Colby Rasmus calls his first three seasons in Major League Baseball a “rollercoaster” and says baseball has changed for him since he was a Little League star in Phenix City and broke home run records at Russell County High School.
The grin he had while pitching and playing first base for a Little League World Series team that captured the hearts of America in 1999 had been replaced by a noticeable scowl when the 25-year-old center fielder takes the field. He isn’t sure he loves the game anymore.
“It’s hard to say,” Rasmus said Tuesday, before reporting Thursday to the Toronto Blue Jays’ camp in Dunedin, Fla.
“I guess ’cause I don’t have a lot of fun. Sometimes it’s fun. I think I just put too much pressure on myself instead of just going out there, relaxing and being able to play the game. My time in St. Louis, it was just -- I never could relax and play the game. It was always I was doing something wrong.”
This time last year, Rasmus was reporting to spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals as tension mounted between him and former St. Louis manager Tony La Russa. Trade requests and threats of demotion swirled and a volatile fan base grew uneasy.
On July 27, 2011, after more than 2½ seasons as a Cardinal, Rasmus was traded to Toronto. He’s counting on the change of scenery, different coaches and teammates and his increased knowledge of the “business” to renew his love for the game.
‘Faith in myself’
The Cardinals drafted Rasmus with the 28th pick in the 2005 draft. After three seasons in the minors, Rasmus made the big-league squad in 2009.
Rasmus hit .251 over 147 games, amassing 16 home runs and 52 RBIs.
He improved in his second season, tallying a .276 batting average, 23 home runs and 66 RBIs.
Even in the middle of his best season, there was drama. Rasmus was on his way to striking out 148 times. And he said Tuesday that La Russa threatened him every year he was in St. Louis with demotions to Triple-A Memphis. The center fielder told the Ledger-Enquirer in September 2010 that he requested a trade, although informally, after another demotion threat.
After the media got word of it, his margin of error dwindled.
“I just didn’t like it, didn’t like the environment,” Rasmus said. “I always felt like I could never get comfortable and just relax and play the game, and La Russa never wanted that (for me). He always said that. ‘We don’t want him to get comfortable.’
“He made sure I didn’t.”
La Russa’s lineup changes didn’t help, Rasmus said.
“Batting here and batting there, then the media is asking me about it, everybody is asking me about it. I was like, ‘I don’t know, man. I just want to play the game.’ They made it such a big deal. It got crazy. Every time he moved me in the lineup, the media is in my face. It’s like, ‘I don’t care.’ But it did get to the point where it started affecting me because I just couldn’t get away from it.
“I just got to the point where I didn’t want to play for him. I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the way he went about it, and I feel like he made me a worse player.”
After the 2010 season, Rasmus changed his approach with the Cardinals, his offseason workouts and his hitting coach.
Colby’s father, Tony, the baseball coach at Russell County High School, has always played a major role in Colby’s approach at the plate. The first two years, Colby said his father was in and out of St. Louis, helping the left-handed batter.
La Russa didn’t like it, he said.
So in 2011, in an effort to please the Cardinals, Colby only worked with his father on occasion, “but not like the two years before, not as much,” he said.
He also laid off the weights because La Russa wanted Rasmus to be a base-hit player, not a power outfielder.
That made Rasmus even more anxious, he said.
“I think last year, going into the season, I was already beat down,” Rasmus said. “I wasn’t in a good place. To be honest with you, I didn’t really want to go. I knew how it was going to be. I just had a bad feeling about it to begin with because it was just wearing on me being there.
“In St. Louis, I think I just lost my confidence and just didn’t have any faith in myself. No one else had faith in me, either.”
Rasmus played 94 games in a Cardinals’ uniform in 2011, scoring 61 runs, hitting 11 homers and posting a .246 batting average.
From spring training until he was traded, Rasmus said he heard about his shortcomings from every angle.
“The fans in St. Louis started getting mad with me and that just added fuel to the fire,” he said. “It wasn’t good. Fans were yelling at me from the outfield. Coming into the dugout getting blasted for doing this and that and doing things wrong, it might have started making me doubt myself.”
