, it wasn't sitting right with me, because I really wanted to get Brett," the Blue Jays general manager recalled. "I was at my house and I looked at my wife and I said, 'I don't know if I'm doing the right thing, but I think I'm going to trade Shaun Marcum. I just feel like I've got to do it.' "

Brewers' GM Doug Melvin never offered Lawrie, but for two years, the Blue Jays tried to acquire the cocky, turbocharged Canadian kid with a world of talent and a snootful of conceit. Of course they had heard the stories: Lawrie was brash, a burr beneath the saddle of his Milwaukee handlers. The same accusation kept cropping up: He rubs people the wrong way.

Perry Minasian, Toronto's director of pro scouting, pestered Anthopoulos almost daily for two years. Get Lawrie, he said. You will love the kid. He nearly drove Anthopoulos to distraction. Without the persistence of Minasian and his scouts, Lawrie might still be a Milwaukee Brewer.

Anthopoulos had never seen him play.

The Jays did an exhaustive background check, as they always do when they covet someone else's player. Character counts with Anthopoulos. Lawrie passed with flying colours.

"Is Brett Lawrie a great person? A hundred per cent. He's outstanding," Anthopoulos said. "Might he rub someone the wrong way because of his flair, because he's cocky and he's got an energy and a fire? Yeah.

"You know what? Too bad. You don't like it, that's OK."

So Anthopoulos called Melvin back and said yes.

When Lawrie was six years old and growing up in Langley, B.C., his dad, Russ, started taking Brett and his sister Danielle to a park every day for a hardball workout. Danielle was three years older. Brett recalls they were evenly matched back then. "I could always do things better than kids two, three years older than me," he said.

"We'd run, we'd throw, we'd hit off a tee. My dad always had it written down what we would do. He'd have a plan before we went. We either had to run at the park or run home, one of the two.

"My dad always made it fun for us -- a game, competing for something like a Slurpee, or candy, something to keep our mind on the goal."

The routine went on for a decade, even as Brett and Danielle became stars on every team they joined. Russ still took them out and made them hit, run and field ground balls.

Danielle grew up to be a professional softball pitcher. Brett grew up to be a Blue Jay, the great Canadian hope for Canada's team.

His first big-league hit on Canadian soil was a grand slam that became a YouTube classic. Lawrie waves his tattooed arms and pumps his fists as he circles the bases, then roars through the dugout, whacking his teammates' outstretched hands and bouncing his helmet off the floor with such force that it nearly takes out Edwin Encarnacion, who laughs as he scurries for cover.

A moment later, the 21-year-old third baseman steps out to acknowledge a standing ovation, one of six the crowd would give him on that memorable night in August.

Some Oakland A's across the way were not amused. The kid has been in the big leagues for six days, they said. Who does he think he is?

"It wasn't about me," Lawrie said this week. "It was about how fired up the fans were acting, how fired up my teammates were. I knew that I just helped contribute to my team, helped us win a game. If you're going to be mad about it, then be mad about it, 'cause I ain't changing."

That mantra became evident to the Brewers early on, after they picked Lawrie in the first round in 2008 as a catcher. He quickly realized he had too much to learn about catching to reach the big leagues quickly, and he feared catching would sap the leg strength he needed to stay aggressive on the basepaths.

So the Brewers agreed to move him to second base. By the end of his second minor-league season, he felt third base would offer a quicker path to the majors. The Brewers said no.

Then they asked him to play in the Arizona Fall League. He said no. If he did not go, he would not be invited to major-league camp the following spring. He still said no.

Various versions emerge in response to questions about Lawrie's time in the Milwaukee system. He clearly did not get along with his manager in 2010, and felt lesser players were promoted ahead of him. As for the fall league contretemps, Lawrie blames it on season-long "communications problems" with the Brewers' front office. He says he needed a break after playing 135 games in double-A and felt he had nothing left to prove at that level.

Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva was with Milwaukee when the Lawrie legend blossomed. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were among the established players who looked at Lawrie and saw an impertinent brat.

"He was just very confident," Villanueva said. "Sometimes confidence like that gets misinterpreted. Obviously, when a young kid gets signed out of high school, and he starts saying, 'I'm gonna be here (in the majors) next year,' older guys won't like that."

Villanueva found a certain irony in Braun's reaction.

"When Braun signed, he went up there and he was a very, very confident guy, and if you didn't know him you'd think he was very arrogant," Villanueva said. "But he's not -- (he is) a very thoughtful person, a very good person.

"Sometimes when they're young like that, it's OK to think that way, but it's not always good to say it. I would compare them in that way, and obviously the talent level is very similar because they're both great players."

