By Greg Mercer, Record staff
KITCHENER – It was early September in 1981 when manager Larry Hardy summoned 21-year-old Jesse Barfield into his office in Knoxville, Tennessee. The young outfielder’s mind raced. Had he done something wrong on the field? Had he broken curfew?
But Hardy, manager of the Blue Jays’ double-A affiliate, wasn’t about to lay some discipline down. Instead, he was delivering a message minor league baseball players wait their whole careers to hear.
“He said, ‘congrats, you’re going up to The Show.’ I said ‘Come on man, stop playing,’” Barfield said.
Hardy wasn’t playing. The next night, Barfield made his major league debut for the Toronto Blue Jays in Chicago against the White Sox – in front of a hometown crowd, in a stadium where he’d grown up dreaming of being a big leaguer.
In his first at-bat, he hit a grounder into the gap at shortstop and sprinted down the line. A sure-thing single – only it wasn’t. The fielder somehow got to the ball, and threw him out by an eyelash.
“When I got back to the dugout, I said ‘that was a hit in double-A,’” he said. “Big John Mayberry, one of the veterans, said ‘this ain’t no double-A. This is the big leagues.’”
Barfield was recalling his days as a rookie over the phone from Houston, Texas, ahead of his appearance at Themuseum in Kitchener on May 5.
Considered one of the best all-time Blue Jay outfielders, Barfield’s accomplishments after his call-up are well known. He slugged 241 career home runs. The American League’s top offensive player in 1986. An all-star and two-time gold glover gifted with arguably the best outfield arm of the 1980s.
But he remembers what it was like to be a struggling rookie, before he developed into one of the game’s top players. That’s why he urges patience for a 2015 Blue Jays team filled with young players still learning the ropes in the majors.
Outfielder Dalton Pompey and second baseman Devon Travis, who like him jumped straight from double-A to the big leagues, are stand-out players who will only get better with time, he said.
The Jays’ youth movement reminds him a lot of the ‘82 Jays, surrounded with key veterans, Barfield said.
“You’ve got to give these guys a chance to succeed. Guys like Pompey, he has a lot of talent. He’s going to learn. And when he figures it all out, look out,” he said. “Those guys have great veterans around them, and that’s a key thing.”
As a rookie adjusting to life in the big leagues, Barfield says he respected the veterans’ experience, kept his mouth shut and his mind open.
“I would sit there and watch. I didn’t jabber. If they asked me a question, then I would talk,” he said. “That’s how I earned their respect.”
Barfield’s happiest moment in the game came when he “finally got the chance to prove myself as an everyday player.” But it wasn’t easy. Bobby Cox, the Blue Jays manager, made him earn that job, even after his 1983 season when he swatted 27 home runs.
“After that season I figured I got my shot now, but next year, I was back on the bench,” he said. “I asked Bobby Cox, ‘what do I have to do?’”
Cox wanted Barfield to prove he could hit right-hander’s sliders. So the young outfielder worked on his approach, slowly cut down his strikeouts, and the next year rose his batting average 30 points.
“We won the division title that year, and people knew who we were after that,” he said.
Barfield’s prediction had come true. Way back in 1973, as a 13-year-old he’d sat in the cheap seats at Comiskey Park with his friends and pointed onto the field.
“I told my buddies, ‘one day, I’m going to be playing right out there’,” he said. “They looked at me and said, ‘Man, you’re crazy. You’re out of your mind.’.”
Barfield didn’t play organized baseball until he was 12, and says he was “self-taught” by emulating Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and other legendary Chicago players.
Basketball was his first sport, but he ditched the court in high school to concentrate on the diamond. His hoops-loving friends didn’t understand.
“I figured I’d give it a shot. I’d say I made the right choice,” he said.
An evening with Jesse Barfield
Former Blue Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield will speak at Themuseum in downtown Kitchener Wednesday, May 5, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34.50. For more information, visit themuseum.ca