In Smiles We Trust: An interview with Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jay Jackson

Toronto Blue Jays Photo Day
Toronto Blue Jays Photo Day / Elsa/GettyImages

The long, winding road

By the time Jay Jackson made his way to the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 2023 season, he had spent time on what feels like every organization in the league.

Don't believe me? Just ask the Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers (x2), San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds (signed but never played), San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, Hiroshima Carp, Chiba Lotte Marines, Venados de Mazatlan, Yaquis de Obregon and Leones del Caracas.

Jackson, 35, doesn't think any of these pre-Toronto stops stood out above the others in terms of how they shaped him into who he is today. He said he looks at his career in a few different phases: early days, journeyman days, Japan years and the one he's currently in, the return to the United States. Every stop along the way has played a crucial part in shaping him into the player and human being he is now.

There may not have been a past destination that shaped him more than others, but the current team he calls home seems to be on its way to changing that, and fast.

Toronto Blue Jays

"From the very beginning, the Blue Jays expressed interest," he told me in an interview. "Literally the first day of free agency, they were calling me. I trained during the offseason knowing that I was likely going to be a member of their organization. I made sure to get my body in check and fully recovered so this team can get the best version of me."

The recovery aspect is important to note here, because Jackson has had a slew of injuries pop up in recent years. Just last year alone, he tore his hamstring and then later spent time on the 60-day injured list with a lat strain. "I went to Utah, did some recovery stuff, saw some doctors, and I feel like my body is as healthy as I need it to be."

Turns out, the training he put in during the offseason would pay off in a big way. He showed up for Spring Training with the Blue Jays and was utterly dominant. In eight outings and 9.1 innings pitched, he struck out 13 batters and didn't allow a single run. With the lack of flexibility in the current bullpen corps (most guys have no minor league options remaining), he got squeezed out.

After receiving the news that he would not crack the Opening Day roster, Jackson respectfully opted out of his contract with the club; thinking that perhaps he would be able to take his spring performance and turn it into a major league opportunity elsewhere.

It's not that the phone did not ring from interested parties. As a matter of fact, multiple teams called him as soon as the news of his opting out became public. However, the Blue Jays were one of those teams. They weren't going to add him to the big league roster, but they were going to re-sign him, shift some things around, add him to the 40-man and keep him near the top of the list for a promotion when someone on the big league roster either is injured or underperforming. In all his years, this is the very first time he's opened the regular season as a member of his club's 40-man roster.

With this impressive run of success under his belt, one would think that his confidence is through the roof. However, Jackson doesn't think 'confidence' is the right word for what he's feeling. "I've said it to Ross [Atkins, GM], I've said it to Schneids [John Schneider, manager], I've said to everyone who's willing to listen: I am truly blessed to be here. I can tell you that I've never experienced this much energy, love, care and excitement from a single organization I've been a part of. There's no doubt, this is the most wanted I've ever felt in my 16 years as a professional."

He continues, "it's not my confidence that's sky-high, it's me wanting to go out there and show them they made the right choice by welcoming me with open arms. It's like your family, you're always going to go out there and fight for them. The Blue Jays have made it clear that they're going to go out there and fight for me, so I'm going to do the exact same for them."

Minor league mentor

Jackson, along with Casey Lawrence, are the two senior members of the Buffalo Bisons to start the year. For the former, retirement has yet to even cross his mind. He said, "as long as teams want me to be around, I'm going to play." While the goal is obviously to make it to the big leagues, he's not going to be one of those guys that is bitter about playing in Triple-A and projecting that onto his teammates.

"Honestly, I've been embracing a leadership role in the game since I was 26-years-old. I hadn't even been around the league that long when I first had teams contact me about joining their organization strictly as a minor league veteran to help the young guys", he said. While helping up-and-comers is something he's always been interested in, it felt like he was being written off when teams considered him strictly a Triple-A benchwarmer.

Whether it's on purpose or strictly by coincidence, his numbers began to really jump off the page right around the time teams seemed to doubt his abilities as a big league player. In 2015, at the age of 27, he posted a 2.78 ERA in 54 appearances, allowing just two home runs in 74+ innings. In 2016, he had a 1.71 ERA in 67 games in Japan. This upward trend has continued every year since then.

