By the time he turned 29, the Blue Jays' slugger had been cut or traded six times. By the time he turns 31, he could become the first player in a decade to hit 50 home runs in consecutive seasons. Crazy? Suspicious? Not as much as you might think
This is an article from the June 27, 2011 issue
Do you believe in miracles? Can you? This is the question for our blurry time. Do you believe that a man ravaged by cancer can return to win the Tour de France seven times? Can you? Do you believe that a 37-year-old man in the supposed twilight of a brilliant career can turn on fastballs and hit 73 home runs in a season? Do you believe that the best pitcher of our time, maybe the best pitcher of all time, can throw blazing fastballs and still be the best in the world at age 42?
Do you believe in miracles? Can you?
We live in a time of mirage, of Photoshop and special effects and undetectable designer drugs. We live in a time when truth and illusion tango unhappily, when reality television seems more unreal than cartoons, when identities are stolen and online personalities invented, when the President must show his birth certificate to an unbelieving portion of the nation, when baseball's record books have become choked by men who are admitted—or outed as—steroid users.
And so the questions grow cloudier and darker as time goes on. Do you believe in miracles? Can you? Take a hardworking and wiry 30-year-old man, born and raised in the Dominican Republic, so desperate for a major league contract as a teen that he sends out videotapes of himself to teams. He goes unsigned. "Could you imagine?" he asks, "all the scouts in the Dominican, and I'm sending out tapes of myself." He plays two seasons for Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., grows two inches and puts on 30 pounds, and is taken in the 20th round of the amateur draft in 2000. He has now played for five major league teams in his relatively short career—six if you count the Mets, who traded him before he played a game. He has been left unprotected, released, purchased, benched, traded and traded again. When he turned 29, he was a journeyman, his value even as a utility player in dispute.
He is a year older now. And he is the best player in baseball.
Do you believe in Jose Bautista?
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: PITCHER DAZZY VANCE
Vance spent 10 years in the minors—half of those with a sore right elbow. He did not win his first major league game until he was 31 years old. The story goes that in 1920, when he was 29, he found himself in a particularly cranky poker game in New Orleans, and he banged his arm on a table in disgust. His sore arm raged with pain. He was taken to a doctor, and he begged for relief. Nobody knows exactly what the doctor did. But, then, the pain disappeared and Vance's pitches acquired a sudden fury. From 1922 through '28 he led the league in strikeouts in each season. He won an MVP award and probably would have won two or three Cy Young Awards, if those had existed then. Dazzy Vance was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.
A miracle can happen any day ... that is, if you believe in miracles. Take Sept. 10, 2009. Toronto and Minnesota were playing that afternoon in the Rogers Centre. If Jose Bautista woke up feeling as if this would be the day his lifelong dream came true, he does not remember that. The Blue Jays were out of contention. He wasn't hitting at all.
"The thing you have to understand about Jose," says Jeff Manto, who was Bautista's hitting coach in Pittsburgh, "is that this guy had to succeed. He had some kind of will. Every at bat mattered. Every pitch mattered. If anything, he wanted success too much."
Bautista does remember being reasonably happy that day: The roof of the Rogers Centre was open, and sunlight poured in. And, hey, he was in the Blue Jays' lineup. That was something. Bautista was closing in on 29 years old, he had been passed around from bad team to bad team and none of them had given him a chance. The Pirates thought so little of him that they left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft in 2003, when he was taken by the Orioles. He was given 12 plate appearances in Baltimore in '04, and after one fly ball flew over his head in the outfield, according to legend, Orioles owner Peter Angelos said, "Get rid of him." Tampa Bay scooped him up and gave him 15 plate appearances. The Kansas City Royals bought him and let him go to the plate 26 times before trading him to the Mets, who that same day rerouted him back to Pittsburgh. "I mean no disrespect," Bautista says, "but these were all bad teams. I thought, One of these teams is going to give me a chance. But they didn't."
The Pirates gave him 43 plate appearances that season, but he spent most of 2005 in Double A Altoona. He was given one shot as an everyday player, in '07. In mid-June he was hitting around .280 and was among the league leaders in doubles. But except for a brief power surge in late August, he more or less stopped hitting that summer. "I was terrible," he admits. "I was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. I felt this pressure to crush every pitch just so I could stay in the lineup."
"What stood out with Jose was his amazing bat speed," Manto says. "It was way, way off the charts. We'd watch this guy and think, If this ever clicks, look out.... But you say that about a lot of guys. For some of them, it never does click."
