True Grit

Baseball got Alek Manoah through a turbulent childhood, and he grew up to be a phenomenal pitcher with an electric fastball. He’s a good friend to have and a fierce enemy to face. In other words, just what the Jays need right now

At six foot six and 285 pounds, Alek Manoah is a pirate-bearded, tattoo-coated, barrel-chested exercise in intimidation. Atop the mound, he stands nearly seven and a half feet above sea level, which is daunting enough. But then, as he does roughly 100 times per start, he rears back on his right leg and curls his upper half into a tight ball before reversing the motion, unfurling his torso and shifting his body weight violently forward, like a puma leaping from the underbrush. As the hitter is dealing with, well, all that, Manoah’s right arm whips into view and a white dot appears. Initially, the ball seems destined for the middle of the strike zone, prompting the batter to swing; an instant later, it has begun its improbable Frisbee slide down and away. The eyes close, the stomach turns, regret coalesces. The hitter is left flailing at air. Strike one.

This, at least, is the plan. But, in his fifth start with the Blue Jays, back in June of 2021, the plan wasn’t working: Manoah’s slider wasn’t sliding, the sinker wasn’t sinking, the fastball felt sluggish. Back-to-back home runs had put his opponents, the lowly Baltimore Orioles, up by three. Manoah, lids heavy, cap pulled low, was unamused. He walked to the top of the mound and sized up the next hitter, the brawny third baseman Maikel Franco, then reared back and launched a 94-mile-per-hour fastball directly into Franco’s left deltoid, eliciting a dramatic oooh from the crowd. With one pitch, bad had gone to worse. In the grand scheme, this wasn’t altogether noteworthy—one such beanball happens every game, on average—but then Manoah left the mound and slowly walked toward Franco, his arms outstretched, as if to dare the grimacing hitter: What’re you gonna do about it? Baseball is a genteel sport governed by a series of written and unwritten rules. This was an affront to all of them.

It was also a new look for the Blue Jays. The team Manoah had joined was young and phenomenally talented. If everything clicked, it had the makings of a future dynasty. Corporate interests had caught the glimmer too. Rogers, which owns the Jays, had become a spender rather than a saver in free agency and even committed to a $300-million stadium facelift to provide a venue worthy of the product. Baseball had twice been king in Toronto, and the stars were aligning for that to be true once again.

Alek Manoah blue jay

Yet, despite everything going for it, the team suffered from a glaring lack of the ineffable substance known as grit. All professional athletes are competitive, some obsessively so. But grit is something else. Scouts drive themselves crazy trying to source it; general managers constantly try to foster it. You know when your opponent has grit, and you are keenly aware when you don’t. In Toronto, the feeling was that these young Jays might be able to beat you, but they wouldn’t scare you. In fact, after the game, they might recommend a nice seafood restaurant and wish you a safe trip home. Their manager at the time, Charlie Montoyo, was smart and respected, with enviable soft skills and an occasional gig slapping congas at Lula Lounge on ­Dundas West. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the face of the team, was one of the game’s best hitters and also among its most universally liked. Bo Bichette was a hard-hitting, hard-working shortstop who generally kept his thoughts to himself. George Springer was charming, genial and a star centre fielder but not exactly ­William Wallace charging from the dugout in a brawl.

Related: This 82-year-old has been to every Blue Jays home opener since 1977. That streak will end soon

Which is why Manoah’s slow, menacing walk to the plate that day was so startling. Seconds after he beaned Franco, both teams streamed onto the field. Fifty uniformed men were soon jawing at one another, pushing, jostling, barking insults—a cotton-polyester mosh pit heaving to and fro. For a moment, the scene threatened to turn into the mother of all fistfights. Amid the fray, a full head above the rest, towered Manoah, wearing a tiny, almost imperceptible grin. He’d been in the big leagues for less than a month, and he was about to get suspended for five games. Orioles fans were agitated, their play-by-play announcers offended. Even some Blue Jays fans were surprised by the apparent aggression. But Manoah was unfazed. Growing up, he had been in much scarier situations. He’d been raised at the poverty line in an unstable home where the threat of violence was pervasive; at school, he navigated gang culture and had to choose which fights were worth picking. He had, in other words, spent a lifetime developing his own brand of grit. A little tussle with the Baltimore Orioles hardly spiked the heart rate.

