To fully appreciate what drives Danielle and Brett Lawrie, begin with the cornhole story …
Cornhole, for the uninitiated, is a game where competitors take turns tossing beanbags into the holes of a game board. One such game board was at the splendid beachfront house Brett shared last spring training with Toronto Blue Jays teammates J.P. Arencibia and Travis Snider. Danielle and parents Russ and Cheryl were visiting her younger brother there one evening when Russ noticed the cornhole game board. Pretty soon, someone suggested a series of games pitting Danielle and Russ against Brett and Arencibia with a couple bottles of Gray Goose vodka on the line for the winner
Now, Danielle is a great softball player, but Arencibia was still confidently yapping that he and Brett would win easily. After all, he’s a major league catcher and Brett is a third baseman — they get paid to throw things! Plus, they also had played all spring and hadn’t lost a game to anyone. Now, they were competing against a woman and her father, who had a bad hip and, Danielle assured him, wasn’t very good anyway. So, the challenge was accepted and Arencibia continued boasting while Russ sensed Brett’s blood pressure slowly rising because he knew how this was going to play out.
Danielle and Russ took the first game in a rout. And why wouldn’t they? Danielle is not a major league baseball player, but she is a professional softball pitcher (she plays for the USSSA Florida Pride), so she not only gets paid to throw things, but she also gets paid to throw them underhand. This is a big advantage in cornhole.
And Russ? Well, Russ prides himself on his hand-eye coordination, as well as his extreme competitiveness, so he quickly adapted to the game. He and Danielle hammered the two ballplayers in the next game and they swept the series; then, the two started to rub it in, but good.
Brett, how can you lose to your dad and your sister? I thought you were good at this! Don’t you get paid to throw things?
“J.P. took it well,” Russ says, “but Brett did not take it well.”
“I have never seen Brett that mad,” Danielle says.
Of course, Brett was upset. The Lawrie siblings don’t like losing at anything, and they especially dislike losing to each other. They may be close, they may love and support each other, but as Danielle recalls Arencibia telling her, “Your brother’s No. 1 thing in life is if he competes against you, it is to beat you. You do not win.”
Not that Danielle is much different. Two Christmases ago, Brett beat her at pingpong and she didn’t talk to him again for 45 minutes. Remember, this was a game of pingpong. On Christmas Day.
“This is where I have to get better about things,” she says. “I’m a little older now [she turns 25 in April]. Let’s be serious. You can’t be that much of a princess where you have to win at everything. But when you have it instilled in you as a kid that you want to be the best … I want to win. I want to make sure I’m the best.”
Indeed, training together as kids and competing passionately against each other is what made each sibling so good. Always needing to win every contest — whether it was baseball, basketball, running, pingpong, cornhole, anything — is the drive that helped Danielle become an Olympian, a two-time national college player of the year, a national champion and one of the world’s best softball players. It also is what made Brett, 22, an Olympian, a first-round draft pick and one of major league baseball’s top young players, now possibly on the verge of stardom with the Blue Jays.
As Brett says of the siblings’ competitive fire: “It was just instilled in us — I think we’re both better for it.”
Oh, and while Brett concedes he may have lost to his sister in cornhole, he is also quick to point out he and J.P. remain “No. 1 in the big league rankings.”
Losing, Danielle says, was not an option in the Lawrie home in Langley, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver. “If we got second place, we didn’t get the trophies out. Seriously. We don’t have second-place trophies downstairs.”
This competitiveness came directly from Russ, a lively, gregarious man who ran track in high school and played rugby until nearly 40 (he has the aching knees and a recently replaced hip to show for the latter). He considers himself a keen judge of talent and could tell his kids had something special at an early age. He was determined to make damn sure they realized their full potential. “They saw from an early age, and they kind of understood, that there is a responsibility for everyone who plays a sport to be the best they can be,” he says.
“Once Brett and I got a little older, he would tell us, ‘The biggest, most upsetting thing about my childhood is I didn’t have my dad push me and help me get there,'” Danielle says. “He said he had potential to be a pro, but you need that push as a child. You don’t just wake up and say, ‘I want to be a pro baseball player.’ You have to understand it, you have to understand the training aspect of it and you need someone pushing you.”
So Russ woke them early each morning for workouts in the gym before school, or took them to a nearby track to work on their running techniques each evening, or hit them endless grounders, or all of the above. There was no holiday from training, not even on holidays.
“He was always big on working out Christmas Day,” Danielle says. “I mean, Christmas Day? We would have a four-hour gap before we went to my aunt’s house and he would say, ‘You want to go down to the track and get any work in?'”
Merry Christmas and God bless us, everyone! Now go outside and give me a 5K in under 20 minutes!
There was no vacation from training, either, not even during vacation. For family camping trips, Russ would always pick a site near a ball field so the kids could maintain their workouts.
“We would get up at 8:15. This is when we’re camping — you’re supposed to sleep in — but we would get up and run to the park three or four days of the week,” Danielle recalls. “We would go and train for an hour or an hour and a half. We loved it, but at the same time, we were like, ‘Dude, this is our holiday — this is a break.’ We would get into rip-roaring fights. I’m not doing it! And he’s not forcing me, but he gets you to do it. And at the same time, no one else was doing it. You have to understand that. Everything we would do — it was because nobody else was doing it. And if they are, you’re going to work your butt off to be better than that person.”
