Make sure to watch our behind-the-scenes video with the MLB star.
Before the north can thaw itself from a long, disheartening winter, the men who enact our childish dreams in summertime ready themselves beneath the tropical sun. In Toronto it is cold and grey; hardly the climate for entertaining thoughts of insects buzzing low to fresh-cut grass. To the south, the city’s home run king escapes the cold by spending the dark months in the Dominican Republic, where he was born, raised and learned to play baseball.
“I always tell people, if it wasn’t so cold in the winter I’d live in Toronto year round, but me and the cold weather are not friends.”
You can hear Jose Bautista’s warm disposition in his voice when he speaks from his homeland. He sounds at peace. We watch Bautista smack pitchers’ offerings into the upper levels of the spacious Rogers Centre and we attribute fury, but hitting the long ball also takes a quiet patience.
Three years ago, few people, even Blue Jays fans, could differentiate Bautista from any other Latino utility player because that’s just what he was; an average reserve in the deep and ever-changing pool of Major League Baseball. His features have become recognizable based on talent and production first, then congeniality. There is his thick, tightly shaven dark beard that paints the entire lower half of his face, the big ears that stick out from beneath his cap like Will Smith’s and his voice – lightly accented and measured, rarely used out of place.
Like every ballplayer Bautista’s much larger in person than when he’s seen flying around the field from a distance. On television, or from the seats where the baseballs land, Bautista looks smaller than the sluggers that preceded him in the past 20 years (a product of the game’s exit from the steroid era) but up close he is as impressive as any athlete. His upper body is lean, his forearms veined and defined. You can see where the force to hammer beans traveling at ninety five miles per hour is generated.
Still, he lacks the fearsome mien of, for example, all-time home run leader Barry Bonds, whose presence was compared to Darth Vader, at the plate. Opposing pitchers, not fooled by looks and educated by experience, fear Bautista. The most telling aspects of Jose’s face are his eyes; narrowed, focused and mature, the crucial organs for a hitter.
Bautista, or “Joey Bats” (according to his Twitter handle), has enjoyed a two year ascent to the top of the majors where he stands as arguably the best player in the game. The stats, more integral to baseball than any other sport, show that Bautista’s run from 2010 forward is on par with numbers that have been put up by names like Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, and Bonds – some of the sport’s all-time greats. Of course, those players maintained their outstanding success from their entrance to the bigs and throughout their long careers; they’d all been pegged from their teens as superstars. Bautista reached this calibre at age 28 after playing for five different professional teams and countless minor league franchises.
“I played in Utica, New York (for the Blue Sox) and Hickory, North Carolina (for the Crawdads),” Bautista says. “The strangest place I played when I was in the minors, for me because I didn’t know they played or cared about baseball there, was in Vermont.”
The Vermont team are called the Lake Monsters and their Centennial Field, which they share with the University of Vermont, has a seating capacity of 4,415 – far off from the Rogers Centre’s 60,000.
Bautista’s rise from irrelevance to a $65-million dollar contract was the product of extra attention paid upon his arrival in Toronto, the kind no one else granted the bazooka-armed outfielder at other stops. Then manager Cito Gaston, who returned from a prolonged absence after leading the team to consecutive World Series titles in the early 90s, and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, who has become known as a bat-whisperer, were key to the transformation of Bautista into Joey Bats.
Bautista’s rise coincided with the dissolution of a Blue Jays core that had lasted for nearly 10 years in the city. Roy “Doc” Halladay, one of the top pitchers in the game, was granted a trade to powerhouse Philadelphia so that he could compete for a championship late in his career, while centerfielder Vernon Wells was traded to the Angels to take the underperforming former all-star’s massive contract off the books. The Jays had an opening for a signature player and Bautista surprisingly, seamlessly, stepped up. If not for the vision and the opportunity given by the coaches, Bats could very well have slid back into the minors.
Baseball farm systems can be cold machines, sucking up the big league dreams of young boys and spitting them out into the inconsequence of small town America. The reality of not making it or being just another number can be especially harsh on Latino players, who leave their sun-baked Caribbean homes at tender ages and are forced to deal with the culture shock of arrival in the United States. Florida Marlins manager and bombastic Venezuelan Ozzie Guillen once announced that Latino players were not afforded the same luxuries as high-priced Asian imports, like the Texas Rangers’ new pitcher Yu Darvish, things like translators and programs to aid in social adjustments.
Bautista doesn’t agree with Guillen.
“In some ways we had an advantage over them. There are usually only one or two Asian players per team but almost half of most minor league organizations are full of Latin players. We take care of each other, we try to help and accommodate each other and we just a use a different technique to try to overcome the cultural change and the language barrier. A lot of teams have been proactive in improving those conditions, the MLB realized a couple of years ago that they would be far more effective in developing players if they taught the guys about the culture and language.”
Bautista has a firsthand example of this cultural exchange; when generous Dominican families provide the Jays’ locker room with home-cooked meals, the entire team takes part in the feast.