"The younger generations are not coming up with the same level of knowledge as someone my age did", he said. "I'm always happy to share my knowledge and experiences. I tell some of these guys, 'if you move up the baserunner, if you hit .300 and don't constantly worry about hitting the ball out of the park, that's when things are going to happen for you.'"

Jackson also knows what it's like to have veteran teammates in the minor leagues act like they're above this level of play. "Oh yeah", he said, "there are always those guys. To me, it's not the young guys' faults that I'm not in the big leagues. That's gotta be by fault of my own, or there's just not enough room on the team, I realize that." He finished by saying, "I just want to help everyone enjoy their time here. We're playing this fun game and you can't play it mad all the time. You have to enjoy it."

Even if the long-term goal is obviously to contribute to the major league squad, Jackson is loving what he's seen out of this year's Bisons. When asked about who he has his eyes on down there, he specifically points out Bowden Francis, Thomas Hatch, Hayden Juenger, and Junior Fernández. During Spring Training, some of the Double-A arms like Jimmy Robbins, Jimmy Burnette and Ricky Tiedemann came to him frequently for advice for both on the field and off the field topics.

"People may not realize this, but the Blue Jays have assembled a very great group of guys down in the minors. These guys are so eager to learn, and they're going to be huge for this team over the next 5, 10, 15 years down the line."

Support system

As Jackson pointed out, many of the most successful baseball players find the will to keep going in the form of a strong support system. In his fiancé, Sam Bautista, he's been able to find just that. "People don't usually get to see the ups and downs players go through behind the scenes," he said. "Being shuffled between the major leagues and minor leagues, packing up your family and moving multiple times in one season, having to be away from your family during the offseason to train, it's stuff like that that people don't typically see. It's crucial to have a strong supporter, and she's been that and more to me."

"She's unbelievable", he continued. "These past few years, she's kept me on the straight and narrow. She's kept me happy, at peace, and feeling thoroughly supported." He went on to mention that his parents brought him up with a very specific set of beliefs: reach for the stars and chase your dreams, regardless of what hardships you have come across. "From there, it becomes all about finding a partner that echoes these values, and Sam has been that for me. I can't do this without her, she helps me give my career everything I've got and I am forever grateful."

Bautista, a born-and-raised San Francisco Giants fan, had been a friend of Jackson's over the years, but they did not begin to see each other until he signed in San Francisco. "Ever since, we've been attached at the hip", Jackson said. Later this year, the pair are planning on welcoming their first child together, a baby boy. Jackson's birthday is the 27th of October and he's holping to share birthdays with the little one.

In Smiles We Trust

One thing you can always count on when it comes to Jackson is that he will always have a smile on his face. It's all over his social media, it's evident on the mound, and he even has an admirable, if not a bit odd, following on YouTube that has dedicated videos to him and his smile.

"It's become a kind of brand from me personally being a positive, happy person. My life has been up and down, just like anybody else's. You can only control what you can control and I've chosen to live this life with a smile on my face."

"It started in Japan when I first got there. Halfway through the year, I began to embrace myself a bit more and found my own rhythm. It's so hard to go out there and pitch, but you need to learn to be proud of yourself that you got your job done, so I chose to live every day with a smile on my face. My motto in day-to-day life has become 'In Smiles We Trust'."

Remember the name

This will not be the last time you hear Jackson's name, as he is right on the cusp of the big leagues, and is widely expected to play a role in the Blue Jays' bullpen at some point during the 2023 season. After a nearly-perfect Spring Training, he has a handful of Triple-A appearances under his belt for the Buffalo Bisons. While the spring numbers were never sustainable, they showed what he's capable of when he's on his A-Game. An injury to one of the Jays relievers or the underperformance of someone like Trevor Richards could be the primary avenue to the majors for Jackson.

"I've been a part of a lot of teams, man. So often does a team tell you they're committed to you and helping you succeed, then you get there and that's not the case. It's totally different here. From top to bottom; the coaches, my teammates, the medical staff, everybody. I appreciate this team so much. I want to go out there and give them my best because of all the teams I've ever suited up for, they're the most deserving of the very best I have to offer."