When Toronto Blue Jays rookie Gosuke Katoh stepped up to the plate for his first at-bat at Rogers Centre, the lyrics of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” blared through the stadium’s speakers.
A man of the people, Katoh said he wanted to walk up to a song that would be fun for the fans. Instead of a fiery rap tune or an upbeat salsa mix, he opted for the rhythmic cadence of the 1980s pop hit that’s become a wide-spread Internet phenomenon. That song choice perfectly encapsulates everything Katoh is about.
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“I just thought it'd be hilarious,” Katoh said with a smile. “There's no other situation in the world where I can Rick Roll up to like 50,000 people.”
The Astley song would play four more times before Katoh would record his first major-league hit. That finally came Wednesday, when the 27-year-old laced a double off Boston Red Sox starter Michael Wacha. The ball was thrown in for safe-keeping, and as Katoh took the field on defence in the top half of the fifth inning, he got hugs and pats on the back from his Toronto teammates.
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“I’m not much of a guy that really looks at individual accomplishments,” Katoh said after Wednesday’s game. “But when I got to second today, and I saw the dugout, I get a lot of my happiness from other people's happiness, and they were really excited for me. And that's when I got excited as well.”
The best part about Katoh’s lovable persona is that it’s all completely genuine. He doesn’t act up in the clubhouse or on the field because it’s part of a gag or because someone tells him to — he always has fun playing baseball, and that core value has helped him mesh with a Blue Jays clubhouse that’s quickly earned a reputation as the most enthusiastic crew in the league.
During big moments — like Bo Bichette’s game-winning grand slam Monday — you can expect to see Lourdes Gurriel Jr. spring out of the Jays dugout in celebration, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. usually not too far away. A few years back, Teoscar Hernández started a tradition of dumping sunflower seeds on his teammates, and now the Blue Jays have the home run jacket, which players don and pose for the camera after longballs.
“I like how light everyone keeps it, very professional, but having a lot of fun,” said catcher Tyler Heineman, who joined Toronto on a minor-league deal this offseason. “It’s not as strict and rule-following as other teams that I've been on, and it's nice; it allows the players to just go out and play and be themselves.”
The 30-year-old knows how to keep things fun, too. During a rain delay in a Dominican Winter League game back in 2015, Heineman broke out some card tricks for his teammates and his magic skills instantly became a hit. He’s carried the sleight-of-hand tradition into his time with the Blue Jays.
“It’s a lot of pressure that people put on themselves and players put on themselves,” Heineman said. “So every once in a while, if they want to step away and just laugh and be in awe of some sort of card trick, it's the least I can do. And it's fun for me as well.”
That’s why Katoh fits in so nicely, Heineman explained. The chipper rookie injects a good amount of comic relief into Toronto’s clubhouse, but he also brings a certain level of preparation and versatility that makes him a useful asset to any manager.
“He’s a pro,” Blue Jays skipper Charlie Montoyo said of Katoh. “Always asking, ‘Where can I take fly balls or ground balls?’ He's that guy that does anything. And if he doesn't play, he's happy, but he's ready to play whenever you need him.”
Katoh has played games for the Blue Jays at first base, second base, entered as a pinch-runner and, if the situation calls for it, he’s also the club’s emergency pitcher. If the Blue Jays burn through their bullpen in a blowout, fans could one day see their favourite jokester on the mound tossing “40 mile per hour” fastballs, though Katoh hasn’t given much thought as to what his wind-up might look like.
“I'll be so locked in on just throwing strikes and just trying to get the ball over the plate,” said Katoh, who’s also the Blue Jays emergency catcher. “Because, like I said, I’ve never pitched in my life. So, yeah, I'll be trying to throw strikes. That's the first thing.”
Above all, Katoh understands his role — he knows he’s not a run-producer. Instead, when he is in the lineup, it’s his job to get on base for the sluggers behind him.
“This team’s just full of All-Stars and MVPs,” he said. “So if I just do my job, I don't have to do anything more than that.”
As a guy who’s destined to shuttle between the Blue Jays and their triple-A affiliate in Buffalo all season, that level of energy and awareness is all you can ask for. And when the Astley song comes on, Katoh hopes Blue Jays fans are having a blast at the ballpark, just like he is.
“It’s fun for me; it’s fun for the fans,” he said. “It’s part of the experience.”
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