TORONTO — Devon Travis notices the little things. The teammates who pat him on the back, try to pick him up, tell him to keep going. The coaches that check in on him over the off-season. The training staff that dedicates hours to his rehabilitation. The fans that send words of support. The front office that tries to make his situation as accommodating as possible, like when Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins asked Travis last season if he’d prefer to rehab his latest injury in Toronto with his team, rather than in Florida on an island.
“That was great of Ross. It was the first thing he asked me when I got hurt,” Travis said this past weekend, while in town participating in Blue Jays Winter Fest. “Being around the guys, it keeps your spirits high. That was nice. That was really, really nice.”
So, here we are again. Another spring training soon to begin, another 162-game grind on the horizon, another opportunity for Travis to prove he can finally play every day. Another chance to wrest his career back on track, and return to the big things rather than the little.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “I just want to be healthy. That’s it.”
Here are the facts: Travis appeared in 50 games last season. The season before that, 101. And in 2015, only 62. That’s 213 games over three seasons or an average of 71 per year. Simply put: Since 2015, Travis has missed more games than he’s played.
It was his left shoulder at first, plagued by inflammation and a large cyst that was surgically removed late in the 2015 season. Months later, further testing determined Travis suffered from a rare condition called Os acromiale, which produced an additional, non-fused bone in his shoulder. The surgery to address it shelved him for more than six months.
Next, it was his right knee. A bone bruise and stray cartilage developed late in 2016 and led to off-season surgery. Then, three months into the 2017 season, a new bone bruise, more cartilage damage, and another surgery. He hasn’t played since.
It’s a lot to process. And beyond his physical ailments, Travis has fought his battles with doubt, fear and anxiety as well. He’s worked closely with Paddy Steinfort, the Blue Jays head of mental performance, to help manage his thoughts. He’s found ways to cope. He’s had plenty of time to do so.
“The body ends up coming back over time. It’s the mind that’s the hardest thing to control,” Travis said. “There’s a lot of downtime. And when you’ve got a lot of downtime, you’ve got a lot of time to think.
“I just can’t wait for the day where I don’t have to answer so many questions about my health,” he continued. “I’m just excited to get to that point in my career. And I understand that can only be controlled by me being out on the field every day. So, that’s my goal.”
To achieve that goal, he’ll have to get over his current injury first. Travis isn’t running yet — a key step in his rehab — but is confident he’ll be ready to play when spring training begins next month. Atkins has echoed that, saying he expects Travis to be a full participant in camp if he continues progressing the way he is. As always, we wait and see.
“I feel good,” Travis said. “With every single thing that they’ve asked me to do, everything that they’ve put in my workout, I haven’t had any setbacks — I’ve been able to do everything. I feel good, man. I feel good.”
It’s always hard to pin down a definitive expectation for Travis, because he learned long ago not to deal in timelines or schedules. With injuries like his, you listen to what your body’s telling you and progress deliberately as things get easier.
When he’s rehabbing, he doesn’t even ask Toronto’s training staff what he’s doing beyond his next 24 hours. He shows up for treatment in the morning, performs the rehabilitation tasks he’s assigned, and goes home. Then he arrives the next day and repeats. Eventually, after enough steady, incremental progress is made, he gets to be a baseball player again.
As a consequence of that, when reporters ask the always-accommodating Travis for status updates, he often has few specifics to offer. He’ll say he feels good, much better than before. But there’s only so much he knows. His body will tell him when he’s ready.
For their part, the Blue Jays aren’t taking any chances. Atkins acquired utility infielders Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte this off-season, capable major-leaguers who can provide strong production up the middle if Travis — and injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki — is unable to play.
It can’t be a great feeling to watch your team guard so thoroughly against your potential unavailability. But if anyone’s aware of the circumstances, it’s Travis.
“I understand these last few years, me getting hurt, makes things a little bit confusing sometimes. I’m really happy we brought in a few guys who have proven themselves. Diaz was an all-star in ‘16. Solarte’s been doing it a long time,” Travis said. “I’m excited, man. I want to win. If I’m not the best guy to be out on that field, then take me off. That’s kind of how I roll.”
That selfless attitude, and the steadfast work ethic he’s brought to his many rehabs, is one reason why a team wouldn’t give up on a guy like Travis. His undeniable talent is another.
What’s so tormenting about Travis’ starts and stops is how good he’s been when able to play. He essentially carried the Blue Jays through May of last year, batting .364/.373/.646 with 20 extra-base hits in 26 games. For his career, Travis boasts a.292/.331/.462 line with a 112 wRC+, despite playing through a great deal of physical discomfort at times. If he could maintain that over a full season, he’d be a top-10 second baseman offensively.
“I feel like when I’m healthy, and I’m in a good place, when I’m out on the field my play can speak for itself,” he said. “But when I’m not healthy, I can’t compete. I can’t help this team. And I’m not able to do my job. So, I’ve got to be healthy. That’s the bottom line.”
Look, it’s no fun to write this story again. It’s probably not much fun to read it, either. We’ve all been down this road many times before. No one’s going to blame any fan who is skeptical as to whether this time Travis is really going to get past all of this. Whether he’s really going to be healthy and play a full season.
But what everyone needs to remember is that the person who is having absolutely the least fun through all of it is Travis. He’s a ballplayer. It’s literally the only thing he wants to do. The only thing he’s done his entire life.
And, more often than not over the last three years, his body hasn’t let him do it. You have no idea how that feels. How difficult that is to cope with. It’s costing him money, costing him a livelihood. He’ll be 27 next month. He only has so many years left in which to play professionally. Injuries have already taken so much of his career. All he can do now is keep working — and hope they don’t take the rest.
“Man, I love this game. It means a lot to me. Outside of it being my job, it’s truly what I love,” Travis said. “If you watch me play this game, I play with a lot of emotion deep down — because I love it.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason. And, to be quite honest, I don’t understand the reason at this point,” he continued. “But I know in time everything will get answered. I’ve got to take care of my business. I’ve got to get healthy.”