A bittersweet homecoming for Travis Snider

TACOMA — Travis Snider had looked forward to this day for months.

The Toronto Blue Jays would finish their series against the Tampa Bay Rays, then fly to Seattle for a series beginning Monday at Safeco Field that would become Snider’s first trip home as a professional baseball player.

Snider, a 21-year-old slugger who starred at Jackson High School in Mill Creek, has come back to play before friends and family, all right. But not with the Blue Jays.

Today, he’ll play the third of four games for the Las Vegas 51s against the Tacoma Rainiers at Cheney Stadium.

This isn’t how the homecoming was supposed to happen, a Triple-A game in a ballpark that hardly sparkles like a major league stadium. But baseball has a way of changing plans and messing with a guy along the way.

The year began as the best of Snider’s pro career, but it has challenged him like no other because of injury, hitting struggles and a demotion from the big leagues.

Snider, on the fast track toward the majors since the Blue Jays drafted him in the first round in 2006, made the team after a stellar spring training. Then he made it look like a great move, hitting a home run on opening day off Tigers ace Justin Verlander and two more on April 13 to help the Jays beat the Twins. In 14 games, he batted .310 with three home runs, 10 RBI and a huge dose of confidence.

“It was something I don’t think I’m ever going to forget. It seems so far away now,” Snider said Friday, sitting in a lawn chair outside the portable building that serves as the visitor’s clubhouse at Cheney Stadium.

Any adversity the big-league game could throw in Snider’s face after that hot start, it did.

Pitchers made adjustments and challenged his patience with offspeed pitches.

A back injury, suffered during an offseason workout, flared up.

Snider’s average dropped and the pressure he put on himself increased.

He was a part-time player for the first time in his career, in a left-field platoon with Jose Bautista, and the sporadic at-bats tested not only his timing but also his routine between the games he played.

“It wasn’t a lack of work ethic, but it was (a matter of) understanding the extra stuff you have to do on those days you’re not playing,” he said. “There were some adjustments that I needed to make from an offensive standpoint that I wasn’t making — chasing the offspeed pitches in the dirt and adjusting to a platoon role which I’d never done in my life. But I don’t think it’s any excuse for not going out and performing.”

After that hot start, Snider batted .193 with no home runs in an 18-game stretch. In the midst of his struggles, he had a good talk with former Jackson star Brent Lillibridge, who was slumping himself after making the Chicago White Sox’s opening-day roster.

“Both of us had been everyday players our whole lives and we want to be out there helping the team every day,” Snider said. “But as young guys we have to understand that there are certain things you have to earn that aren’t just going to be given to you even if you have a good spring training or a good September callup.

“There’s a point when you start pressing, especially when you know you could be on the verge of being sent down. They gave me a couple of weeks to try and get myself out of it, but I wasn’t able to do it at that level.”

The Blue Jays optioned Snider to their Class AAA minor league team, the Las Vegas 51s, on May 22. He knew deep down it was the best move, but it still was hard to accept. He didn’t speak with the media after the Blue Jays optioned him, and he didn’t report immediately to the 51s.

“My whole life, I’ve dealt with unexpected things,” he said. “But this is one thing I don’t think I was ready for. I’ve never been in a position from a baseball standpoint where the failure snowballed to the point where you’re getting demoted.”

Snider returned home to Mill Creek and spent two days with friends and family — the same people who’ve helped him get through much bigger challenges in life. His mother died in a traffic accident a few years ago, and he also has lost other relatives, friends and coaches who were close to him.

“Coming home to be with the same group of people who’ve been there when I’ve had all the success and turmoil and tragedy helped,” he said. “Being around a group of people that knows me was good to help me get my mind in the right place before I went on to the next task.

“We got away and spent a day across the water at my buddy’s property. I spent some time with my dad and my sister and my good buddies. We talked about some things that were going on in my head and in my mind and what I experienced from a failure standpoint. Those people have been with me through thick and thin.”

When he played his first game with the 51s on May 24, Snider’s mind was right. But his body wasn’t.

By June 1, the pain in his back bit him again, and this time the Jays shut him down and sent him to their training facility in Florida for a month of rehab.

“When you’re down there, it’s cabin fever,” he said.

Snider returned to Vegas early this month with his mind still in the right place and his at-bats were improving. Entering Saturday’s game at Tacoma, he had a .227 average with five home runs and 14 RBI. He’d hit safely in seven of 10 games, with three homers and seven RBI in that period.

Most of all, he’s trying to put together quality at-bats, work ball-strike counts in his favor and be selective in the pitches he swings at.

“I’ve tried to look at this as an opportunity to learn, not only from an injury standpoint but also from a performance standpoint,” he said. “I was dealing with more failure this year than even last year when I started off slow in Double-A. Learning to deal with that failure and trying to turn it into a positive has been a real challenge for me.

“But it’s something I feel like I’m progressing with. I’m really trying to make the most of the opportunity here and working on what I need to do to get better and get back to the big leagues.”

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