This story appears in the June 6, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The face of where baseball is headed is bearded, although saying Jose Bautista is bearded is like saying the greens of Augusta National have grass, the gated homes of the Hamptons have hedges and the Grand Théâtre Lumière in Cannes has a red carpet. The beard is both ominous and meticulous, a description that also serves well for the Blue Jays’ slugger behind it.
This is the changing face of baseball because Bautista is a flamboyant player who flips convention as extravagantly as he does bats, a serial emoji user who takes on Twitter trolls, a manager to a cadre of p.r. agents, a student of baseball economics who knows his value as an “asset” on the cusp of free agency, a college graduate, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and anti-steroid activist, and an inveterate purveyor of blunt commentary, be it applied to umpires, opponents or mass media. In other words, Bautista does not play by the old rules.
Like Elvis Presley and his hips, Bautista and his flips are symbolic of the threatening, discomfiting nature of change. As MLB stumbles awkwardly from status quo to a fresher beat—pace-of-game initiatives, the “Make Baseball Fun Again” campaign of Nationals star Bryce Harper, shows of emotion on the field, etc.—Bautista is smack in the middle of things.
Told last week, for instance, that his mouth and mannerisms get under the skin of some people, Bautista smiled insouciantly, narrowed his dark eyes behind his dark beard and said, “I don’t come to the yard to make friends, man.”
At that moment you got a glimpse of why Bautista is not just the changing face of baseball but also the one Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor slugged with a ferocious right hand to his jaw on May 15. Given the shareable nature of the event, it became a modern, even more aptly named version of the Shot Heard ’Round the World.
“The way I try to look at it, I was playing baseball, and everything I did that day was a baseball play,” Bautista said last week in his first expansive comments on the incident since the punch. “I wish I could say the same about everybody else that was involved in what happened....
“Was [Odor] out to play baseball that day? Maybe partly. Part of me also thinks that he was looking for a fight.”
In social seismology terms, Bautista was in the middle of the two biggest Richter-scale readings in baseball over the past two years: his epic bat flip upon hitting a decisive home run against Texas in Game 5 of the 2015 AL Division Series, and his catching Odor’s fist flush in the face. Why him? The answer is like Bautista: more complex than you might think.
Long before Bautista turned bat flips and hard slides into baseball cultural battlegrounds, he did it with hosiery. It was the spring of 2008, when Bautista was a .240 hitter after four largely anonymous seasons with the Pirates. He was 27 years old and had flashed some signals of rebellion. As a kid in the Dominican Republic, he was prone to fighting with friends over balls and strikes. In ’03, out of frustration, he busted his hand on a garbage-can lid. Pittsburgh in ’08 was operating under new management, with Neal Huntington as GM and John Russell as manager. The club established a rule about socks: Players had to show at least two inches. Bautista took the field wearing his pants down to his shoe tops. With no hosiery visible, he was ordered off the field into the clubhouse. Huntington met with him. The next day a defiant Bautista took the field with his pants rolled up to his knees, showing an entire lower leg of sock. He was called into a second meeting with Huntington. It took a third meeting before Bautista finally relented.
Within three weeks that August, the Pirates took away his third base job, demoted him to the minors, then traded him to Toronto for a player to be named later (who would turn out to be backup catcher Robinson Diaz, now playing in the Mexican League).
“The whole spring training and those first four months were just miserable for me, and I’m sure for them, too,” Bautista says. “They read reports when they first took over and didn’t like what they saw, and they had made up their mind on who I was before they even had the chance to know me. Do I feel like I was treated as fairly as I could have been as an individual? No. But at the same time, I’m not complaining. Everybody has to deal with adversity. I didn’t do as good of a job as I could have in that situation.”
J.P. Ricciardi, the Jays’ GM at the time, pulled off what turned out to be one of the steals of the century. Since the trade Bautista has hit more home runs (254) than any player in baseball except Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. Since 2010, no one has hit more.
“Honestly, we never expected this,” Ricciardi said. “We liked him and the pop in his bat. We thought he was a good athlete who could fill in at different positions. We looked at him like a Marco Scutaro.”
Bautista’s breakthrough began in September 2009. He entered the month with three home runs. Manager Cito Gaston and coach Dwayne Murphy encouraged him to abandon his defensive hitting posture—he would let the ball travel and then push it toward the opposite field—in favor of catching the ball out front. To do so he would have to start his swing earlier, deploying a leg kick as a trigger. One day centerfielder Vernon Wells encouraged him to start “earlier than earlier.” The first time he tried it, Bautista whistled a ball off the wall for a double.
“I never had that feeling on a baseball diamond before,” he says.