Throughout a lengthy interview, Lawrie repeatedly stresses that he does not wish to leave the impression that he is criticizing the Milwaukee organization. Each time he says it, he finishes by standing his ground.

"I just want to emphasize that I'm not knocking anyone on the Brewers, I'm not cutting heads off over there, I'm not knocking the general manager, I'm not saying anyone's bad or anything like that," he said. "I'm just saying I just thought it was just kind of poorly run. It was trying to jam a piece into a puzzle that wasn't going to fit. It rubbed me the wrong way."

Then came the trade, and a new legend began.

The Jays brought him to big-league camp and made him their third baseman of the very near future. He sizzled in spring training. Manager John Farrell wanted to keep him but Anthopoulos dispatched him to triple-A to work on his plate discipline, cut down on his strikeouts and polish his defence. He did all of that.

"Everything we found out about Brett was as long as you treat him with respect, then he'll go through a wall for you," Anthopoulos said. "He's very loyal. If you believe in him, he'll give you everything he has and do everything you ask. You can't ask for anything more."

When he arrived in Dunedin last spring, Lawrie embraced his fresh start and tried to downplay his uppity image.

"It had all changed for me," he said. "When I got here, a lot of smiles, a lot of good energy. They were happy to have me, a Canadian kid. Lot of good guys too. I came in and tried to fly under the radar as long as I could."

That lasted about 10 minutes. Lawrie hit well in spring games and no one could take their eyes off him when he ran, even on routine ground balls. His energy was frenetic, his intensity almost scary. If he booted a ground ball, he was on it like a cheetah on a wounded rodent, often unleashing a laser throw to first that left the batter shaking his head. If an outfielder loped into the gap to collect a Lawrie single, everyone knew that if they blinked, they might miss a double.

The kid was mesmerizing. And he rubbed no one the wrong way.

Villanueva was among those watching, both last spring and when Lawrie finally got the call in August. The kid was still cocky, but now he belonged.

"He seemed a lot more mature," Villanueva said. "He was still all over the place, but in a good way. And when he got up here, he energized the whole clubhouse. He gave us life. He gave everybody a little heartbeat."

Lawrie tore it up at triple-A, hitting .353 with a 1.076 OPS. Finally, after recovering from a broken hand, he made his debut with a two-hit night on Aug. 5 in Baltimore. Within a week, he reached the Rogers Centre, hit that grand slam and started a buzz that continues unabated.

He has played all of 43 big-league games, albeit with a .293 average, nine homers, seven stolen bases and a .953 OPS. This spring, he batted .524. Expectations hit the stratosphere.

South of the border, national writers made the pilgrimage to Dunedin to write stories comparing Lawrie to Pete Rose, George Brett and Dustin Pedroia. ESPN's Jayson Stark published a list of players who compiled a .953 OPS at 21 or younger. It included Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols and Brett Lawrie.

Lawrie would not feel out of place on that list. But his swagger comes with a dash of humility. He knows he has much to learn.

He also believes he is in the right place, back in his homeland where he learned in the first place, from his parents in Langley, from Greg Hamilton, the Baseball Canada guru who taught the teenage thoroughbred to slow the game down, from a new organization that tells players just to be themselves.

He looks around the clubhouse and sees Omar Vizquel, about to turn 45 in his 24th season.

"We've got a guy on our team that has spent more time in the big leagues than I have lived my whole life," Lawrie said. "When I look at it that way, I say he's got to have something that can help me.

"You just kind of fall into good habits if you surround yourself with the right people. I feel like now I'm surrounded by the best people I've ever been around. I'm so excited that this is going to be my family for the year."

Farrell is excited too. Even at 22, the manager says, Lawrie is a catalytic player who lifts his teammates. He may look like a runaway train, but he has an uncanny knack of knowing, as Farrell often observes, when to step on the gas and when to hit the brakes.

As for Lawrie rubbing opponents the wrong way, Farrell suggests the reaction may arise from envy.

"Maybe people were jealous of the ability and talent he has," Farrell said. "He's a helluva player."

While scouts say Lawrie is made of superstar stuff, he remains young and prone to the slips and slides of any unseasoned player. Some pundits predict 20-plus homers, 25 stolen bases and an .850 OPS. Such wild guesses may come true, but 43 games represent a flagrantly unreliable sample size.

Whatever happens, Brett Lawrie ain't changing. What you see may be hard to believe, but it is authentic.

"It may look like I'm going 100 miles an hour, but that's my speed," he said. "That's my even keel."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2012 A1

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