Peeling away the layers of Blue Jays enigma Joe Biagini

MLB, Blue Jays, Joe Biagini
Joe Biagini is much beloved by Blue Jays fans, but also poorly understood. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Nowadays it’s pretty easy for any professional athlete to be an open book – if they want to be.

To see what Marcus Stroman, LeBron James or Auston Matthews is doing or thinking, all you have to do is log into Twitter or Instagram. What you’ll find is a curated selection of things that paint their brands in the best light – not so different from what most people do on Facebook.

One person you won’t find if you scour the various social media platforms is Toronto Blue Jays reliever Joe Biagini. Through a series of off-the-wall interviews, Biagini has become a noted eccentric, but he’s also an enigma. He’s simultaneously one of the biggest personalities on his team and a guy who invests very little time putting himself out into the world.

I don’t have the audacity to think that I’m perfect and I’ve got it all figured out, I don’t think anybody does,” Biagini told Yahoo Canada Sports regarding his absence from the social media world. “I don’t think anyone who has their brand and their vision of the way they are and has all the social media covered necessarily knows what they’re doing, if they’re doing the right the thing, or doing the thing they realize they should be doing later in their life.”

If there’s one misconception about Biagini that’s spawned from two years of unpredictable, often-nonsensical, interviews, it’s that he’s a simple class clown. It’s not hard to come across that label when your most recent claim to fame is engaging in a high-five saga with Jimmy Fallon.

In fact, when you ask anyone about the 27-year-old, the word “intelligent” might be the most common adjective used. That intellect shows when you talk to Biagini, even if you have to navigate some banter about equestrian to get to it. Ultimately, you can’t summon raw absurdity at a moment’s notice without something between your ears, right?

“We could debate that into the ground,” deadpans reliever Danny Barnes, who describes Biagini as the guy he’s closest to on the Blue Jays.

Dominic Leone, who also shares a bullpen with the lanky right-hander, is less skeptical about his intellectual chops.

You can tell he’s a deep thinker. He seems like one of those guys who’s got a boatload of knowledge,” he says. “But you don’t know what you’re going to get when you ask him a question.”

That’s been precisely the experience of those who cover the Blue Jays since Biagini’s arrival in 2016, with reporters often flummoxed by his dizzying array of non sequiturs. He’ll give you a five-minute answer, with maybe 20 seconds that is on-topic. Where some might interpret it as him giving them the run-around, Biagini sees his train-of-consciousness nonsense as a form of candor.

“What I really feel is kind of what I want to share with people because I feel like people appreciate candid, genuine, honesty,” he reasons. “Obviously most of the things I say are not honest because they’re jokes, but within that I think it’s just an honest persona of mine.”

The authenticity of the Biagini fans see on TV strains credulity, but there are those who back up the notion that the world sees the Joe they see everyday.

“That’s exactly what’s he’s like. It’s 100 percent real,” says Barnes. “Or else he’s acting all the time, which would be hard to do – and very impressive. He’d probably be an actor then.”

Joe Biagini (far right) stands with his father, Rob Biagini, and teammates. (Credit: Matt Berry)
Joe Biagini (far right) stands with his father, Rob Biagini, and teammates. (Credit: Matt Berry)

Even accepting the premise that the Biagini character is genuine, it certainly took some time to coalesce. Matt Berry, his high school coach at The King’s Academy in Sunnyvale California, describes Biagini as being “one of the shyest gangly little guys” on his team when he first encountered him at the age of 14.

The memory that stands out to Berry most about the pitcher has nothing to do with joking or oddball behaviour. Instead, it paints a picture of the competitor he would become. In his senior year, Biagini hit a home run to put his team ahead, yet came back to the dugout despondent.

“I come up to him at the end of the inning as we are heading back onto the field and he seems frustrated,” Berry recalls. “I ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ He says, ‘That was an outside pitch and I pulled it … I should have gone with the pitch and hit it to right.'”

When he moved on to junior college at San Mateo, that intensity continued to be a hallmark, but the eccentricity started to come to the fore a little bit more. As he grew into himself, his unique personality became apparent to those around him. Doug Williams, who’s in his 24th year as the Bulldogs head coach, still considers Biagini one of his all-time favourites.

“I would pay money to have one like him every year,” Williams said. “He’s somebody out there, and what that somebody is remains a bit of a mystery, but he keeps people laughing and questioning.”