The ball, he later told a throng of beat reporters, must have slipped, and it may well have. “I’m just trying to compete, man, and give my team the best shot to win,” he said. It might have sounded like an ordinary post-game interview, but it was a warning to the rest of Major League Baseball. The new Toronto Blue Jays would never back down from a fight, and they might even start a few.

On days when Manoah’s father was drinking, his mom, Susana, would whisper an ominous warning in his ear: “It’s a D-day.” As in, It’s a drinking day. Those words meant unpredictability for Alek and his older brother, Erik Jr. When their father was drinking, his temper, short at baseline, could be explosive; conversations could escalate into arguments and arguments into fights. Sometimes there would be no warning at all. A sideways glance, a pert reply, a substandard baseball practice, and Erik Sr. would explode. Once, Alek missed a bunt sign and his dad walked into the dugout, grabbed him by the shirt and forced him into the car. At the Manoah home, a two-bedroom townhouse in the predominately Hispanic south Florida suburb of Kendall , most days were D-days.

Of the two boys, Alek was quieter, more pensive and more likely to suppress his thoughts for fear of reprisal. The boys grew silently resentful of the power their dad held over them. Deep down, they wanted to rail against him, but they knew better. He was too big, too powerful to confront.

Still, Alek loved his dad. He cherished the days when his father was drying out and was kind and patient. On those days, “rest days” in Manoah parlance, the family could appear functional, even healthy. They’d attend baseball practice together, followed by a family dinner. Manoah found connection with his dad through sports. Father and son would work on his batting stance and pitching mechanics. They would sit together and watch Miami Marlins games; Alek would play-act hitting a walk-off homer. Together, they’d analyze post-game interviews, and Erik Sr. would teach his son how to answer questions properly, training him for the day when the lights would be focused on him. Alek also found ways to be useful. As young as seven years old, he would wake up at 6:30 a.m. and turn on SportsCenter. He knew his dad would soon stroll into the room seeking intel: Who’s looking good today? Who’s injured? Which team is on a roll? Alek would deliver his report, and his dad would place bets.

Manoah loved playing baseball as a kid and was a gifted athlete. He also knew that the sport was his ticket to a better life

Erik Sr., all muscular arms and glittering chain, was hyper­confident, talkative and loud—a textbook “machista” in Susana’s telling—qualities that made him a natural salesman. For a time, he sold furniture, but his employment never lasted long. Susana worked as an assistant at a law firm, which provided at least one stable income. Later, Erik Sr. started his own company, painting “Manoah and Sons” on his truck, but the services he provided weren’t always clear. When he gambled, he lost far more than he won. To blunt the shame of his failure as a parent and provider, he turned to alcohol and occasionally to cocaine, and the corrosive cycle would repeat.

The worst day of Alek’s life was also the most liberating. He was in Grade 7, and an argument broke out, like it often did, between his parents. In the kitchen, Erik Sr. paced, his eyes wild. As the argument reached a boiling point, he gathered Susana’s clothes from her closet and dumped them in a trash can outside. Then, amid the fracas, Alek’s older brother walked in from baseball practice, accompanied by a friend and the friend’s father. Everyone froze. Usually, when Susana tried to leave, Erik Sr. would stop her. But here was an opportunity. He wouldn’t intervene with another parent present.

Susana saw her chance. She ordered the boys into the car. Leave your clothes, leave your stuff. They sped to her mother’s house, a tiny one-bedroom apartment nearby. That night, Alek curled up beside his grandmother, and Erik Jr. huddled on an air mattress. The couch was reserved for Susana, but she spent most of the night outside on the tiny balcony, chain-smoking and praying for a miracle. She had gone to the police before, but the system was a joke. If they ran, she would have to abandon her job, and a life on the run was no life for her or her boys. She was trapped.

