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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 MLB.com 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.

José Bautista: Back in the Game

(Photo: Nigel Dickson)

José Bautista fits none of the stereotypes of a baseball player from the Dominican Republic. For a start, he didn’t grow up poor. His parents were well employed—his father a poultry farmer, his mother an accountant and financial officer—and provided the best education possible. Bautista and his brother were driven to private Catholic school every day by a chauffeur (not unheard of for middle-class families in the D.R., where labour was cheap). He excelled in math and science. “Anything that has to do with numbers or something visual, it’s easy for me,” he says with a snap of his fingers. In the afternoons, he attended classes to learn English. In the evenings, he played baseball with a group of close friends behind his apartment complex. Sometimes Doña Luz, an elderly neighbourhood woman, would scream at them for sending baseballs through her windows.

He was small for a player—in his mid-teens he weighed about the same as Luis, four years younger—but he possessed a towering drive to compete. He’d break into fist fights with friends over ball-and-strike calls. When he entered organized baseball, in the city leagues of Santo Domingo, he played on not one team but four. He was small and big-eared—he says his friends dubbed him The Rat—and had an equally outsized self-confidence. He joined a program that gave young Dominican players—who aren’t eligible for the baseball draft—a chance to be seen by major league clubs. But when two of them—the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks—offered to sign him, he refused. At a time when true Latin American prospects were getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign, the Diamondbacks were offering just $50,000, the Yankees even less. They were doubters. Bautista was sure he was worth more.

He searched for an American college that would take him but found mostly doubters there, too. At one point, Americo Bautista reached out to Jay Alou, a Dominican sports agent and a nephew of Hall of Fame player and former manager Felipe Alou. “He wanted to get the confirmation that his son was a good player,” says Alou. “Scouts who had seen him didn’t believe that he had the talent.”

Finally, the 18-year-old Bautista found a spot in Florida’s Chipola College. That made him draft-eligible, and at the end of his first year, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him. They didn’t take him until the 20th round, however, which meant another small-money offer, and again Bautista sniffed and turned away. He had another year at Chipola, and maybe then university. The Pirates retained the rights to Bautista until just before the next year’s draft, so they waited.

Bautista spent his second year at Chipola increasing his value. He got bigger, growing and working out steadily. He pitched as well as hit, reaching a major league–calibre 95 miles per hour fastball as the team’s closer. At the end of the year, he helped his team into the state tournament and won MVP. And in his team’s third game, he did something unthinkable. The scheduled starting pitcher had gotten hurt, and Bautista agreed to start in his place. But pitching arms can be fragile, and Bautista hadn’t built up his arm to tolerate pitching more than an inning or two at a time. That fact was well known to his family and to Jay Alou, as well as to Pirates scout Jack Powell, a Bautista true believer. They all watched from the stands, and the longer Bautista pitched, the more nervous they got.

“I’m sitting there on pins and needles,” remembers Powell, “hoping he doesn’t blow an elbow or a shoulder.”

“I was losing it,” says Alou. “His mom’s telling me, ‘Jay, you’ve got to talk to the coach.’ ” As Alou remembers it, the coach went to the mound after Bautista had thrown 100 pitches and told him he was done. Anybody else in Bautista’s position—the draft deadline approaching, a body and a future to protect—would have handed him the ball. Bautista convinced the coach to let him stay in. He wound up pitching a complete game and won, 8–3.

A week after the tournament, he signed with the Pirates for more than $500,000. He bought himself a BMW X5.

There’s a reason José Bautista likes math: it has rules. “I don’t have to rely on what somebody else said or thought.” Even now, as one of the most secure players on his team, Bautista plays as if doubters still lurk, as if his reputation were at stake with each play. In fielding practice, he charges after balls while others lope. In meaningless spring training games, he slams his bat to the ground after striking out. His every action glows with righteousness, and indignation is never far away.

José Bautista

(Photo: Courtesy of José Bautista)

Blue Jays commentators have grown increasingly critical of Bautista’s bursts of petulance and temper during at-bats, his glares, his barks, particularly when calls go against him. “When things don’t go his way,” says Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, “he can be very fiery.” At least two umpires have ejected Bautista from games for arguing with them—one of those times, he pounded his bat against the dugout wall and threw his equipment onto the field.

