The two sides of Blue Jays ace Alek Manoah

Alek Manoah is not your typical ace.

The 24-year-old Toronto Blue Jays pitcher that everyone knows as fiercely competitive and overly demonstrative is also a socially-conscious, kind-hearted spirit who began racking up accolades off the diamond before he did much of anything on it.

When Manoah was in elementary school, he was being picked on by a bully who lived in the same apartment complex in Miami, Fla. Manoah’s mother, Susana Lluch, was ready to get involved and seek out the kids’ parents — because that’s the type of mother she was — but the parents were nowhere to be found. When the kid approached Manoah at school one day, he immediately went to the guidance counsellor and said, “Look, I think we need to have a discussion because this kid’s picking on me, I really don’t want to fight him, I’m much bigger than him, my mom can’t find his parents, so obviously something’s wrong in the household,” Lluch recalls. That was the end of the bullying and the start of an intimate friendship between Manoah and his bully. It was a gesture that earned him an anti-bullying award from the school.

A similar interaction happened more recently when Manoah’s teammate Alejandro Kirk was being body-shamed by a radio host on social media. Manoah stood up for Kirk publicly, was honoured for his sportsmanship and gave the baseball world a glimpse of the side of him that hasn’t changed since elementary school.

"MVP" Alek Manoah playing baseball -- as a hitter -- at a young age.

On the mound, Manoah is a different beast — one that betrays his softer side. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound righty towers over his adversaries, sizing them up with a fiercely competitive gaze that is only slightly obscured by his big beard and low-hanging Blue Jays cap. Manoah wastes no time laying siege to his opponents. Like a boxer who’s always on the offensive, he establishes his high-90s fastball all over the plate before fooling batters with his trademarked slider.

Manoah is demonstrative, nodding his head and talking to himself during at-bats, pumping his fist at every strikeout, and screaming after big outs. He showcases his intense passion for the game and competitive flair every time he takes the mound because despite the pressures of playing in the big leagues, Manoah still understands that he is ultimately playing the same childhood game he grew up loving.

“I really love playing the game. I’ve been playing since I was three years old and growing up watching SportsCenter, watching baseball, seeing the way Barry Bonds played and the fire that Justin Verlander pitched with … I’ve always just played passionately,” Manoah tells the Star during an off-day for the starter. He’s wearing red basketball shorts and a tight-fitting Jays shirt as his team warms up and kids in the stands yell out his name, hoping to get his attention.

“When I’m out on the mound, I don’t care what people think or anything — I’m just trying to win games. I’m trying to do everything I can in my power. And I’m trying to spread positivity and love for the sport.”

In his first full MLB season, the Miami native of Cuban descent is 15-7 with a 2.31 ERA and 176 strikeouts, becoming the fastest pitcher in Blue Jays history to earn 300 career Ks by accomplishing the feat in just 50 games. The 11th overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft made his all-star debut this season and leads the team in wins, innings pitched (190.2), quality starts (24) and WAR (5.7), establishing himself as the Blue Jays’ newest ace and a Cy Young candidate for years to come.

Manoah’s rise to fame comes at a good time, too, with rates of youth baseball participation dropping across North America in recent years, from 16.5 per cent of American children aged six to 12 playing on a regular basis in 2008 to 14.4 per cent in 2019, according to a recent study by the Aspen Institute. The pandemic exacerbated the problem, with a 15.2 per cent drop in youth participation from 2019 to 2020.

Plus, MLB viewership is down and getting older, with just seven per cent of viewers being under 18 and the oldest average audience of all the major American sports leagues at 57 years old in 2016 — compared to just 42 for the average NBA fan — according to a study by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Magna Global. It has gotten so stark that the league is dramatically altering rules in order to appeal to younger audiences, introducing a pitch clock next season to speed up games.

"Alek is a rare breed," Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker says of his 24-year-old ace.

The sport aptly called “America’s favourite pastime” is growing old, and it needs players like Alek Manoah to help rejuvenate it.

“From the moment he got to the big leagues, he just carried himself with an energy and a presence about him,” Blue Jays reliever David Phelps said about Manoah, who went six scoreless innings in his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium last season. “I said it during our first series this year: he’s an ace, in every sense of the word. He has the ability to completely take over a ball game, and we’ve seen it on multiple occasions.”

“Alek is a rare breed,” Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker adds. “I mean, he’s full of energy every day. He’s a great teammate in the dugout. He’s very vocal in the dugout even when he’s not pitching. He brings a ton of energy to this team, on the days that he starts especially. I mean, it’s always one of those games when I’m sure as a position player you love to be out there behind him because he’s competing with every ounce of his being. And that’s just a part of his DNA and what makes him good.”