He belted 10 more home runs that season and 54 the next season—which earned him a $64 million, five-year contract—then 43 the year after that. After hitting 59 home runs in his first six seasons combined, Bautista suddenly hit 97 in his ages 29 and 30 seasons, more than every batter at that age in baseball history except Sammy Sosa and David Ortiz, two sluggers reported to have failed 2003 survey tests for performance-enhancing drugs.
Last May 13 in Arlington, Bautista spoke to youth baseball players about the perils of steroid use on behalf of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an advocacy group for playing drug-free. Bautista has served three years as one of its 30 major league volunteers.
“I talked to them for about 40 minutes,” he says, “telling them how I got to where I am, and I had absolutely no need for banned substances.”
Asked about the speculation he faces because of his spike in power, Bautista says, “It’s unfair, but it doesn’t bother me because I know what I do. I’ve seen the comments on [Cubs ace] Jake Arrieta and others, and it’s a hundred percent unfair.”
Two days after that speaking engagement, Bautista was hit by a more literal haymaker.
Bautista grew up in Santo Domingo, in a middle-class home where the importance of education was stressed. His father, Americo, an agricultural engineer, and his mother, Sandra, an accountant, sent him to private school, where he learned to speak English; he left to attend Chipola College in Florida, and he became a 20th-round draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2000. He has an inquisitive mind. “I’m always incentivized to learn things,” he says. He has a habit of speaking in questions to which he provides the answers.
“Would I like to be signed [already]? Of course,” he says.
“He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve been around,” says Toronto manager John Gibbons. “Very dedicated and focused and disciplined as far as what he eats and stuff like that. Determined to maximize what he has left.”
Bautista has 1.02 million Twitter followers. He follows 728,000 accounts. This spring he declined to discuss the bat flip with a USA Today reporter in the clubhouse, pointing out, “I’ve got a couple of more followers, I believe, than you and maybe all the media in here combined, so I’ve got a bigger reach.” He says he is active on social media because “a lot of people get their access to us through mass media, which is always generalized. . . . I’ve tried as much as I can to try to show the world who I am.”
When someone tweeted that “poor” Bautista would have to see pictures of the Odor punch “every second of his life,” Bautista tweeted back, “Aweeee so cute but dont worry, i promise you im not poor,” followed by three winking emojis with their tongues stuck out.
The epic bat flip was the perfect accelerant in the virtual world: shareable, brief, visual, dramatic, meme-provoking. It was an apt display for these times, if not the century of baseball that preceded it. Hall of Fame relief pitcher Goose Gossage, for instance, called Bautista “a disgrace to the game.”
“That’s always going to be there. They’re purists,” Bautista says of his critics. “And I get it. It’s hard to see the change in your sport, and hard to accept and swallow sometimes. Do you think Larry Bird cringes when he watches a game now and sees alley-oops left and right and people draining threes without setting plays and the way they play defense, especially in the regular season? Probably. He’s like, Man, back in my day it was different.
“But I don’t know why other sports are more accepting of that change. Baseball is the only sport where people try to hold on to the past and prevent that change from happening.
“I think most people understood that it was spur of the moment, a natural reaction in a celebratory way to a big, huge moment in a playoff game. I think most of the negative backlash came from the losing part: the Texas region.”
It wasn’t until his final at bat in the last of Toronto’s seven games against the Rangers this year that Bautista incurred backlash on the field. Texas pitcher Matt Bush, a 30-year-old prodigal rookie who was unsigned (and in prison on a charge of DUI with serious bodily injury) during last year’s playoff series, plunked Bautista in the ribs with a 97-mph fastball leading off the eighth inning of a one-run game. Rangers manager Jeff Banister, noting the score and his depleted bullpen, said the pitch was an accident; Bush offered a “no comment.”
“A hundred percent it wasn’t [an accident],” Bautista says. “To be quite honest, I don’t even think that Matt Bush wanted to do it. I think he received orders, and that’s why my comment after the game was questioning their leadership.
“I can’t hold that against Bush if somebody tells him to hit me. He’s trying to establish himself. He’s following orders. He probably gets sent down if he doesn’t.
“If somebody breaks somebody’s leg, the next time he comes to the plate, the team wants to send a message: You purposely hurt one of our players, we might do the same. But if I flip the bat, how is that hurting anybody on their team? How is that putting them at risk?”
A Rangers source, however, said the team was less bothered by the bat flip than by what they see as Bautista’s grating style of play, believing that he often doesn’t run out fly balls, shows disgust if he pops up a pitch he thinks he should have crushed, complains about strike calls and injects himself into any minor dispute or incident. “Even if it’s something in the infield, he’ll come in from the outfield,” the source says. “Basically he has an opinion on everything about your team, but you’re not allowed to give an opinion about him or his team.”