That was a key part of it all, Russ says — in addition to training the body, they were disciplining the mind and spirit.
“You know all those kids you’re going to compete against in your life?” he would tell Danielle and Brett. “The ones you’ll be going up against for scholarships? They’re not running on Christmas Day.”
Nor did the others have driven siblings pushing each other to such an extreme.
“My sister and I always butted heads,” Brett says. “To make us do stuff our dad would say that whoever won he would buy a Slurpee on the way home. So basically it was, ‘I’m going to beat you.’ It was always good fun, but always very competitive.”
Cheryl Lawrie recalls how one child would brag about being able to leap up and touch something with a finger and the other child would work to able to leap and touch the object with an entire hand. She says her rule of thumb was not to get involved in the spirited rivalry between her two children unless blood spilled. This happened accidentally a few times when the two wrestled. “There were some black eyes, too,” Cheryl says.
Danielle says Brett caught up to her physically at around age 13.
“I would not beat him up, but I would take a stab at him or do something and my dad was like, ‘If you’re going to take a whack at your brother, he’s going to hit you back.’ Not in the face, but he would drill me in the arm and I would start crying and realize I can’t do this anymore. … He wasn’t a lot more talented than me taking ground balls, but he was just stronger than me.”
When Russ drove the kids too hard, Cheryl would tell him to ease off.
“I was always supportive, but if I felt one or the other had had enough, I would say to Russ, ‘Back off, that’s enough.’ But most of the time, no, I was supportive,” Cheryl says, adding that “kids will always whine about something.” She says that while children complain, they appreciate and enjoy routines. “We weren’t their best friends,” she says. “We were their parents.”
While they did not always enjoy the strict routine — Christmas Day? — Danielle and Brett always loved playing sports. And the competitiveness between them was extended to all opponents outside the family.
Looking back, Danielle realizes theirs was not the normal routine for most families, that they were weird kids. “We didn’t know any better. It was just normal for us,” she says. “My dad’s attitude was, ‘Why would you lie around and do nothing when you could go get better?'”
Apparently, this attitude did not win over everyone. “If our kids ever did anything exceptionally well and it was written up, it was guaranteed our house would be egged,” Cheryl says. “Jealousy, I guess.”
“We were not openly liked as a family in Langley,” Danielle says. “A lot of people looked down on my dad because of the way he pushed us. I remember three or four times a year our house getting egged. … [My dad’s] mentality was ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass what people think because, at the end of the day, the only things that matter to me are you, your brother and your mom, and of course grandma and grandpa and the rest of the family.'”
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik got to know the family fairly well while he was the Brewers’ assistant GM when Milwaukee drafted Brett in 2008. He recalls sitting with the Lawries while watching Danielle pitch at the University of Washington.
“They’re very proud of themselves and they’re a family that knows who they are,” he says. “They know they’re tough people, they’re aggressive people and they will not be denied.”
Russ refers to the family as “The Fighting Lawries. Fight hard, love hard. … It’s not for everybody, but for us? You want the Lawries on your team. I guarantee it.”
Russ says Brett is a natural mimic, that he could watch something on TV — such as Derek Jeter’s jump throw — and duplicate it. After the family watched the baseball movie “The Sandlot,” Brett would go into the bathroom and recite the lines until he had them down pat.
“He would take a shower and go off on the movie. He knew every line. He knew it all,” Russ says. “We’d go out with friends and we’d have him [recite] the fight scene. It was funny, funny stuff.”
When Tiger Woods filmed a commercial that showed him endlessly bouncing a golf ball off a club head and then hitting the ball far into the distance, Brett practiced the trick until he could bounce the ball off a club, too. A dozen times, a hundred times, however many times he wanted.
“Some kids will try to do something, and if they can’t do it, they’ll just give up and move on to something else. But I wouldn’t,” Brett says. “At a young age, if I wanted to do something and wasn’t good at it, I still had to be better than anyone who was doing it — that’s just kind of the way I was. Doing sprints at the end of the game, I had to be first.”
The Brewers drafted Brett with the 16th pick of the first round of the 2008 draft, the highest a Canadian position player had ever been selected. He signed a reported $1.7 million signing bonus prior to flying to the Beijing Olympics with the Canadian team (Danielle played in the Games, as well). Brett was drafted as a catcher, but Zduriencik says the team always projected him as an infielder. After switching him to second base, the Brewers traded him last winter to Toronto for pitcher Shaun Marcum. The Jays quickly switched him to third base. Called up at the beginning of August, Lawrie made an immediate mark with two hits in his first game, a home run in his third and a grand slam in his fifth. He wound up hitting.293 with nine home runs, 25 RBIs and a .953 OPS in 150 at-bats.
“The Blue Jays haven’t had a Canadian player with his talent in a long time,” Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos says. “I don’t know if we ever have.”
