Bautista never wavered in ascension to stardom
Toronto slugger believed in himself through years before breakout
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's a typical Sunday at Blue Jays camp. They're hosting the Twins, and at the start of the seventh inning, Jose Bautista is subbed out of the lineup. His day on the field is over, but the work of a franchise player doesn't end after three at-bats -- even in Spring Training.
As Bautista makes his way down the right-field line toward the clubhouse, he's greeted by hundreds of fans begging for an autograph, and he stops to make sure everyone is satisfied -- even though most of them didn't even know he existed at this time last year.
Finally, about a half-hour later, it's time to work out. Bautista disappears into the Blue Jays' weight room, emerging after 90 minutes, dripping sweat. As he power walks his way to his locker, three reporters await an interview with the man who became the face of the Blue Jays by hitting 54 home runs last season and signing a $65 million contract.
He answered every question as if he had all the time in the world.
A sudden star
The first subject, of course, was Bautista's sudden emergence last season. It's an unavoidable topic when you were on five teams in one season as a rookie in 2004 -- that's a record, by the way -- and were a relative unknown until your age-29 season.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Somehow, in season No. 7, Bautista went from spare part to fourth in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.
Did you ever see it coming?
"I never doubted it," he said. "It might sound like I'm full of it, but when you know you can do something and you can do it well, then you always fight to get that out of yourself, and I never gave up on myself and I kept working hard, even though I had a lot of ups and downs in my career."
Calling them "ups and downs" may not be totally accurate. Bautista had a lot of downs and not a lot of ups. He showed some promise in limited playing time in 2006, but the Pirates felt he took a step back in '07 -- when he batted .254 and hit 15 homers in 142 games -- and essentially gave up on him in '08.
The Blue Jays acquired him for a player to be named later, who turned out to be catcher Robinzon Diaz, that August. Now, he's on the cover of their media guide, hitting third in their lineup and leading their clubhouse.
Are you ready for that kind of responsibility?
"If anything," he said, "I feel more relaxed because I don't have anything to worry about but coming to the park and hitting the ball hard and playing good defense on a day-to-day basis. I don't have to worry if I'm going to be in the lineup, I don't have to worry about what the organization might view me as; if I'm going to make enough money in my career to be able to support my family and my kids, my grandkids. That's all out of the window."
An uncelebrated ascension
Bautista's tale of obscurity to stardom is the kind that dreams are made of. It's an inspiring one about a man who believed, never gave up and surpassed his own expectations -- a classic feel-good story.
But for some reason, it wasn't really treated as such while it unfolded. As Bautista shockingly notched the 42nd 50-homer season in baseball history, most of the talk surrounding him centered on whether steroids were the driving force behind his success.
It's like we lost our ability to believe.
"People that think that are just not well-informed of how baseball is dealing with these situations nowadays, and also they need to be a little bit more open-minded about why people have success," Bautista said. "Just because somebody has success doesn't mean that they cheated or they did it the wrong way. It's kind of sad, everybody's mindset nowadays."
Perhaps recent events justify that kind of skepticism.
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But Bautista's epiphany came at a time when baseball seemingly moved past the steroid era. In fact, it happened during what many called "The Year of the Pitcher" -- and in a year when Bautista was tested at least five times for performance-enhancing drugs.
Still, his great moment of arrival was cluttered with cynicism and lacked in celebration.
Did it ever upset you?
"Just once," Bautista snapped.
It was August. In a blog, a local writer wondered aloud if a season that eventually saw Bautista more than triple his previous career high in homers was in any way steroid-tainted. By the time it was translated into Spanish, then made its way to his hometown newspaper in the Dominican Republic, the headline read something like: "Jose Bautista accused of using steroids."
Bautista's mother saw it, and she called him in tears -- because she couldn't believe someone had attached her son's name to PEDs, not because she thought Bautista was taking them.
"That would never go through her mind; it would never," he said. "Not my friends, not my family. People that know me would never even think or expect that from me."
Starting from scratch
After the Pirates let him go in August 2008, Bautista went to work on rebuilding himself at the plate.
Most of it was about timing. The right-handed hitter has a high leg kick -- similar to Ruben Sierra, but perhaps not as pronounced -- and his success hinges greatly on when he begins his load. With the help of former manager Cito Gaston and, eventually, second-year hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, Bautista began starting his swing much earlier.
When he perfected it, he was able to see the ball longer, gain a better awareness of the strike zone and get in attack mode quicker. Thanks to that, Bautista wasn't just a home run hitter last year. He ranked fourth in the Majors in walks (100), fifth in OPS (.995) and tied for sixth in Wins Above Replacement (6.9).
Adam Lind -- the man whose job it is to protect him in the lineup -- claims he saw it coming.
"We all knew it was in there, because he always showed it in batting practice when we got him a couple years ago," the Blue Jays first baseman said. "It was a matter of him finally figuring it out, and he did."
Alex Anthopoulos apparently figured something out about Bautista, too.
As the two were set to go to a salary-arbitration hearing last month, Bautista, who could have been a free agent after this season, set an Albert Pujols-like deadline for an extension to avoid negotiating in-season.
Since Bautista's meteoric rise came out of nowhere, the Blue Jays' general manager could have played it safe and waited to see if he could follow it up rather than committing so much money. But Anthopoulos -- usually prudent, forward-thinking and objective -- went with his gut, signing him to a lucrative five-year contract with a sixth-year option.
Bautista's makeup and work ethic made it easier for him to take a shot.
"I'm glad he signed a five-year contract with us," first-year skipper John Farrell said. "A very good player. Very aware, very prepared. He's a leader in our clubhouse and one of the leaders on our club, and I'm just glad he was able to work out a deal to be here for the foreseeable future."
Bautista himself realizes he probably won't hit 50 homers again. Of the 26 who reached that number, only nine did it a second time, and so many legendary sluggers -- Hank Aaron, to name one -- never hit 50.
Regardless, though, Bautista believes he can achieve sustained greatness. Ask him what he wants to improve on this year, and he'll run through a to-do list as if he's going grocery shopping -- improve his batting average with runners in scoring position, take the extra base more frequently, get better defensively at third base, and perhaps most important, be a suitable representative of the Blue Jays.
"Everybody's eyes kind of shift your way once you have a big year, and then on top of that you get a deal," Bautista said. "But I have no problem accepting that responsibility and the added pressure that some people might consider that that brings. In my eyes, I don't feel any added pressure."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.