Catcher Sean Murphy remembers how badly his Oakland Athletics squad began the 2021 season.
“Last year, we started off the season like 0-and-five, 0-and-six. It was just terrible,” he said. “We just got beat down for the first week. I felt like we weren't even close.”
But then Matt Chapman stepped up, rallying his troops in the clubhouse and reminding that wayward A’s team how talented it truly was. It was a small moment where Chapman spoke up, but it sticks out in Murphy’s mind because of what happened after.
“I think right after that we ripped off like 13 [wins] in a row,” Murphy said.
In a dramatic turnaround, Oakland indeed won 13 straight games from April 9 to April 24, with Chapman’s pep talk a catalyst for that hot streak. That’s how powerful leadership can be in a major-league clubhouse — and the need for that critical element is enhanced when a team faces adversity.
Over the course of 162 games, there will be ups and downs, thrilling highs where teams feel like nothing can go wrong, or devastating losing stretches where players wish they picked a different sport. A team needs the right personality to navigate that storm, and Chapman gives the Toronto Blue Jays a very capable leader after joining the club in a March trade.
Each veteran player has a different personality trait that compels guys to follow him, and with Chapman it's his relentless energy, no matter how gruelling the season gets.
“He wants to be in the lineup; he's out there every single day,” said Murphy, who shared the field with Chapman for three major-league seasons. “And he expects that from his teammates as well.”
In that sense, Chapman is like Marcus Semien, who played just one season in Toronto but left a lasting impact through his on-field abilities — he finished third in AL MVP voting and played all 162 games 2021 — and his behaviour in the clubhouse.
Chapman and Semien are both extremely diligent in their pre-game preparation, and that rubbed off on some of the Blue Jays’ young stars.
“[Semien] was there every day, out there practicing, playing, every single game, every single day,” Bo Bichette said. “So just seeing that level of consistency, no matter how he's playing, how he's doing, I think it meant a lot to all of us.”
Semien’s fingerprints were all over Toronto’s epic-but-devastating 91-win, near-playoff campaign from a year ago. And part of the reason the Blue Jays were in contention right down to the final day of the season was because of Semien’s leadership, Bichette said.
“There’s a difference between a talented team and a good team,” he said.
A 91-win season was not possible without Semien’s presence, Bichette explained, as Semien, now a member of the Texas Rangers, often kept the team glued together, meshing Toronto’s incredible young talent with the core values he learned from his years in the game.
But Semien was a quieter, lead-by-example type of guy. Chapman conducts things a little differently.
“He leads by example, but he also leads by how he talks to people,” said A’s utility man Tony Kemp. “If something needs to be policed, he will talk to you off to the side and say, ‘Hey, let's do this this way,’ or, ‘Hey, we don't do this here.’
“[Chapman] is a heck of a leader, and once he gets comfortable in his own skin over there [in Toronto], he's gonna fit right in.”
Kemp’s had a chance to watch this Blue Jays crew for quite some time now — in September of last year he stood alone on the infield watching Semien celebrate after a walk-off home run at Rogers Centre. Kemp, an MLB veteran of seven years, sees something very special in this Toronto team; he likes how much fun they have on the diamond and believes the Blue Jays have created a great culture, one that Chapman slides into very well.
“Obviously they have a couple big faces over there — Bichette, Vladdy [Guerrero Jr.], Teoscar [Hernández],” Kemp said. “But Matt Chapman, he's going to be right up there with the faces of the franchise as well.”
For now, the Blue Jays have a stacked roster, and a World Series is the goal, but there will come a time, perhaps soon, when the gang splits up — Chapman and Hernández are both free agents after the 2023 season. At that point, a new leader will have to step up.
Bichette seems like the obvious candidate to pass the torch to, though he was coy about his future as a clubhouse leader.
“I just come here every day to just play as hard as I can, work as hard as I can,” he said. “So if that's what people look at me as, then I'll make sure that I'm setting the right example. But that's not something that I strive to be.”
Whether Bichette wants to admit it or not, players in the Jays' clubhouse will look up to him one day, if they don’t already. And while Bichette doesn’t actively try to go out and be a leader, he’ll now have learned from two of the game’s best in Chapman and Semien, setting him — and the Blue Jays — up very nicely for years to come.
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