Their new, temporary home was claustrophobic, yet Alek cherished the security of those four walls. “Honestly, it was an upgrade,” he says. “We could finally rest our heads at night without worrying about getting our asses kicked.” True relief finally came later that year, when Erik Sr. was convicted of drug-related offences and sentenced to four years in prison. With her husband locked away, Susana filed for divorce.

She also moved with the boys to the community of Homestead, 35 kilometres south. It was among the worst areas of the country in terms of crime and unemployment, but rents were low, and Susana could afford a townhouse in a gated community. They cut costs in other ways too. Susana spraypainted her boys’ catching gear to make it look new, and she watched every penny closely. No vacations or indulgences.

The move meant a new school, new sports teams and new social dynamics, and young Alek wasn’t pleased. Fights were frequent at his new school. On his walk home, he’d pass SWAT raids, and later he’d watch footage of them on the news. He was tall, strong and handsome, but beneath the veneer was a roiling bundle of anxiety and self-doubt. He felt adrift. “It was the hardest time of my life,” says Manoah. “My dad was in jail—there goes my father figure. How do I be a man? The truth is many times I just felt very alone.”

Many lives that begin the way Alek Manoah’s did end in tragedy. The son adopts the vices of the father. Alienation and resentment fester, which begets violence and crime and jail time. Rehabilitation is challenging, and a fulfilling job is a pipe dream. The shortcut to getting ahead is to return to crime. Within a few years, a promising future can be irredeemably lost.

Susana knew all of this. But she also saw a path forward, however narrow. Alek, like his brother, was a gifted athlete, tall and strong for his age, prodigiously coordinated and ruthlessly competitive. Their father had put the entire family through hell, but Susana stressed the importance of toughness, resilience and persistence. She knew that if her sons stood a chance in life, it was through baseball. They loved the game. The odds of them making it to the big leagues were long, but that wasn’t the point: the game would give them focus and discipline and something to strive for. And she knew just how to motivate them. “You know, it doesn’t sound good to say,” Susana told me through tears, “but more than once I told my boys to picture their dad’s face on that little white ball.”

Life in the halls of South Dade Senior High School was difficult. Manoah, who is of Cuban descent, had to learn to mix in with the Black kids, the Hispanic kids and the white kids. He had to be ready to fight when the situation called for it, and it often did. On the field, he exuded a bellicose energy. If an opposing player was showboating or trash-talking, Manoah would be on the top step of the dugout barking insults. He picked fights and antagonized his opponents, and more than once, his coach had to rein him in. In those moments, it wasn’t hard to see the influence of his fight-first, flight-never father. But he was also learning to be his own man. He was a loyal ally who would do anything for his friends, and he stood up for his teammates. If his pitcher had a bad outing, Manoah was the first one to the mound to console him.

By the time he was a senior, Manoah had grown to six foot six. He was a first baseman and catcher, but he could also pitch, with an electric fastball. Division one colleges were circling, and some MLB scouts had shown interest; it was conceivable that he might get drafted out of high school. If that happened, he would secure a sizable signing bonus, and life would change overnight. He’d be able to give back to his mom and solidify their future. Everything he’d worked for was so close—but temptations were everywhere.

After high school, Manoah honed his skills at West Virginia University

One day in Grade 12, he was called to the principal’s office and walked in to find two police detectives waiting for him. During our interviews, Manoah wouldn’t tell me what he had done, but he admitted that the cops could have locked him up for it. If that had happened, colleges would have deemed him a lost cause. But the detectives deferred to the principal, who made a snap decision. “You are so close,” he told Manoah. “You have college offers. Two per cent of the kids in this school have that. You’re almost there.” The principal told him to go home and confess everything to his mom. Susana was apoplectic. “She was like, Are you kidding me? After everything you learned? And your father? You’re better than that. This is not who you are,” Manoah says.