The Pirates kept him around for most of the next season, but it was clear they had lost their enthusiasm. "I went into the office and asked, 'What do you see in me?' " Bautista says. "And they told me—not in so many words—that they really did not see me as part of their future. I said, 'Well, if that's the case, can you give me a chance to go somewhere else?' They said, 'Well, we don't really let players make those sorts of decisions, but we'll look into it.' " On Aug. 21, 2008, they dumped Bautista on Toronto for a player to be named later.
And the Blue Jays, like every team before, had no place for him. They just wanted a spare part. But late in the 2009 season, after they shed the big money contracts of Scott Rolen and Alex Rios, there was an opening. Cito Gaston, manager of the Blue Jays, said, "Jose, I see something in you. This is your chance."
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: Quarterback Kurt Warner
He did not start at Northern Iowa until his senior season. He played well enough to get an invitation to the Green Bay Packers' camp in 1994, but he was released before the start of the season. He stocked groceries at the Hy-Vee store in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He also played Arena football for three seasons and did well enough to get an invitation to the Chicago Bears' camp in '97. But he was bitten by a spider and had to miss the camp. In '98 he played football in Amsterdam and became the third-string quarterback of the St. Louis Rams. In '99 he was moved to second string. Then starter Trent Green got hurt. Then Kurt Warner threw 41 touchdown passes and led the Rams to victory over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, where he was named the Most Valuable Player.
On Sept. 10, 2009, the Minnesota Twins started a big, strong righthander named Scott Baker. Bautista had never faced Baker before, but that did not matter. He knew what to expect. Every day was the same. Baker would try to bust him inside with fastballs. Everybody tried to pound Jose Bautista with inside fastballs back then. He could not hit that pitch. The best he could do was foul it off, and he often could not do even that.
"You're late!" batting coach after batting coach had shouted at him while he flailed away in the cage.
"Start earlier!" Toronto batting coach Dwayne Murphy told him. The message seemed the same—but Bautista doesn't think so. "Everybody had always told me I was late swinging the bat," Bautista says. "Well, I knew that. But they didn't really tell me what to do about it. Or anyway, I didn't get the message, you know?"
"We just had to get him on time," Gaston says. "That was the biggest thing with Jose."
Murphy and Bautista changed the mechanics of his swing. "He had that natural bat speed," Murphy says. "He was a natural pull hitter. But he didn't know how to pull the ball. I told him that with that bat speed he should destroy inside fastballs." Murphy moved Bautista closer to the plate. They fashioned a front leg kick to give him better timing. Bautista tried. He started his swing earlier. Then earlier still. "Jose listens," Gaston says with pride in his voice. But it made no difference. Even after Rios cleared waivers on Aug. 10, giving Bautista his cherished place in the lineup, the Blue Jays' new rightfielder hit .161 during those first four weeks. He hit one home run. Nothing felt natural. He felt miserable.
"I am starting earlier," he told Murphy, but the batting coach shook his head. Before the game in which Bautista would face Baker, teammate Vernon Wells sat next to him in the clubhouse.
"You know what you should do," Wells said. "Think about starting as early as you can possibly imagine, so early that it seems ridiculous. And then start even earlier than that. What do you have to lose? If you look like a fool, you look like a fool. It's just one game."
It was just one game. Bautista stepped in against Scott Baker in the bottom of the second inning. O.K., he would remember thinking, I'm going to start so early it will be ridiculous. Baker pitched, and Bautista felt as if he started his swing before Baker even let go of the ball—"I thought, You want early, I'll show you early." He expected to miss everything, but he felt his bat hit ball. It was more than that, though, because the feeling of hitting a baseball hard, really hard, doesn't feel like anything else in the world.
The ball smashed against the leftfield wall so hard, Bautista thought he could hear the impact over the sounds of the cheers.
Holy s---, Bautista remembered thinking as he stood at second base. What was that?
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: Outfielder Hank Sauer
Nobody wanted to give Hank Sauer a chance to play when he was young. This might have been because of his glove—the leftfielder's lack of grace in the outfield is well-documented—but it mainly seemed to be out of stubbornness. Once a baseball decision-maker decides someone can't play, it's hard to change his mind. Sauer hit well for the Reds during brief call-ups in 1941, '42 and '45. He kept getting sent down. He did not play a full season until '48, when he was 31. He hit 35 home runs that season. Playing for the Cubs, Cardinals and Giants, he would hit 30-plus home runs five times, including 37 in his MVP season of 1952, before retiring in '59, at age 42. From '48 to '54 only Ralph Kiner hit more home runs than Sauer.
Jose Bautista stands in front of a television camera by the dugout at the Rogers Centre. This is the late spring of 2011. A TV reporter has asked permission to do a segment called, "Is Jose Bautista human?" Bautista is always accommodating. It's his nature.
"This is just supposed to be kind of a funny thing," the reporter explains.
