Long gone are the remnants of his teenage years, the baby fat on his face and the oratorical tics and the anger. Travis Snider was a wily kid, all right, prone to outbursts at his coaches and teachers and God and anyone who couldn't answer the questions that so plagued him.
Snider likes to say now that he grew up fast, and as a 21-year-old with a starting job in left field for the Toronto Blue Jays, it's easy to presume he means it in a baseball sense. But no. Snider is an old soul. He has lived things kids shouldn't have to live. And so the only indication of his age – the spiky black hair that porcupines in every direction – turns into background noise when Snider starts to recount why introspection trumped immaturity.
"I try to understand what life is about," he said. "When my mom got sick. I realized the responsibilities I had to take on not only as a young man but from a career standpoint – the sacrifices and dedication that go into what you do in life. I've learned from my mistakes. I've seen people around me teach the right and wrong way to do things."
The greatest lessons came from his mother, Patty Snider, or rather because of her. When Snider was 14, she slipped into a coma. She emerged from it with memory loss and a damaged liver, and her marriage with Snider's father, Denne, ended. Snider needed to take care of his mother and himself. All of his grievances – each a derivation of how and why – found resolution in anger-management counseling and his greatest outlet, baseball.
And just when Snider thought he had come to peace with himself and his story, Patty's car swerved across a highway median in 2007, and she was killed days shy of her 50th birthday.
"He's been through a lot," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "There are people who are 31, 41 who couldn't handle what he's dealt with. He's had a lot of support from us, but all the credit goes to him."
Certainly Snider deserves it. He's from the amateur baseball hinterlands of suburban Seattle. He looks more linebacker than outfielder, a 6-foot, 235-pound tetherball of muscle. And while he was considered the best pure hitter in the 2006 draft, enough skeptics existed – over the competition and the body and the anger issues – that he dropped to the 14th pick of the first round.
Even there, the Blue Jays were initially skeptical. Area scouts turned Toronto onto Snider, and assistant GM Tony LaCava visited Washington often. Ricciardi wouldn't sign off on the pick until he saw Snider, and he didn't want to see Snider against high school competition, where he could face an inferior pitcher or get walked.
So the Blue Jays flew Snider to Rogers Centre, and Ricciardi threw batting practice to Snider. After a few left-handed swings, he needed little convincing.
"He can hit," Ricciardi said. "You always like the kids who can hit."
Immediately, Snider did. As an 18-year-old, he slugged 11 home runs in 194 rookie-league at-bats. He was just as good in the Midwest League the next season, and after starting at high Class A last year, he ascended three levels, spent September with the Blue Jays and hit .301 in 73 at-bats.
At 20, Snider was the youngest player in the American League. The Blue Jays couldn't help it. When they gave Snider a challenge, he exceeded expectations. This decade, only two others have hit greater than .300 as a 20-year-old in as many at-bats as Snider: Delmon Young and Jose Reyes. The last one prior to them: Alex Rodriguez, in 1996.
"They believe I can handle the situations they have put me in, and from the start I've trusted the organization," Snider said. "If the best situation was for me to spend a couple months at Triple-A, they have my career and my best interests in mind."
Then Snider hit .381, mashed four home runs and slugged almost .700 during the spring. The only Triple-A he'll see are the batteries in his headphones.
"My opportunity is here at a young age," Snider said. "It's time to go out and play, which is great. But then I remember: I don't know much, really."
So when Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston talks, Snider doesn't lapse into an iPod daze. And when Tony Fernandez came through Blue Jays camp to lecture on the importance of preparation, Snider sponged every word. He knows no 21-year-old can guarantee performance – "We know there may be a backslide," Ricciardi said, "and we have to be ready to protect him" – and Snider wants to stick around.
More for his mom than him. He thinks about her a lot. She would be proud. He's hitting .364 through three games and should move up to the middle of the order from the No. 9 hole once he gets acclimated. The last time Patty saw him was at the Midwest League All-Star Game, a kid with a little baby fat left on his face and the teenage patois and, sure, a little anger. He's got a picture of it, along with so many others, in his condo in Washington. One of these days, he's going to get together with his dad and sister, and they'll put together some photo albums.
For now, he can do only little things. Like in the first game of the season, when Snider hit a home run. He looked toward the ceiling of Rogers Centre, up at his mom, a quick homage from the oldest 21-year-old in the building, an angry boy grown into a man who's just beginning to understand what life is about.