Picking prospects in baseball, for all the old-age wisdom of scouts and technological advancements of the Moneyball era, remains an inexact science. No one, except maybe Bautista himself, could have predicted that a 20th round draft pick out of Chipola Community College who was cast off by some of the worst franchises (the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles) would become an everyday player, let alone the sport’s top batsman.
“There are high points and low points in a career but I never thought that I would be out of baseball,” says Bautista. “There are teams that have missed out on opportunities but at the same time there are 29 others…so if one team gets rid of a player he has 29 other destinations where he can end up and that’s where organizations take advantage. I certainly believed in my ability enough to keep battling through those ups and downs and keep working hard because I knew that eventually I was going to find myself and do what I knew I was capable of doing.”
Now the complex Moneyball math that determines the worth (to the degree) of each man who digs into the batter’s box dirt favours Bautista more than almost any other. The formulas and computers concluded last year that Bautista was worth over eight wins to the Blue Jays during the 2011 season – an astounding number. Jose, though considerate of these advanced statistics, is careful not to trust the same calculations that would have discarded him four years ago, as gospel.
Throughout, Bautista maintains the theme of looking at the many variables that go into a player’s success or inability to catch on rather than a simple explanation.
“You can put a good team on paper together and that doesn’t mean that those 25 guys will play up to their capabilities and win a World Series. I’m aware of what the advanced stats are, at least the major ones. I still think that they need some tweaking, depending on the era, type of ballpark, competition. I don’t think they’re perfect but they give a different perspective.”
The stat heads who have taken over baseball (Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopolous, co-signer of Bautista’s contract through 2016, being one of them) would disagree. Most of these number-crunching box score addicts have declared that Joey Bats was robbed of the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player Award. That honor was given, unusually, to a pitcher; Justin Verlander, the lanky flamethrower of the Detroit Tigers (Verlander, coincidentally was worth exactly the same amount of wins as Bautista). When asked whether or not he believes the award should have gone to an everyday position player Bautista’s competitive engine roars to life.
“Given the rules, which state that one of the things you should consider is whether or not the player is playing in as many games as possible. We’re out there every day and the pitcher is out there once every five days. I think it should always go to a position player, and that’s not specific to last year. I mean if a batter has a great 40 games in a season but only plays 40 games is he considered for the MVP? No.”
When asked to list the rare pitchers who give him trouble, Jose quickly names C.C. Sabathia, the gargantuan New York Yankees ace, and Jered Weaver who hurls for the Los Angeles Angels while making no mention of the accomplished Verlander, who he has hammered in past encounters.
There is the possibility that the voters (a collection of baseball writers) overlooked Bautista because he plays north of the border, which is often equated to Siberia in the American sports world. There is also the element of disbelief in Bautista’s unprecedented boom, a cloud that hangs over his remarkable improvement and causes observers to be wary of crowning him a hero. These doubts are not without cause. Major League Baseball has only just begun washing its hands of the performance enhancement era, when almost all of the game’s stars (most notably Bonds and New York Yankees standout Alex Rodriguez) saw their otherworldly numbers tarnished by the revelation that they used human growth hormone (HGH) to achieve them.
Bautista, who has become used to hearing chants of “STEROIDS” on the road, told a Dominican newspaper called Hoy this past winter that he has been drug tested by the league 16 times over the past two years – an indication that the testing process is not as random as MLB suggests. Shortly after Bautista made those comments it became known that his counterpart in the national league, Ryan “The Hebrew Hammer” Braun, had failed a drug test. The Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder, who took home his league’s most valuable player award, appealed the test on a technicality and had his suspension revoked, but the story kept the pervasive presence of steroids on the consciousness.
In the middle of last season, with no positive drug tests to his name, the pursuit of an explanation for Bautista’s power surge took an almost desperate turn; ESPN reported that several Chicago White Sox players had suspected the Blue Jays of stealing pitching signs from opposing catchers during games played at the Rogers Centre (the accusations are unfounded). “There’s no way that you can avoid hearing [the doubters]. You’ve got to not let it affect you in a negative way and then you use it as fuel. It does motivate you when you see and notice that a lot of people don’t believe in you after you’ve proven that you can do it. If, for whatever reason, there continues to be doubters, you just want to keep going out there and doing as well as you can.”
Two straight years as baseball’s premier home run hitter has given Bautista the kind of recognition that was reluctantly granted to Cito’s back-to-back champions two decades ago.
“Hopefully we can get the atmosphere and the city buzz going like it was in the early 90s,” says Bautista, “We have a great fan base and we need to win more games to get them to come out and support us. The addition of the extra playoff spot should help.”
Here, Jose presents the dilemma that has plagued the Toronto ballclub since the disbanding of those legendary championship squads, and the sliver of hope that was introduced during the off-season. Though the Blue Jays are consistently one of the most competitive teams in baseball they are stifled by the powers in their division; the rich empires of the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Rogers Communications has freed the team to spend a large amount of money to improve but all payrolls are dwarfed by those dominant rivals. Bautista, who has given a vote of confidence to his team’s management, could play a role in reversing those fortunes by selling other premier players on the benefits of playing in Toronto.