He knew that he’d made a near-fatal error and that, without baseball, he’d be lost. The game gave him his identity and his social group, and it fuelled his competitive fire. Manoah recommitted to baseball and cut out the bad behaviour. A few months later, he learned that the Texas Rangers intended to select him in the fifth round, which meant a signing bonus of $347,000. Relative to his circumstances in Homestead, it was a massive figure and a chance at a new life. Getting drafted would get him into a professional program, where he could develop his skills further and faster. But something deep inside him was screaming at him to reject the offer. Manoah saw in himself what few others did: greatness. He wasn’t a top-200 player; he was a top-15 player.

So he declined the Rangers’ offer. When no others came, Manoah accepted an athletic scholarship from West Virginia University. A predominantly white region without a respectable body of water within 200 kilometres was a surprising choice for a Spanish-speaking kid from Miami. But the program felt like home. The coach, Randy Mazey, hosted barbecues in his backyard and treated his charges like sons. In him, Manoah saw a father figure, and in the lonely hardwood hills of Morgan­town, a chance to leave his past behind and start over.

Manoah remembers the first time he saw Marielena Somoza. A rookie on the varsity volleyball squad at WVU, she was petite, tanned and athletic. One day in the fall of 2017, she walked past the weight room and Manoah turned to his strength and conditioning coach and said, “Who is that? I think I’m in love.” He learned that she spoke Spanish, which made them part of a very small club in Morgantown. At WVU, the varsity weight room had two squat racks that faced each other. Often, in the early mornings, Manoah found himself under the barbell opposite Somoza. He was an extrovert who was constantly talking, yet around her, he clammed up. They’d do their squats and flirtatiously eye each other but never speak. One day, he told her friend that he was interested in her. The feeling was mutual. Before long, they were a couple.

Somoza’s upbringing was idyllic—and not just relative to her new boyfriend’s. She grew up in a wealthy, tight-knit family in Puerto Rico and attended a private, Catholic all-girls school. On vacations, the Somozas—dad, now the president of a major food and beverage distributor; mom, the daughter of its founder; and younger sister—went skiing in Lake Placid and shopped in Manhattan. A standout in multiple sports and a phenom in volleyball, Somoza chose WVU because it felt like an extension of her family, and the volleyball coach, a native Hawaiian, reminded her of her dad.

As she got to know Manoah, she noticed that he spoke often about his mother but never about his father. When she gently inquired, his reply was curt: “Oh, he’s not in the picture.”

What Manoah didn’t say was that Erik Sr. had recently gotten out of jail and they were in the process of reconnecting. It was difficult. Alek was willing to forgive but wasn’t sure how much to trust his dad. For a while, Erik Sr. seemed to be on a promising path. He’d picked up Christianity and was attending church service every Sunday. But he’d come into a small inheritance, and the allure of his old life was too strong. Before long, he was in trouble with the law once again.

Somoza and Manoah

As Somoza and Manoah’s relationship grew, she met his mom, and she introduced him to her family back in Puerto Rico. He and her father hit it off, going golfing and engaging in deep philosophical conversations. But Manoah wasn’t ready to fully reciprocate. He was emotionally available in general, but there were parts of him that were closed off. Then, after a year of dating, they were lazing about on beanbags on his balcony when he launched without warning into the story of his childhood. She listened, said little. Then he got teary and started telling her how lucky he was to have her in his life. He wasn’t ready to introduce her to his dad, he said, but he at least wanted her to know why.

At West Virginia, Manoah continued to flirt with the demons that threatened to derail his dreams. One New Year’s Eve, he smoked a joint, thinking little of it at the time. When he got back to school, the team was subjected to a surprise drug test, which he failed. Manoah’s coach called him into the office, sat him down and expressed his disappointment, which was so profound that the coach cried. Mazey saw such potential in Manoah and couldn’t believe he would sabotage himself.

There were other problems. At bars and clubs with his team, fights sometimes broke out, and Manoah would leap to his teammates’ defence. Once, someone hurled a racial slur at the team’s catcher, and Manoah saw red. A multi-person brawl ensued, and the instigator left the bar on a stretcher.

On the field, Manoah exhibited flashes of pro potential, but he would repeatedly cruise through four innings and then run into trouble. Over time, the fifth inning metastasized into a mental block. Manoah began to fear it, anticipating disaster. He also needed more pitches. Everyone knew that he had an otherworldly fastball, but his reliance on it made him predictable.