Although there were constant rumors of a trade, the first word of it didn’t come from St. Louis brass.
Colby’s father heard about it and called his son.
The Cardinals’ general manager called later.
Although Rasmus’ time in Toronto last year didn’t produce the best numbers -- he hit just .173 over 35 games while suffering from a wrist injury -- he said the organization, the city and the media were a breath of fresh air.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s a big city. It’s a lot different. You know, the media is not digging so much just to find nothing.
“The coaches are, I guess, more laid back. You know, just letting me go out there and play the game -- you know, if I mess up, they know I know I messed up so they’re not all on me about something.”
According to Rasmus, that was completely different from St. Louis.
“Our outfield coach in St. Louis was a little more on me because Tony La Russa wanted him to be that way,” he said. “I mean, I already know I messed up, and I felt bad about it. So it just kind of got to the point where I just beat myself up too much. I just felt like that I wasn’t going to be able to do good enough, and I wasn’t really having fun. Baseball is hard enough when you’re playing good, especially playing that many games and being on that level, everybody watching. You want to do the best that you can do and not performing, it can wear on you a little bit.
Championship in St. Louis
While Rasmus was trying to adjust to life in Toronto and baseball in the American League, the trade boosted the Cardinals’ bullpen. Along with the Atlanta Braves’ colossal late-season collapse, St. Louis made the playoffs and eventually won the World Series.
Rasmus said he had no hard feelings toward his Cardinal teammates. In fact, he was rooting for them, but his support wouldn’t show up in the form of TV ratings.
“I didn’t watch a game,” Rasmus said. “Usually after the season is over with, I don’t ever watch baseball. I get my fill of it during the season. I was definitely pulling for all my teammates, yeah. I wanted them to win it. They don’t have any bad blood from me. It is what it is. I wasn’t able to do good enough for the people that liked me there. I was pulling for them.”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, players such as Rasmus who spent part of the season with the club were awarded partial shares from the World Series. A full player share was worth $323,170, and each player’s award was based on their time spent with the club.
After the season La Russa announced his retirement and star first baseman Albert Pujols, a free agent, signed with the Los Angeles Angels. Pujols had publicly scolded Rasmus in 2010 for his trade request.
“He was old-school,” Rasmus said, referring to La Russa. “He was all about controlling the game. He wants to be the reason we won or lost, by doing all his moves and this and that.”
Rasmus said if he saw La Russa again, there would probably be no words between the two.
“No, I wouldn’t say anything to him,” he said. “I wouldn’t have anything to say.”
After returning home from Toronto, Rasmus spent most of the offseason in Russell County working on his new house and hunting.
He married the former Megan Hudson in December and the two honeymooned in Cozumel, Mexico.
In an effort to return to “the old me,” Rasmus went back to hitting the weights at a local gym. He also worked with Toronto coaches to improve his swing.
He and the Blue Jays avoided arbitration and agreed to a one-year contract worth $2.7 million. He will be open to arbitration again next year before possibly becoming a free agent after the 2014 season.
When Rasmus is home, he admits he is much happier just working around the house and playing with his 2-year-old daughter, Rylee.
“I wish I could live at home and play baseball,” he said.
With that not an option at the time, Rasmus is as optimistic as ever about his new start.
“I enjoyed my time last year in Toronto,” he said. “Sure when I got over there, I sucked, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed my teammates. And I enjoyed my coaches.”
And unlike last year, he was looking forward to spring training -- the Blue Jays began practice Friday -- and the possibility of having a good time playing the game he grew up loving.
“I’d like to go in and get comfortable with my teammates,” he said before he reported. “Go in and work hard and just try to have fun. Try to just relax and play the game and want to be with my team and want to win and not feel like I’m separated and not wanting to be there.”
This August it will have been 13 years since the Phenix City Little League team won the U.S. championship. Rasmus still remembers what it was like playing with his Little League teammates.
“You know back then when we played, we weren’t worried about nothing. I was just trying to hit the ball and run and see the ball and catch it and not worry about all this other stuff.”