“Given the opportunity to do that in the future, I’ll try my best but I haven’t been asked that by the team. Unless I am asked, I have no business going out and trying to recruit anybody. I wouldn’t even know if the team is interested in a particular player.”
Bautista chuckles at the idea of making rogue overtures to free agents but then goes on to relay what his sales pitch would be: “I would just be honest and speak from my personal experience. The city and organization has welcomed me with open arms. There are so many young professionals in this city, it’s diverse and clean. I don’t know what else you could ask for from a city where you can play professional sports.”
The hype in Toronto (stubbornly self-labeled as a hockey town) for the Jays to take the field is cresting like the wave of a melting iceberg. As the clock ticked away the final minute of the Maple Leafs’ loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last week, fans loudly chanted “LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!”
Part of Jose’s ambassadorial role was being selected to be on the Canadian cover of the video game MLB The Show ’12 (the standard cover was given to Adrian Gonzalez of the Boston Red Sox). Here, Bautista’s pride in representing the team and largely, Canada, becomes clear: “It feels good on a personal level, don’t get me wrong, to do something you dream about when you’re little…but it’s also amazing to represent the Maple leaf and the team, especially with the change in our uniform, going back to the original logo and colours.”
The blue uniforms are not the only new jersey Bautista has been modelling. For residents of Toronto, Joey Bats is equally identifiable in the Booster Juice kit he rocks as a spokesman for the smoothie chain. In TV spots for the juice, fans gather to shag Bautista’s solo batting practice (apparently fueled by strawberries, bananas and wheat grass) at a local park. He’s casually depicted (in traditional do-it-yourself Canadian TV fashion) as an everyman with fast hands – a people’s champion.
Given his winding path to success, Bautista is more prepared to remain grounded and appreciative while receiving a sudden flood of attention than the 22-year old prodigies that have begun taking places next to him in the Blue Jays locker room.
“I think I’ve got a pretty good perspective on different situations throughout all the experiences that I’ve had in baseball,” Bautista explains. “I had a lot of ups and downs, I was in the big leagues at a young age, I dealt with some injuries earlier in my career in the minor leagues, I’ve been sent back down from the bigs, called back up, didn’t enjoy as much success that I would have liked or thought that I was capable of, then I got traded…I’ve been through a lot.”
A person who could especially benefit from Jose’s advice is young third base stud Brett Lawrie, who burst onto the big league scene last summer, and is now adjusting to rapid celebrity. Again, Bautista says that every player is different and that he won’t be doling out wisdom unless it’s asked of him.
“If I’m asked for my opinion, I’ll speak from the heart and hopefully that’s good enough and whoever is asking can apply it to themselves. I try not to go out of my way too much to change anybody because I don’t think that what works for me will work for everyone else. I let people come to me instead of reaching out.”
Every word is weighed like a new wooden bat for Bautista. When asked if he believes himself to be the best player in the game, Jose does not jump at the chance to show off the healthy self-confidence that is beneath every soft sentence.
“No, nor do I necessarily want to be. I want to be the best that I can be. Can I be as good as [Angels first baseman] Albert Pujols? Maybe; I have different strengths than he does. He’s the best player in my eyes, not only for his offense or defense but for what he brings to a team as a person, as a leader. It’s difficult to grade the best player all around, almost like making the decision on whether or not to keep a player. It’s not just about statistics, there’s more to it than that. Intangibles do exist; a player can transform an entire team with his presence off the field.”
Bautista has become the symbol and leader of a franchise and with that responsibility he maintains the same grace that he brings to the plate.
In the Springtime, Bautista leaves the serenity of his home country to report to training in Dunedin, Florida. After warming up with his team, he returns to the noisy hum of major league stadiums, far from the palms under which he spends his off-season.
“During the year, yes I miss it,” he says of being away from his home. “When it’s time to go back for Spring training not really.” Winter in the Dominican Republic is not all play of course; to stay on top Bautista works out with fellow big league countrymen at a local ballpark. “Our season is so long, it burrows into our system so much that when it’s not there you get that itch.”
Excitement resonates from that last word; Bautista is primed to again trumpet summer in the north with 400 foot dingers.
Repetition and timing are pillars of the game of baseball. Players maintain their idiosyncratic routines of glove adjustment or tobacco chewing so that when it comes time to wind up or hit the curveball, that high pressure situation is just one in a million – a moment that has been personally timed to the millisecond.
Bautista, with his eyes hidden behind Oakley shades, will find himself across from Sabathia, Verlander or whoever may take the mound in the coming months, and he’ll recall his own steps. He’ll wait for his pitch, raise his front foot then slam it on the dirt, like a gas pedal, as a signal for his hands to whip around like elastics. This routine was instilled in him to aid his survival in the bigs, and with every repetition he has further solidified himself not only as a regular, but the best. “My earliest recollections of the game are hitting balls in the parking lot of my apartment building with my dad. He said for some reason that after we did it the first time I wanted to keep doing it over and over again.” At the perfect moment, those balls began to fly over the fences.