Finding help wasn’t straightforward. Every MLB prospect is subjected to the instructions, drills and idiosyncrasies of an array of managers and pitching coaches and bullpen coaches. Manoah knew what his strengths were, but he didn’t know which advice—much of it contradictory—to take and which to ignore. And, if he refused, he risked developing a reputation as argumentative and uncooperative, which could be just as detrimental to getting drafted as lacklustre statistics. So he turned to a popular Twitter account called Pitching Ninja, run by a baseball-loving attorney in Atlanta named Rob Friedman.

On his site, Friedman analyzes the mechanics of baseball’s best pitchers using software that overlays a pitcher’s entire arsenal into one delivery. The effect is to witness, at a single glance, the different paths each pitch takes—some dipping away, some edging sharply in, others seemingly rising. Manoah focused on a reliever from the Yankees named Dellin Betances, watching and re-watching how he released his best pitch, a cutter. Next, Manoah studied the physics-defying slider of Red Sox ace Chris Sale. During practice, he blended both to invent his own hybrid creation. With an eight-mile-per-hour difference between his pitches—86 for the new slider, 94 for the fastball—he’d be able to keep hitters off-balance and guessing.

Blue Jay pitcher Alek Manoah

That summer, when he was 20, Manoah was invited to the prestigious, hypercompetitive Cape Cod league. Scouts were everywhere. His pitching coach was an ex–major leaguer named Dennis Cook, who started the relationship by listening. Manoah told him what he did well and diplomatically explained what he wasn’t willing to change. Cook suggested some drills to complement, rather than alter, Manoah’s delivery. One drill—pitching up the back of the mound instead of down the front of it—struck Manoah as bizarre, but when he tried it, it magically improved his mechanics. Another of the coaches gave Manoah a laughably simple way to overcome his fifth-inning mental block. The block, he said, was that he thought he had a mental block. In other words, stop thinking about it and you won’t have one. It worked.

Manoah was already above average when he entered the Cape Cod league, but he was quickly becoming elite. His velocity was high, his control was tight and his fresh repertoire of pitches baffled hitters. Away from the field, Manoah also found that the other players gravitated to him. They’d hang out at his host family’s house, join him at the gym and in the cafeteria. Even better, in Cape Cod, no one was engaging in behaviour that might detract from their on-field performance. Professional success was within reach, and it was unthinkable to risk it. Though he was a grown man, Manoah was still forming his self-image, and a clear picture was emerging. “I was having such a great time with the guys, going to the beach, not getting in trouble,” he says. “I was like, Dude, I can do this.”

When Manoah returned to WVU, coach Mazey was stunned. Standing before him was a potential top-15 pick. Mazey told him to keep doing exactly what he’d been doing. Before the season started, scouts from 30 major league teams paid Manoah a visit. He was named to the illustrious Golden Spikes watchlist. By season’s end, he had registered a sparkling 2.08 ERA (anything under four is good), with 144 strikeouts over 108 innings, and was unanimously named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year.

Manoah flanked by Susana and Erik Jr. moments before he was drafted to the Jays in 2019

The Toronto Blue Jays were in the middle stages of a rebuilding process, and in Manoah, they saw massive potential. He had a big, durable body, and he threw hard. He was a leader and a hard worker too. They chose him with the 11th overall pick of the 2019 draft, which came with a signing bonus of $4.55 million. Manoah was on Mazey’s couch in Morgantown, flanked by Susana and Erik Jr. and surrounded by friends and teammates, when his name was called. His mom shrieked, his brother yelped and then they turned toward Alek, wrapping their arms around him and each other. The symbolism was beautiful: as the room erupted, mom and her two boys formed a phalanx, crowding out the world, just as they had done for so many years.

Two years later, Susana was at work when her phone buzzed with a call from Alek: “We’re going,” he said. It was May of 2021, and her son was headed to the big leagues. She took the first flight to New York. A few days later, she sat in the stands at Yankee Stadium among Manoah’s closest friends, screaming words of encouragement to her baby boy as he took the mound.

