Bautista's rise something to cherish
Despite presence of testing, many won't give veteran due credit
Jose Bautista is leading all Major Leaguers in All-Star votes, and on Thursday, he agreed to move from the outfield back to third base because the Blue Jays need to boost their offense. Phenom Brett Lawrie is hurt at Triple-A Las Vegas, and, anyway, this is who Jose Bautista is.
Early in Spring Training, when shortstop Yunel Escobar flipped a potential double-play ball behind his back and it sailed into right field, manager John Farrell and pitching coach Brian Butterfield didn't have to have a manager's office reasoning session with Escobar. When they got to the clubhouse, Bautista was addressing the situation with Escobar. That's who he is.
This is the guy who leads the Major Leagues in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS and on Wednesday night made a spectacular catch above the right-field fence to rob Jordan Schafer of a home run in Atlanta, then two days later moved back to third base.
We all get that Bautista plays in Toronto, where the exchange rate on hype is discounted because of the media shadow cast by the Yankees and Red Sox; nationally televised weekend games do not emanate out of Rogers Center. Fine. But since the first of September 2009, the man has hit 86 homers -- 21 more than runner-up Paul Konerko. Since that time, he has led the Majors in slugging and OPS.
Everyone realizes that this seemingly came out of nowhere. Bautista Highway began when he was a 20th-round Draft pick of the Pirates in 2000 and signed as a junior college draft-and-follow nearly a year later. He was taken by the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft in December 2003, taken on waivers by Tampa Bay that June, was sold to Kansas City 25 days later and sent back to the Pirates 28 days after that in a three-way deal through the Mets.
It was somewhere around this time that Dale Sveum was coaching for the Red Sox and was asked about Bautista, whom he managed in the Pirates' farm system.
"He's a good kid with tremendous ability," Sveum said at the time. "Someday, he could figure things out and become a very good player. I'm not sure it will be at second base, but he can be good. He's very athletic, he's got bat speed and he will work."
"I didn't predict this," said Sveum, now with the Brewers. "But when the Pirates traded him [in 2008, for the immortal Robinzon Diaz], I did think they made a mistake letting him get away before they found out how good he could be."
At the time, Bautista was 27. He was coming off seasons in which he hit 16 and 15 homers, and when the deal was made on Aug. 21, Bautista was hitting .242 with 12 homers in 107 games for the Pirates.
A year later, not everyone in Toronto saw this coming. Former general manager J.P. Ricciardi, as all executives do, put Bautista in the group of players on waivers in September. Boston claimed him, and if ownership had approved the deal, he'd have gone to the Red Sox. But the trade would have put the Red Sox over the salary cap threshold, and it never happened. Then came the eruption -- 10 homers between Sept. 1 and the end of the season.
From 2006 through Aug. 31, 2009, Bautista batted .241 with a .334 on-base percentage, a .398 slugging percentage and one home run every 31.20 at-bats. Since then, he's batted .277 with a .399 on-base percentage, a .625 slugging percentage and a homer every 10.64 at-bats.
But instead of being celebrated, his achievements have been "Bonds-ed" because of the past. It has been whispered in press boxes. Media people have argued they "don't believe" that Bautista could do this. It has been talk-show fodder, suggested in print, especially online.
"He always had bat speed, and he always had good plate discipline," said Farrell, who was with the Red Sox when Bautista's name was discussed.
"There is nothing magical here," said Ricciardi. "He figured it out. He always had trouble with the timing of his leg kick in his setup. That September, he got the timing right, and it opened everything else up."
Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and Cito Gaston worked hard with Bautista on that timing mechanism, which tends to slip on occasion; through Wednesday, Bautista had hit one homer in 22 games.
"It's still a delicate timing issue," said Farrell. "He can lose it at times. No one says anything then."
In the 1990s and up to the labor negotiations of 2002, the Major League Baseball Players Association fought hard against any form of drug testing. To Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, it was a sincere, moral fight that involved civil rights. There were many players, including Mike Sweeney and Lance Berkman, who argued for testing because, as Sweeney said at the time, "The rights of clean players to a level playing field are very important."
Nearly a decade later, the arguments by Sweeney and Berkman and the many players who wanted that level playing field and were tired of suspicions have been upheld. Jose Bautista comes along, and there are artificial clouds over him. It is as if the public won't get fooled again and is reluctant to celebrate such prodigious accomplishments.
So in protecting the civil rights of all players, the civil rights of Bautista have been violated. The right to have great performance rewarded has, in essence, been devalued.
Jose Bautista deserves to head to Phoenix for next month's All-Star Game as one of the faces of baseball, with Jose Reyes and Adrian Gonzalez and Roy Halladay, et al. He will be there and he will be celebrated, but with some winks and nods and an imaginary asterisk -- not because of anything he has done, but because of past players and past performances.
Peter Gammons is an analyst for MLB Network and a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.