In fact, the Blue Jays have had only one Canadian player named to the All-Star team (Paul Quantrill in 2001). Anthopoulos says if Lawrie can become a star, it would help Canadian baseball at the amateur level, but he doesn’t concern himself with a player’s nationality, just whether he can help the team win. Fully knowing all the difficulties and obstacles to a successful big league career, Anthopoulos also is guarded about raising expectations too high.
Still, the general manager has noticed that teammates have already gravitated a bit to the young Lawrie despite his inexperience. “I think it’s because of the energy he brings, day in and day out,” Anthopoulos says. “He’s upbeat and he’s all about winning. He respects his teammates and respects the game and he knows his place, too. …
“He’s obsessed with being great.”
Danielle’s softball skills make her among the best in the world at her profession.
She earned a scholarship to Washington, where she struck out 1,860 batters in 1,189 innings, threw eight no-hitters and pitched the Huskies to the 2009 national championship. After graduating, she signed with the Florida Pride of the USSSA and has pitched for them the past two years. She recently signed a contract to also pitch with the Toyota Shokki team in Japan this year. The Pride and Shokki contracts will bring her more than six figures in salary this year, plus incentive clauses with Shokki that pay bonuses for no-hitters, finishing in first place and winning an MVP award.
She has an endorsement deal with Baden Sports for softballs, bats, wristbands and headbands. She would like to work in broadcasting after her career and clearly has the family personality for it — when introduced between quarters at a Huskies football game the fall after winning softball’s College World Series, she thrust her championship ring to the camera, delighting the crowd.
For all this success, though, there is one area where Danielle knows she simply can’t compete with Brett: earnings as an athlete. She will never earn the millions available to Brett in the majors, where this year’s minimum salary is $480,000.
“It’s brutal,” Danielle says. “It’s tough being a woman [in sports], especially when you see guys like Matt Kemp signing contracts for $160 million. One day, hopefully, my brother will sign a contract like that. And we’re struggling to make even $100,000 in our sport.”
“The sky is the limit for me. I just have to go out there and have fun,” Brett says. “As for her, there’s only so far you can go in the game and the time can go quick.”
This used to be such a source of frustration that Russ recalls Danielle saying to him, “I should have been a boy. If only, Dad. If only.”
“There have been moments where I was bitter about it and felt it just sucks,” Danielle says. “But at the end of the day, it’s a no-win. There’s nothing I can do. I want to be as successful as I can, and as I was in college. And I want to grow the sport as much as I can and play for as long as I can. Am I going to make that kind of money? No. But can I help grow it, can I get my name out there, can I maybe build a path to get into sports broadcasting and potentially make big money in camps? Yes. …
“Am I going to live life being bitter about it and ripping on male athletes? Was I OK with the basketball lockout? Yes, but I’m not going to live being bitter about that. I want to live a good and happy life, and the way I’m going to do that is have a good attitude and excel in what I can excel in, and be as supportive as I can for my brother; and if my boyfriend [minor league outfielder Andrew Locke] continues to play, to be as supportive as I can in all ways with that.”
Danielle says that when she one day has children, she isn’t sure she will raise them to quite the competitive extent her father did, but that she is grateful for how he raised her.
“My dad always said, ‘You dedicate your time to school and sports, you’ll give yourself a life where you can pretty much pick and choose what you want to do. You don’t have to put yourself in this category or that category,'” Danielle recalls. “I didn’t even think that opportunity was available until I got to the UW and experienced it. Thank God I had someone pushing me.”
Danielle and Brett are not the only siblings to reach the professional level in softball and baseball — Jason Bay and Lauren Bay-Regula (also from British Columbia) have done it as well. Still, it’s a rare accomplishment. As Zduriencik says, “That’s pretty special when you have a daughter who is the college player of the year and a son that is a first-round draft pick.”
When you factor in the shorter distance between a softball mound and home plate, Danielle’s 70-ish mph fastball roars past a batter with the equivalent speed of a nearly 100 mph fastball in baseball. And bear in mind, her fastball rises.
So it would be very intriguing to see Danielle pitch to Brett, rather than play him in cornhole.
But Brett has never batted off Danielle, and he probably never will. Russ would never allow it. Either Danielle would strike out Brett, which she is confident she would, and he would then be furious. Or Brett would smash a home run off Danielle, which he is sure he eventually would (though he acknowledges it might take a while to get the timing down), and then she would be upset. For crying out loud, these two can’t even play a game of beanbag without it leading to domestic strife.
“I will never throw against him,” Danielle says. “As competitive as I am — and I would want to beat him — I would prefer not to even let that happen. Because it’s a lose-lose. Do I think I could strike him out? Yes, but do I want to face the consequences of his attitude? Not even close. But that’s what makes him so good.”
Thus, there will be no Lawrie versus Lawrie on the ball field. Instead, Danielle will dedicate herself to competing as relentlessly in her softball leagues as she ever did against her brother. And Brett, one of baseball’s top young players, will compete this season as relentlessly against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox as he ever did against his sister.
In the meantime, the Lawries gave Brett a cornhole game set for his birthday last month so he can practice, just in case there is a rematch this spring.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.
Caple: Meet The Fighting Lawries
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