Alek Manoah and his older brother Erik would compete over everything growing up, from who's taller to who's stronger to who's faster.

Growing up, Alek and his older brother Erik would compete over everything, from who’s taller to who’s stronger to who’s faster. They were raised in a tough environment — one in which their mother would skip meals herself to ensure her kids didn’t go to bed hungry. And one that included the separation of Lluch from the boys’ father, Erik Manoah Sr., in 2010, when Alek was just 12. It was the kind of childhood that necessitated toughness, both mentally and physically, breeding a lot of trash talk and physical injury between Alek and Erik, who each carry childhood scars to this day.

That competitiveness comes out on the mound in a way that is different from most pitchers, who tend to be more introverted and self-contained — superstitious, even. Manoah, on the other hand, is loud and unafraid to get down and dirty, diving for ground balls even if it means risking injury and sniping back at batters if they have something to say. He gets so fired up that his pitching coach and mother have both asked him to tone it down at times. In fact, he was tossed in just his fifth career start when he hit Baltimore Orioles batter Maikel Franco, who took issue with Manoah walking towards the plate, causing the benches to clear.

Unlike most starting pitchers who sit in the back of the dugout in between innings, Manaoh is constantly on his feet, leaning his big, imposing frame over the dugout fence and engaging with the game like a kid at the ballpark would, talking to teammates, laughing, cheering and generally being his social and loving self. Manoah doesn’t behave like most pitchers, nor does he want to.

“Sometimes pitchers are just in their own little kind of bubble wrap where they have their routine and things like that. But for me… If I have to slide for a ball, I’m gonna slide for a ball. I don’t care if that’s not traditional for pitchers. I’m gonna play hard. I’m gonna run off and on the field like position players do,” Manoah says, noting the influence from his experience being a catcher and first baseman before transitioning to a pitcher in his freshman year of college. “I just enjoy really playing the game and getting down and dirty. So I like to pitch that way.”

Fans all over the world got to see Manoah up close during the 2022 MLB All-Star Game, where he delivered an iconic performance by striking out the side while being mic’d up on national TV. After his third strikeout, he yelled: “Three punchies. Let’s go!” in his boyish manner. Then, when he ran into the dugout to the applause of his teammates, he got serious, telling them, “Let’s go win a ball game,” even though it was ultimately a meaningless one.

“I think the best part [of the all-star game reaction] is a lot of the kids that I meet, going from ballpark to ballpark, talking to them, the main thing they’re always saying is: ‘Three punchies!’ Or they’re like, ‘Man, we loved your all-star game,” Manoah says. “And for me, that’s awesome, because kids are able to get an insight on setting up pitches and things like that and also understanding that hey, baseball is fun. Going out there and having a good time: That’s the main [objective] is having a good time, having fun, and as long as you’re doing that and working hard, everything’s gonna work out.”

Lluch believes it’s that balance that has empowered Manoah to connect with baseball fans so quickly. It’s the fact that he is fiercely competitive and willing to do everything in his power to win games, while simultaneously having fun and showing his love for the game, joking around with teammates and bringing people together on and off the field. It also helps that he’s well on his way to being one of the game’s elite starters.

“The fans kind of realize, ‘OK, well, this isn’t your typical pitcher,’” Lluch says.

Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah with his mother, Susana Lluch.

Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano echoes a similar sentiment, saying: “I think the most important thing up there on the mound is just to be you, right? Alek, he doesn’t fit into a certain box of what people want him to be. He’s just himself out there. And I feel like when you’re just yourself, you’re not trying to be what everyone wants you to be — I feel like that’s the coolest thing.”

It’s that fun and authentic love for the sport that Manoah wants to pass onto the next generation, who by most accounts are falling out of love with baseball. Instead of just focusing on himself and all the pressure that comes with the playoff race that the Blue Jays find themselves in, Manoah is fully invested in the sport’s growth, admitting that he spends a lot of time thinking about the future of baseball — that he thinks about himself when he was six and seven years old, waking up early to watch SportsCenter instead of cartoons, when he just wanted to be a part of the action.

Now that he’s the one shining on morning highlight reels, he hopes that he can inspire the next generation of kids to do the same.

“The biggest thing is the moment kids stop watching baseball or the moment they stop loving baseball or thinking it’s fun, our game is gonna die,” Manoah says. “So, for me, I just want to be an inspiration for all the kids that grew up like me that have an interest in the sport and hopefully when they watch me, their interest grows.”

Oren Weisfeld is a freelance writer based in Toronto


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