By David Willis
In the self-centered world of professional sports, Travis Snider is surprisingly modest.
Not that he doesn't have reason to puff out his chest. At just 20, the top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays' system is on the fast track to the major leagues. On Wednesday he was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse from the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
A rock at 5-foot-11 and 245 pounds, he is rated the No. 7 prospect in all of baseball by ESPN.com, ahead of Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury, who is 19th. He has the money commensurate with his talent as he signed for $1.7 million after being drafted 14th overall out of high school by Toronto in 2006.
But, after all he has been through in his life, Snider isn't about to be overcome by the glamor of impending superstardom.
"It is an honor and a blessing to be considered a prospect," said the outfielder. "But my experiences allow me to keep things in perspective. It is a dream to be here, but I try to remember that there is more to life. I try to enjoy life."
Snider is well aware of how precious every day is. Over the last four years he has lost his mother, two grandparents, his best friend and a coach that he considered one of his greatest mentors.
"I have taken a few bumps and bruises," he said. "It's tough when you hit a bad stretch."
Despite being the youngest player in Fisher Cats history, Snider was the vocal leader of a team whose average age is 26.
"He's very wise beyond his years," said New Hampshire manager Gary Cathcart. "I've seen him stand up to teammates, which is something you expect out of a veteran. For all he has been though, he has a tremendous understanding of everything around him."
Snider had to grow up in a hurry. When he was just a freshman in high school, his mother became very ill and slipped into a coma for two weeks.
"That was a very emotional time for me," he said. "I had to realize that, at that age, I had to be conscious of things other people (at that age) were not. I had to grow up fast."
His mother recovered to see him excel in both baseball and football at Jackson (Wash.) High.
But his football career was short-lived. After starting as a fullback and linebacker as a freshman and sophomore, he suffered a fractured fibula and tore tendons in his ankle during spring practice after being hit in the leg. He had to sit out his entire junior football and baseball season after having screws put in his ankle, and decided to stop playing football. Also during that time, his grandfather passed away.
Snider still went on to excel in his final high school season, hitting .526 with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs for the 27-0 Class 4A state champion Timberwolves. The Blue Jays, who had drafted exclusively college players in the early rounds of the previous four drafts, took him in the first round and made him a rich young man.
He immediately reported to rookie ball with the Pulaski (Va.) Blue Jays where he hit .325 with 11 home runs in just 54 games. He opened the 2007 season with the advanced Single-A Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts, and finished the season with 16 home runs and 93 RBIs in 118 games.
But baseball began to take a back seat in May when his grandmother, who he described as a second mother, passed away. He took a week off, but was quickly back on the field.
However, life would soon deal him yet another blow. In September, just as the season came to an end, his mother was killed in a car accident.
"I was really confused at that point," he said. "I had to learn to deal with those emotions and express myself. I had to use the resources that were available to me through the Blue Jays, and I think the best decision I could have made was to get back into a routine."
Snider made the decision to return to baseball and play in the Arizona Fall League. But in December, one of his best friends from high school passed away, and not long after his summer league coach from high school died.
"You never get used to losing people you love," he said. "I feel fortunate that I haven't lost anyone close to me in the last few months. I know I could get a phone call today and find out someone has passed away. But you learn to live and go on."
The 2008 season started on a bad note after he reported to major league spring training. While making a throw from the outfield, he felt a pop. He had strained a ligament in his left elbow, an injury that nagged him for the rest of camp and prevented him from playing the outfield for the beginning of the season.
But the bad elbow did not stop him from hitting. In 17 games for high Single-A Dunedin the big southpaw hit .279 with four home runs before being promoted to New Hampshire.
In 98 games with the Fisher Cats, Snider hit .262 with 17 home runs and 67 RBIs while still dealing with pain in his left elbow. But despite frustration with his average and his strikeouts (116 in 362 at-bats), he still manages to play baseball with a smile.
"There was never a point that I didn't want to play baseball," he said. "It's an outlet. I have learned so much away from the field. I can't say I get upset over the stupid little things anymore."
During the Eastern League All-Star Game on July 17, Snider received a standing ovation from his home fans at Merchantsauto.com. And included in that crowd were his father and sister, who had traveled up to see him play for the Fisher Cats for the first time.
"I have a new appreciation for the game," he said. "I know there will always be supporters and critics. I have a lot of development ahead of me and I want to get better. But I know that every day I can come to the ballpark and do what I love, play baseball."
The Travis Snider File
Team: AAA Syracuse Chiefs (promoted from New Hampshire this week)
High school: Jackson (Wash.) High
High School: As a senior, hit .526 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs. Earned Washington baseball Player of the Year.
Pros: Drafted 14th overall in 2006 draft by Blue Jays. Signed for $1.7 million. In 287 professional games with Pulaski (2006), Lansing (2007), Dunedin (2008) and New Hampshire (2008) has a .296 average with 48 home runs and 208 RBIs.
Expectations: Rated the No. 7 prospect in all of baseball by ESPN.com and the No. 11 prospect by Baseball America, both ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury.
Struggles: In the last four years, has lost his mother, two grandparents, a close friend and a coach.