After the first hitter reached base, up to the plate stepped Rougned Odor, the scrappy journeyman infielder who had sucker-punched José Bautista so many years earlier in retaliation for the bat flip heard around the world. The moment was not lost on Manoah. He hurled three pitches, the last of which was a tailing changeup for the strikeout. In the stands, Susana, decked out in dark sunglasses and a Blue Jays jersey, pumped both fists and released a guttural scream. Beside her, Somoza grinned widely. Throughout his rookie season, Manoah’s star continued to rise. He registered 127 strikeouts in 111 innings and compiled a shiny 3.22 ERA. The dreaming, the planning and the hard work were all coming to fruition.

The signing bonus, plus a rookie salary, meant opportunity, security and the chance to get his mom out of Homestead. His first big purchase was a house near the upscale area of Miami Lakes for Susana. He also bought her a Jeep Cherokee. She’d done everything for him and had sacrificed so much; now it was his turn to take care of her. Next, he turned his attention to something that had been in short supply in his youth: fun. For years, he’d coveted Jordan 4 Retro Doernbecher sneakers. Navy blue with lime-green straps and a Superman logo on the tongue, they had always been well beyond his budget. The best pair he could find were a size too small for his size 14 feet, but he bought them anyway. He purchased a Rolex Day-Date, took a souped-up Dodge Charger Hellcat for a test drive (too dangerous) and, having never been on a vacation, took Somoza to Aspen.

Cash in the bank also allowed him to release his inner aesthete. Manoah had no shortage of confidence about what he wanted, but in the XXXL aisle, there’s not much selection. He started ordering custom pieces designed to channel his spiritual kingpin. That meant embroidery, bright colours, loud patterns, square cut jackets, oversized shades. He picked up ideas from every corner: hip hop culture, streetwear, the runway, Instagram, magazines. The tunnel walk—the fashion-focused journey a player takes from the team bus to the underground ­locker room—is a big thing in basketball: NBA stars spend a lot of money and time on the splashiest combinations. It’s not as big a deal in the buttoned-down world of professional baseball, where a little sartorial flair can be a problem. Manoah wanted to change that.

Alek Manoah style

For his professional debut in New York, he put together a black-on-black shirt-suit combo. Unfortunately, the game was postponed by a day due to rain, and Manoah had packed only one suit—he wasn’t about to wear it two days in a row. So he wore his best jeans and a vintage Grateful Dead T-shirt paired with his new Rolex. (“I had that drip, you know?” he says.) But, when he stepped onto the team’s charter plane to head home, Tim Mayza, one of the Jays veterans, stopped him. On this team, he said, we wear standard suits and white collared shirts. Manoah paused, looked him up and down, and replied, his eyes twinkling, “You look good in that, but I don’t see how I would.” The team burst out laughing. No one brought it up again.

“You know, when Manoah got to the team, I was kind of a rookie too,” says Santiago Espinal, the Blue Jays’ all-star infielder. “I was one of these quiet guys who sat at the front of the plane and didn’t say much. But Manoah seemed like he’d been there for 10 years.” He’d crack jokes over the intercom system, sit at the back with the veterans, play cards, have a drink. He was so happy-go-lucky that it was hard to get on him, and he was so big and intimidating that it wasn’t worth making him angry.

That lesson wasn’t learned by all. In September of 2022, a TSN radio host in Montreal fatefully decided to opine on the body shape of Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk. Seeing the rotund catcher running the bases, he said, was “embarrassing for the sport” and perpetuated negative stereotypes about baseball. This was hardly the first time a radio jockey had tossed a provocative, insensitive take into the void. But this one happened to cross Manoah’s timeline, and he wasn’t having it. “What’s actually embarrassing for the sport is people that…have never played a day in the big leagues thinking they can control the narrative and stereotypes,” he tweeted. “Go ahead and tell that eight-year-old kid who is 10 pounds overweight that he should quit now. Or just step aside from the keyboard and let Kirk inspire those kids to continue to chase their dreams and chase greatness.”

