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Back in the Game: Blue Jays slugger José Bautista’s high-stakes mission to stay on top

José Bautista silenced his critics and became baseball’s most powerful hitter. Now, after a potentially career-ending surgery, he must prove himself all over again

 José Bautista: Back in the Game

(Photo: Nigel Dickson)

It was July 16 of last year, a day game. More than 42,000 people in Yankee Stadium, and a few million sitting on couches at home, had watched Blue Jays slugger José Bautista swing at an inside fastball, just as he had thousands of times before. It had become his specialty, swinging at that pitch. Crushing it. And he’d done it again, whipping his bat around at an ungodly speed and slamming the ball far into the stands in left field. All eyes, at home and in the stadium, watched that ball sail long and foul. Then they turned back to the star at the plate, but he wasn’t there.

He was staggering toward his team’s dugout, toward people who could help him, holding his left forearm. He called out and sank toward the ground. At the end of his swing, he’d heard a popping crack in his flesh and felt a knife stab of pain. He thought he’d broken or dislocated his wrist.

It took weeks to find out how bad it was. Initial MRIs showed nothing too troub­ling: inflammation, perhaps a strain of the ECU, the bottom-most of the many piano wire tendons connecting the hand and fingers to the muscles of the forearm. The ECU runs along the ulna bone to the fifth metacarpal bone of the hand, held in place at the wrist by a sheath. For several weeks, as the team attempted to go on without him, losing twice as many games as it won, Bautista tried to rehabilitate the wrist. When he was allowed to test it again, in a minor league game on August 23, he hit two home runs. Two days later, in a major league game in Baltimore, he reinjured the wrist. The only option left was surgery.

On a rainy September 4, Bautista was unconscious on an operating table in the Cleveland Clinic, being operated on by Thomas Graham, a specialist in sports hand injuries. Bautista’s mother, Sandra, his father, Americo, and his brother, Luis, were all there, having flown up from his hometown of Santo Domingo. His long-time girlfriend, Neisha Croyle, was there, too, pregnant with their second child (Ava, born in November) and holding their first, one-year-old Estella. Luis, a former minor league player and a much larger man than his older brother, acted as translator for the family. “Everybody was worried,” he remembers.

About six months later, before a spring training game in Dunedin, Florida, Bautista shows me the scar. Roughly the length and width of a finger, and still pink, it runs along the outside edge of his thick wrist and curls upward around the knob at the end of the ulna. The most startling thing is the knob itself, a walnut-sized lump of suturing and scarring under the skin.

“It’s going to look like that for the rest of my life,” says Bautista, almost proudly. He then gives a detailed account of his injury and surgery, which, because the Blue Jays front office refused to supply any details or access to doctors who could, will have to suffice. According to Bautista, who peppered the surgeon with questions, the sheath holding his ECU tendon in place had completely torn away from its base. “It just snapped from the root and went pow!” This wasn’t entirely bad news: prospects for recovery were better than if the tendon itself had ruptured or torn. Graham reattached the sheath, then repurposed part of the retinaculum, the band that runs across all the tendons of the wrist, to give added support. He also shaved down the ulna to minimize future stress on the tendon.

“Now,” says Bautista, “I have a friggin’ bionic wrist.”

That may be so, but the track record for similar wrist injuries on power hitters isn’t good. More than a few of them—including David Ortiz, Nick Johnson and Mark DeRosa—have seen their power shrink in the seasons following wrist damage. DeRosa had surgery to fix his own torn tendon sheath in October 2009. The following May, in an report, he called the surgery “a total failure” and claimed his ligaments were “flapping all over the place again.” His second surgery, to fix the fix, was done by Thomas Graham. So far, he seems fine.

In this, the Season That Must Amount to Something, with a new, more expensive roster built to end 19 years of mediocrity, the Blue Jays desperately need Bautista’s wrist to hold together. He is their leader, their chief source of power and identity, and they need him to be the hitter he was, the hitter they helped him become. But if there are people who doubt Bautista now, that might not be a bad thing. History has shown that the more people doubt him, the more motivated he gets. Doubt is his personal performance-enhancing drug.