Pat Hentgen may just be the most humble former Major League Baseball player.
He pitched on two World Series winning teams with the Toronto Blue Jays, and in 1996, he was the first Jay to be awarded the Cy Young. In June he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and on Sunday, August 14, 2016 he will be honoured, along with Roy Halladay and Dave Stieb, with a commemorative 40th Anniversary bobblehead.
He also sported one of the greatest mullets in Blue Jays history.
But Hentgen, who currently works as a Special Assistant to the Blue Jays with a focus on player and pitcher development, remains self-effacing, modest, open, and available – an incredible ambassador to both the team and city.
On his drive back home to a suburb about an hour outside of Detroit, after a weekend with Jays minor league affiliate the Lansing Lugnuts, Hentgen took the time to reflect on his time as a player with the Jays, what it’s like to play in the social media age, and even sympathize with J.A. Happ on the confusion of bagged milk.
“I can relate to that a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “I remember when I first came up to Toronto, I had the same experience, just being at the grocery store, staring at the bagged milk, thinking how unusual it was. I mean, you get the plastic container, you cut the corner, you figure it out pretty quick, but yeah, I can definitely understand it.”
Hentgen grew up about 45 minutes outside of Detroit, but despite the proximity, never spent any significant time there. Toronto was really his first experience with a big city. He remembers being awed by the number of taxis having been raised in a town without any, and going through a minor league system in similarly small towns.
His first apartment in Toronto was also his first time in a high-rise building. He also discovered his love for Caramilk chocolate during his rookie season, so if you ever meet him and want to make a good impression, maybe give him a bar or two.
“My first year, I really felt I was just a small part of this amazing team, trying to do my part,” he says. “There were already so many established players, you were playing in this huge stadium filled with 50,000 fans every home game, it was really something.”( – It’s worth noting that Hentgen won 19 games that rookie season, so certainly did more than his small part.)
Today’s Jays rookies and newer players are experiencing much the same thing. After the team’s resurgence in 2015, the Rogers Centre is again selling out most home games and the expectation is that the Jays will make it to the World Series. But the 2016 roster plays in the era of social media, where interaction with fans is immediate, personal, and frankly, often pretty negative.
“We didn’t even have cell phones when I started playing,” Hentgen says. “Messages would be taped to your lockers and if the game didn’t end too late, you could call back, otherwise, it waited until morning. Now, guys can check their Twitter or Instagram during the game, or right after, and it can be a huge distraction.”
“Most of the stuff with fans is great, don’t get me wrong. But I look at it like this – getting booed at an away game, you expect it. But getting booed in your home – it gets in your head. And in a lot of ways, reading negative stuff about yourself on Twitter, or online, it’s like getting booed at home, by your own fans.
“You need to develop a really thick skin. I definitely see the benefit of it for developing a brand, or promoting causes you care about, but the flip side of it can be tough. And everybody has an opinion. I always liked interacting with fans, I think we all do, but when I was playing it was in person, so people behaved differently. I don’t think I could have had Twitter or Facebook, really,” he continued.
But more importantly and what the fans really want to know is – what does Hentgen think the Jays need to go all the way this year?
“The reality is, every team goes 60-60, it’s what you do with other 42 games. Jose (Bautista) coming back will be a huge boost. And the key really will be staying healthy,” he says. “We need the players to stay fit, and avoid injury, as we go head-to-head against other AL East teams down the stretch. I think it will be close, but if any team is going to run away with it, it will be the Jays.”
Hentgen spends about 3-7 days in Toronto at homestands every other month or so, and looks forward to getting back to the city he considers his second home.
“Toronto is the American League’s best kept secret,” Hentgen said. “But players get here and quickly realize how amazing the city is, you really can’t not love it– I love coming back here, I feel like an honorary Canadian. I’m just flattered the Jays have kept me around and I still get to work for this organization.”