The Biagini opponents see on the mound bears little resemblance to the one encountered in the locker room. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
The Biagini opponents see on the mound bears little resemblance to the one encountered in the locker room. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

At the heart of that mystery is how Biagini reconciles his intensity as a player with the absurdity he spouts when he leaves the field. While many players seem to have an all-encompassing persona as competitors, he doesn’t see how he acts on and off the mound as related.

“It’s just kind of a personality that helps serve one purpose and the functional way that I am on the mound serves another purpose, and they’re distinct. It’s like ‘now it’s time for this, and now it’s time for that,’ and if you can compartmentalize that then go ahead,” he said.

But I feel like a lot of people around here that made it have to be so over-competitive that it envelopes their whole existence. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing more primitive about that, there’s nothing more advanced or special about me. It’s just different.”

That difference often catches those around him off-guard. When he moved on to UC Davis, many of his teammates – like David Popkins, a veteran of the St. Louis Cardinals farm system and a few Indy Ball stops – didn’t know what to make of him.

“Before I got to know Joe, I would say my first impression was he has the personality of a left handed-pitcher who was trying to make it as a stand up comedian,” Popkins said. “Unfortunately because of his delivery, his jokes didn’t get the typical laughter.”

As Popkins became more familiar with Biagini, he slowly got acclimated to his sense of humour, even if it took some time. That’s certainly not unusual.

Even after two years together in the Blue Jays bullpen, Aaron Loup estimates he understands 40 percent of the lanky right-hander’s jokes. That number was much lower when Biagini arrived in Toronto.

“He’s got some interesting jokes. I’ve known him long enough to know you can kind of figure it out,” Loup said. “But in the beginning it was kind of, ‘What did he just say?’ ‘What is he talking about?’”

Throughout his journey in the San Francisco Giants farm system, the Biagini that Blue Jays fans know and love really came to emerge.

“He was definitely a lot more guarded in the minors – although he’d [do things like] always wear the same purple hat every single day in instructs our first year,” said Phil McCormick, a teammate of Biagini’s on the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels. “But he kind of blossomed into the personality he is today throughout his minor-league journey.”

McCormick, now an associate scientist with Pfizer pharmaceuticals, is a top authority on Biagini as the mind – and voice – behind the famous “Biagini in a Bottle” video.

The video got rave reviews (if you count 67 thumbs up and one thumbs down on YouTube), with the best parts being the Biagini cameo and the outrageous purple leotard.

“There was a promotion called ‘Whack-an-Intern,'” McCormick explains, as if it couldn’t be more normal. “Once we saw the interns running down along the side of the track [in leotards] we thought ‘We have to use one of those in the video.'”

About a year later, Biagini received yet another musical tribute, this one coming from former Blue Jays broadcaster Barry Davis.

Although he gives credit to Davis’ “attempt at musical brilliance,” the two videos really just left Biagini wanting more.

“I rank them as tied for last out of all my tributes that I’ve had made about me. But that actually also makes them tied for first, because they’re the only tributes made so far,” he said. “I am accepting more. Please put it out there, a disclaimer that says, ‘he is accepting more tributes.'”

As Biagini settles in at the major-league level, he’s becoming one of the better-liked guys in the Blue Jays clubhouse – even if he remains difficult to get for some. He certainly has a fan in manager John Gibbons.

He’s got a different personality no doubt about it. But he’s easy to like, easy to get along with, easy to talk to – and he listens,” Gibbons said. “In a lot of ways he’s refreshing.”

For all his antics, his fellow Blue Jays tend to believe his heart is in the right place. That doesn’t necessarily mean they comprehend what he’s about, though.

Asked to describe Biagini in one word, some of his fellow relievers struggled mightily with the task. Leone hummed and hawed before landing on “unique.” Loup cocked his eyebrow and offered “interesting.” Barnes went with “fabulous” before retracting it and choosing “artist,” while bullpen catcher Jason Phillips chimed in with “idiot” from the next-door stall good-naturedly.

With the exception of idiot, Biagini is all of those things. He’s a lot more too. He’s fiercely competitive, but very thoughtful. He’s hard on himself, but doesn’t take things too seriously. He’s introverted with an impulse to entertain.

As minor-league-brother-at-arms McCormick puts it, “He’s like a Tootsie pop. You can’t just go ahead and bite it. It’s going to take a while.”

Biagini is cognizant of the fact his personality creates confusion and is liable to be misunderstood, but he has no intention to dial it down.

“I’ll worry about it if I get in trouble at some point, which I don’t totally believe will never happen. But I feel like if I just constantly live in fear of saying something that might offend somebody or saying something weird somebody doesn’t realize is a joke or something like that, I’ll never be able to say anything.”