The story became an international sensation. Dove Men presented Manoah with a $100,000 award for sportsmanship, which he donated to KidSport, a non-profit that helps Canadian children get involved in sports. (The TSN host later apologized before deleting his Twitter account.)

Manoah with teammate Alejandro Kirk

Manoah was proving himself a loyal defender of his teammates. But, as he had learned in the halls of South Dade Senior, it was just as important to be able to take the offensive when necessary. And he did that plenty. Like the time he was playing the division rival Red Sox and struck out Franchy Cordero, who stared at Manoah as he retreated to the dugout. Manoah instructed him to “sit the fuck down.” Or when he later struck out power hitter Bobby Dalbec, beat his own chest and repeated the sentiment, adding “bitch” for emphasis. Or when, against the Yankees, Manoah accidentally beaned one of their star hitters, raising the ire of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who launched some invective from a safe distance near the dugout. Later, Manoah delivered a message through the media. Next time, if you want to say something, come closer.

Manoah says he never wants to be seen as an aggressor. He took tae kwon do as a kid and took to heart its lesson that you never hurt anyone, human or animal. But that philosophy evaporates when he’s under threat, and on the baseball diamond, peril abounds. It’s a surprising take considering that baseball isn’t exactly a contact sport. But, from Manoah’s point of view, his opponents are united by a single goal: to take from him everything he’s earned. They’re trying to put him back at the poverty line, fatherless and aimless. They’re threats to his livelihood, and that simply won’t do. “It’s a game, but when I’m competing, I look at it like, This is how I feed my family. A lot of people are counting on me, and a lot of people have sacrificed for me.” he says. “Whenever I’m on the mound, everything is at stake. My opponent is trying to send me back to Homestead.”

Manoah’s gritty world view rubs off on his teammates. “He’s a dog, man,” says Espinal. “Sometimes you got to talk some smack to let the other team know to pay attention. He’s just saying, we’re better than you and we’re tougher than you…. Hey, man, we’re all dogs.”

In 2019, Erik Manoah Sr. was released from prison and made an earnest effort to straighten out. Alek had gone to therapy to deal with the traumatic legacy of his childhood; he deepened his relationship with Christianity and tried to practise a spirit of forgiveness. By the time the pandemic touched down, he harboured no ill will toward his father and wanted to make him part of his life again. He wasn’t sure what that would look like. The process started one day in 2020, when he introduced his dad to Somoza. Alek was anxious, but Somoza was charmed and charming. She knew the entire backstory and didn’t judge. They hit it off.

Alek told his father that he was trying to create a relationship built on trust, forgiveness and positivity. He wanted his dad to be in the picture, but it would have to be on his terms. No substance abuse. No crime. No jail. If he said he’d be somewhere, he would have to show up. “Do you want to be a part of this or not?” Alek asked. His father had been in jail when he was drafted, one of the greatest days of Alek’s life. He’d missed Christmas mornings and birthdays and other milestones. He was tired of missing out. He said yes.

Alek wanted to support his dad, but he didn’t want to be the family ATM. His mom had kept her job and had become certified as a paralegal. Alek offered to pay for his father’s daily cab ride to and from his new job at a tree service. That way, he would be helping his dad help himself. Susana had been through too much to forgive or forget, but for the sake of her son, she was willing to meet with Erik Sr. and his new partner, to be in the same room on family occasions and to cheer on their son together.

Manoah with friends and family at the All-Star Game

One such occasion came in the summer of 2022, when Manoah was named to his first all-star team. The event was held at Dodger Stadium, and Manoah was slated to pitch the second inning. In Manoah, the MLB decision makers saw a kid who was smart and talented, with a big personality, and they mic’d him up for his debut. Manoah struck out the first hitter, then another. Momentum was building. One of the announcers, Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, interjected, incredulous: “Are you going to strike out the side…in the All-Star Game?” The obvious answer was yes, but Manoah took it one step further. “What [pitch] do you want me to do it on, though?” Smoltz replied, “Back foot slider, down and low.” Manoah replied, “Oh, you sexy. Here we go.”