Says Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson, “He’s definitely a guy who is focused and has his own ideas and thoughts on things. When I first got here, I wanted to talk to him about hitting, but he didn’t even know I wanted to talk to him. He was so focused on what he had to do. Does he rub some people the wrong way? Yeah, but that’s because those people are in one of two categories: One, he’s hitting bombs off them, or two, they’re not putting up the numbers he’s putting up.”
After getting hit by Bush, Bautista decided that if he had the chance, he would gain retribution by sliding hard into a Texas middle infielder. The chance arrived on the next ball in play, a grounder to third baseman Adrian Beltre, who threw to Odor at second.
“I could have hit him,” Bautista says. “I could have hurt him. I chose not to. My cleats were down. I slid through the bag. Was it late? Yes, a hundred percent. But what can I do after they hit me? Should I ask my manager to let me pitch, which he is never going to let me do? Like, what am I supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?”
After Odor caught the feed from Beltre, he used a low release point to whistle his relay throw to first base just past Bautista’s head.
“I’ve been playing baseball for a long time,” Bautista says. “I know exactly what he was trying to do when he threw the ball. He tried a hundred percent to hit me in the face. And it’s not the first time he’s done it against me or some of my teammates. And there’s video to prove that.”
Bautista says the potential danger of the relay caused him to jump up and confront Odor. Bautista brought his hands up but did not clench a fist. Odor shoved him, then snapped that quick right.
“I didn’t hurt him. I had a hard slide,” Bautista says. “At the same time, he did try to hit me [with the throw]. Then he initiated, unilaterally, a fight—with a push and a punch. It was all premeditated. I mean, it’s not the first time he’s done it. The other fight I saw he had in the minor leagues, it’s the same M.O. Same push-and-punch. Did it catch me by surprise? A hundred percent.
“I’ve never seen a baseball fight that develops like that. There was no development. It was literally an attack—which is O.K. ... I didn’t swing. I didn’t push. I was the pushee and the punchee, which is fine. I’m a big boy. I can handle it, whatever. The world doesn’t end tomorrow.”
Odor was suspended for eight games. It was reduced to seven games upon appeal. Bautista was suspended for one.
Former Padres pitcher Daniel McCutchen posted on Twitter, “On behalf of former and current @mlb players I would like to thank @RougnedOdor for that beautiful punch.” He deleted the tweet nine minutes later, but he wasn’t alone in the sentiment.
Rangers broadcaster Tom Grieve, a former player and GM, told KRLD-FM in Dallas, “From now on when everyone thinks of Jose Bautista, they’re not going to think of a guy that hit 50 home runs. They’re going to think of a guy that picked a fight with the wrong guy and got his brains beat out.” Grieve added, “Bautista got exactly what he deserved.”
Told of those comments, Bautista said, “It’s extremely irresponsible journalism and broadcasting.... What are you promoting when you’re saying those things? I would never even have actions to promote anything as aggressive as that. I don’t like to attack people. It’s just not in my nature. If I ever get worked up, it’s always in reaction to something.”
Bautista turns 36 in October. He leads the league in walks and is on pace for his fifth 30-homer season in the past seven years. He will have to persuade the Blue Jays—or another team in the free-agent market—that he can defy baseball’s new actuarial tables as part of the first generation of players who have been tested for PEDs throughout their careers. In the seven seasons from 2002 through ’08, 13 players age 36 and older hit 30 or more home runs a combined 18 times. But in the seven seasons since then, only four have done so a combined seven times.
Bautista wants nothing more than to remain in Toronto. “I love the city,” he said. “I’d be stupid to leave.” As an original investor and a board member of the Marucci Sports company, president of the Bautista Family Education Fund and holder of a general studies degree with a business concentration from South Florida, Bautista recognizes that he is an asset to the Blue Jays and their new president, Mark Shapiro.
“I will explore every single option, whether it happens or not with the new regime, to continue to try to stay here,” he says. “That being said, I think teams utilize that a lot against players, [seeking] a discount or bargain price, and I think that’s extremely unfair, especially to have your biggest contributors on the field and try to take advantage of the fact that they like it there and negotiate a tougher deal.
“Going back to being an asset, we generate revenue. How much of that does a team want to share with a player? And for a player like me, I’m also in a unique position where I truly believe that’s not going to stop when I take the uniform off. I see what happens with [retired Jays] Joe Carter, Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Robbie Alomar. I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging, but I don’t think I’m in a different position. I’m there in all the offensive record categories for the team, and I like to think I’m one of those players who’s not just intellectually but also baseball savvy and can bring something to the table post-career. Having all those things in perspective, I just don’t see how our organization would not see me as an attractive piece.”
Is his next contract, like most things Bautista, bound to be complex? A hundred percent.