"O.K.," Bautista says.
Through Sunday he had hit 84 home runs since the day everything changed. He hit the first of those 84 the same day, against the same Scott Baker, using the same "swing ridiculously early" philosophy that Vernon Wells had suggested minutes before the game began. Bautista hit nine homers in the remaining 23 games that September. He slugged .629. "I was out of control," he says. "I was so excited because I found it. You know what I mean? I found it!"
In 2010 he showed up in camp and crushed the ball. He hit .439 in spring training. Nobody could believe how hard he was hitting the baseball. "It was clear," Murphy says, "that he got it."
Bautista hit 54 home runs in 2010, the most in Blue Jays history. That's more home runs than Hank Aaron hit in a season ... or Willie Mays ... or Ted Williams ... or Lou Gehrig. It was natural to mark the year as a fluke, to compare Bautista with Brady Anderson (1996) or Davey Johnson (1973) or someone else who had one outlier season. But in 2011 Bautista has been better. Through Sunday he led the American League with an on-base percentage of .483—the highest since Frank Thomas's in '94. He was leading the league in homers, walks and his slugging percentage was 61 points higher than anyone else's in the league. This is why after years of anonymity reporters now want to know if he is human.
"I want to know if you have any of these fears," the television reporter explains.
"O.K.," Bautista says.
"Are you afraid of heights?" he asks.
"Yes," Bautista says.
"Wow. Really? Are you afraid of the dark?"
"Hmm. Interesting. Are you afraid of crowds?"
"You are? You're afraid of crowds?
"Yes," Bautista says. "Anything more than about 25 people."
On and on. Clowns? Yes. Spiders? Yes. Sharks? Yes.
"Are you afraid of intimacy?" the reporter asks.
An odd look crosses Bautista's face. "Intimacy?"
"No," he says. "I'm not afraid of intimacy."
When the segment ends, Bautista walks over and shakes his head. "I wanted to help make it funny for that guy," he says. "I was going to keep saying yes until the end when I was going to say that I'm afraid of everything except hitting a baseball. I really tried. But I couldn't say yes to that last one."
Bautista shakes his head again. "Intimacy?" he asks. "Who is afraid of intimacy?"
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: Running back Priest Holmes
A backup tailback at Texas, Holmes was signed by Baltimore as an undrafted free agent in 1997. He gained 1,008 yards in '98 before blowing out his knee the following year and losing his starting spot. He went to Kansas City and at age 28—old for a running back—he led the NFL in rushing. The next year he gained almost 2,300 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, but he badly hurt his hip. It was unclear if he would play football again. The following year, at age 30, he set what was then an NFL record with 27 touchdowns. When asked how he did it, Holmes said, "We can do anything we set our minds to doing."
Do you believe in miracles? Can you? When the Blue Jays played in Detroit in mid-May, skeptical fans booed Bautista. (When asked if this was a sign of respect, Toronto's first-year manager John Farrell says with disgust in his voice, "I don't see how you could love this game and boo him.") In New York the Daily News ran a Bautista story with the sentence—pulled out in a separate paragraph for emphasis—"Let's hope he's clean." On a Chicago White Sox television broadcast, outspoken announcer Hawk Harrelson said, "If you didn't know any better, you'd say [his bat] had a little cork in it."
The questions are asked repeatedly. Are you? Have you? Did you? Bautista always answers. He never drifts into self-righteousness. "I know why people ask," he says, "and I will answer the question as many times as people ask it. What I've done is a product of dedication, being given a chance to succeed and the change to my approach. I have never taken steroids or anything like that. I know what kind of person I am."
There are no words to convince the unconvinced. The only testimony in this Trial of Whispers Against Jose Bautista is his numbers, his performance, the trajectory and fury of his batted balls, and the suddenness of it all. Bautista is almost exactly the same height (6 feet) and weight (195 pounds) he has been for years. His body has not bulged. His hat size has not changed. And, as Bautista says, there has been drug testing in the game since 2004. "I know what people did before," he says, "but there's strong testing now."
When told that some people don't believe in the effectiveness of tests, as some PEDs are not detectable—he grimaces. Why have them then? "I know why people ask the questions," he says, "but I wonder when they are going to stop asking."
Bautista says only one part of this transformation has surprised him. "I always believed I could be a guy who could hit in the middle of the lineup every day," he says. If anything, he thought last year was disappointing in some ways. He hit only .260. He walked a career-high 100 times, yes, but still felt as if he went after too many bad pitches. "Jose always had a really good eye," Gaston says. "That certainly doesn't hurt him as a hitter."