It was comedy gold and great TV. Manoah’s first appearance on the big stage was a smashing success. The real test, however, still lay ahead.

A faint tremor rippled through the concrete tub known as the Rogers Centre. Every seat was filled, the noise pitched. The Blue Jays had made it to the 2022 American League Wild Card game on the back of a thrilling late-season push. They were matched up against the Seattle Mariners. Anticipation was high. As the stadium announcer worked the crowd into a frenzy, the bullpen door swung open and Manoah emerged, walking in lockstep with his catcher, Alejandro Kirk, toward the dugout. The place exploded with cheers. Their ace had arrived.

The first inning, however, didn’t follow script. After throwing a handful of strikes, Manoah hit the leadoff batter, then allowed a double followed by a wall-scraping home run. In the span of a few minutes, the team was in a three-run deficit. The Jays never recovered, losing the game 4–0. When Somoza picked Manoah up after the game, he was dejected, on the verge of tears. After three years of spectacular success, he’d let down his team and his adoptive city. At home, he rewatched the game on a mental reel and kept blaming himself.

In the morning, he stayed in bed, despondent. Somoza realized that she needed to do something. She works in sales at BioSteel, a Canadian energy drink company, and she could always count on Manoah to motivate her, but now it was time to switch roles. She told him that he was a huge reason the team was in the playoffs. She said his teammates loved him, that they were a family, and that he would grow from the heartache of loss. She doled out some tough love too. No more hangdog routine: get up and get moving.

Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah

The family, including mom and dad and their respective partners, met for breakfast at the Sheraton Hotel. On the wall, a TV was replaying the game, but no one looked at it. They were focused on supporting Alek. Before long, he was over it. “It was a hard loss, but I looked at it as a stepping stone. Sometimes you have to go through failure to be great. Michael Jordan and the Bulls couldn’t beat the Detroit Pistons for years. Once they did, they won six championships,” he says. “Every year, this Blue Jays team gets a little better, goes a little further.”

Two days later, the Jays squandered an 8–1 lead, bringing their thrilling season to an ignominious end. Manoah and Somoza hung around the city for a while afterward. They love Toronto and considered staying during the off-season. They live in a three-bedroom penthouse condo next to the stadium, with a sweeping view of Lake Ontario. On days off, they rent bikes on the Toronto Islands, shop in Yorkville and consume as much sushi as they can. Yamato is their favourite for raw fish, Barberian’s, Jacobs and Co., and Harbour 60 for steak, the Morning After for breakfast.

Once they realized just how cold the city gets in winter, they decided to hightail it to Miami, where they rent a gorgeous modernist house with a pool. Their property backs onto a lush golf course. They thought about buying a place in Toronto, but buying before signing a long-term deal is, according to Jays mythology, bad luck. Two Jays players did just that recently, and their time with the team “didn’t last long,” Manoah says. As much as he may want to make the city his home away from home, since he’s still on his rookie deal—which expires after the 2027 season—he’s biding his time. The team would be thrilled to make that happen too. But, with so many young stars still on their rookie contracts, a big bill will soon come due. Manoah’s will be among the biggest: in 2022, he finished third for the Cy Young Award, which recognizes the best pitcher in the league.

Manoah would love to raise his future kids here. Step one in that regard is getting married. This past New Year’s, he and Somoza hosted a dinner party for friends and family in his giant backyard. After the meal, Manoah brought Somoza out by the pool, got down on one knee and proposed. They kissed, hugged, kissed again. Then Manoah turned to the crowd, to see his mom, dad, brother and closest friends—the ones he’s been protecting and uplifting all these years—thronged together, faces aglow, cheering them on. It was, in one beautiful image, everything he’d been working toward. His imperfect family, finally finding a way forward.

Manoah and Somoza are planning the wedding for the end of this year, then a honeymoon on the Amalfi coast, or perhaps the Greek islands. They don’t have many more details, but one matter is settled: Manoah will wear a custom suit made of green silk. Somoza isn’t so sure about that; unsurprisingly, Manoah is.

This story appears in the April 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.