"I could recognize balls and strikes well," Bautista says in agreement, "but I used to go out of the strike zone because I felt like I had to prove myself. I always felt like if I didn't get three hits in a game, I would be on the bench the next day. And then, last year, it was different. I felt so good, I was hitting the ball so well, that I felt like I could hit everything." This year, Bautista says, he feels a calmness unlike anything he's experienced before. He's hitting .336. He averages about a walk per game.
"I know I'm in the lineup," he says by way of explanation. The Blue Jays signed him to a five-year, $65 million deal before the season began. There were many who felt that Toronto had, based on one fluky season, overpaid Bautista. Now, with Bautista playing better than anyone else in the game, the deal looks like an alltime bargain.
"Surprised?" Manto asks. "No, I'm not surprised. I saw Jose when he was young. I know what he's about. It takes more time for some people. He couldn't get regular playing time. He bounced around. But he was going to keep working until he got to where he was going."
The one surprise for Bautista? The home runs. He did not expect to hit 54 of them last year. Even after that, he did not expect to be on pace to hit 50 again. He does not see himself as a home run hitter. The home runs are a by-product, he says, of working into good counts and crushing pitchers' mistakes. "He ignores pitches that are not in his zone," Murphy says. "He has the discipline to just let them go. And those are mostly balls anyway."
"So now I'm facing 2--0 fastballs, 3--1 fastballs, and those are the best pitches to hit," Bautista says, and he seems almost sheepish as he says it. When asked if he resents the home runs because they, more than anything, have inspired the whispers (turn 25 of last year's home runs into doubles and Bautista's rise might be universally admired), he takes a second or two to think about it.
"Nah," he says. "I'll take the home runs. They help the team."
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: Outfielder Jose Bautista
He was often the smallest kid on the Dominican fields growing up. He was a 20th-round draft pick, and he played for four teams his first year. He had a .238 career batting average when he turned 29. He then became the best player in baseball. "I guess I can see why people think I came out of nowhere," he says. "But I didn't. I got the chance. I always believed."
Bautista sits around a table with mobsters. That's the premise, anyway, of a promotion Major League Baseball has filmed for its fan cave, a downtown Manhattan studio where two fans have been conscripted to watch every game of the 2011 season. Bautista is preparing to reenact the Robert De Niro baseball bat scene from The Untouchables with The Sopranos' Steve Schirripa and other actors.
In that famous movie moment, De Niro beats a man to death with a bat. In this more fan-friendly scene, Bautista introduces himself as Joey Bats—also his Twitter name—and sees a laughing baseball at the table. "He should know better," Joey Bats says as he points at the ball. "He shouldn't be near me unless he wants to get whacked."
At first he seems nervous. But as the filming goes on, he looks more at ease. The actors are funny. They're friendly. And this, he figures, is the sort of things superstars do.
"Do you want me to actually hit the ball?" he asks the director.
"No," the director says. "Just pretend to hit it."
"Because I'll hit it," he says. Everybody in the room laughs. It is a good room—full of friends, a place of respect—and he says again, "No, I'm serious, I'll hit it."
Back in the clubhouse, he works with Toronto's talented but moody shortstop Yunel Escobar. ("It's amazing how big an effect he's had on Yunel," one Blue Jays employee says. "It's night and day.") He keeps up everybody's spirits during batting practice. "He's a natural leader," Farrell says. Off the field he chats with fans, seems endlessly patient with media questions, performs with Sopranos actors....
Point is, he's trying to embrace being a superstar. It's what he's wanted all his life.
Do you believe in miracles? Can you? There are people who roll their eyes every time they look at Toronto's box scores. Hey, look, Jose Bautista hit another home run. Hey, look, Jose Bautista reached base four more times. Hey, look, Jose Bautista has turned into Babe Ruth.
"One thing I believe with all my heart is that the kind of person you are will eventually come to light," Bautista says. "You can only be yourself. I know what kind of person I am ... what kind of person I try to be. So I don't worry about it. People will know who I am."
Do you believe in miracles? Can you? Or maybe those are the wrong questions. Maybe the real question is: Do you believe that people who never stop trying or believing are capable of doing amazing true things? And if not: What's the point of watching?
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Joe Posnanski blogs at SI.com /posnanski. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski
Through 2009, his age 28 season, Jose Bautista had 2,038 career plate appearances, 59 home runs, a .400 slugging percentage and a .329 on-base percentage. Since 1961, 190 other players have had similarly mediocre stats through age 28: fewer than 60 homers, a slugging percentage of .400 or under and an OBP of .330 or under in at least 2,000 trips to the plate. Less than two seasons later Bautista has already outperformed the final career totals of nearly all of those players. Here's how he compares with the top five of that group as ranked by career home runs.