His coaches and teammates have talked to him about controlling his temper. “Sometimes his emotions get to him,” says coach Dwayne Murphy. “It takes him out of his game.” As a minor leaguer, Bautista’s emotions cost him most of the 2003 season when he slammed his fist down on the lid of a garbage can and broke his hand. He knows his anger can have negative consequences. “It affects me in different ways. It even affects the way that I perform. I might put a little more pressure on myself.” But he refuses to cap that steam, because in many ways it works for him, drives him. He just wishes other people wouldn’t provoke it so often with their incompetence. “I wish that I would go back and watch the videos of disputed calls and what I see would tell me that I’m wrong. But 80 per cent of the time, it doesn’t, so it’s hard for me to hold it in all the time.”

Bautista is hard on himself—shouting furiously, for example, when he pops up a pitch he thinks he should smash—and he has a perfectionist’s eye for deficiency in others. “I am big on stuff being fair and equal,” he says. “If something is out of line or seems unfair, I can’t help but react.”

Someone with such a finely tuned sense of What Should Be, who bristles against having to “rely on what somebody else said or thought,” is someone with a profound need for control. It has been a part of Bautista for years, in one form or another.

During his first few years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he prided himself on being a clubhouse mediator. His facility in both Spanish and English and his experience with American culture gave him insights he wanted to pass on. Young Dominican players knew nothing about credit scores and cellphone contracts, so Bautista helped them. When he saw misunderstandings erupt between players and coaches, primarily because of the language barrier, he couldn’t sit idly by. “Even basic instruction was misunderstood,” he says. “Reactions were just blown out of proportion. You could see a talented player’s career go down the drain because of one incident that was misunderstood.” So, like a child caught in the midst of family discord, he did what he could to smooth things out.

He worked just as hard to control his own destiny. The Pirates management prized an adherence to rules. Bautista calculated that the quickest route to the majors lay in being someone who listened to his coaches and “adjusted to the team’s philosophies.” If the Pirates wanted something done a certain way, that’s the way he did it.

Take pants. The Pirates wanted minor leaguers to show at least two inches of sock. Some young players ignored that, preferring to wear their pants to their shoes. Invariably, that got them in trouble. “I said screw that,” says Bautista. “Why get myself involved in an issue that I don’t need to deal with when I can just avoid it by pulling my pants up?”

He did as he was told in the batter’s box, too. Like many who swing for home runs, Bautista, a right-handed hitter, tended to pull the ball, yanking it to left field. The Pirates’ minor league coaches wanted him to be able to hit to all parts of the field, so they instructed him to concentrate on hitting to right field—to “go the other way,” in baseball parlance. Bautista did it doggedly. “I had to,” he says, “to keep myself as one of those players who listened to their coaches.” He did it so much, trying to slow and direct his whip-fast swing, he ruined his timing. “I was late, late, late,” he says. He had enough talent to survive at the minor league level, but whenever he was called up to the majors, pitchers toyed with him.

In the middle of summer, while Bautista was out of town, thieves broke into his Mississauga house. “Now my family is worried about safety,” he says, “and there are no gated communities”

Though his belief in himself never faltered, over time ­Bautista’s sense of how others viewed him did. By 2007, he was a 26-year-old with still-untapped potential, sitting on the bench of a bad team. He couldn’t fathom why management was playing has-been veterans instead of giving him a chance to prove he could be a star. His agent, at least, seemed to understand. “If you look at his numbers,” says Bean Stringfellow, “there were reasons to be skeptical.” Bautista could feel the doubt all around him, threatening to send him back to the minor leagues. So he took control. He changed tactics. José started acting in the best interests of José.

José Bautista

(Photo: George Pimentel)

He stopped obeying his coaches’ instructions. “Why would I just do what they’re telling me? If I do that, and I don’t do good, I’m going to the minor leagues.” In the spring of 2008, Bautista wore his pants the way he wanted.

It was the first spring for a new Pirates ownership, a new general manager and a new manager, and they wanted to change the team’s losing culture. During individual meetings with players, they made their expectations clear. Things were going to be done The Pirates Way. That included showing some sock.

Bautista walked into his meeting and felt a chill. “There’s silence,” he says. The bosses kept their heads down, looking at their reports, not at him. “Then they start talking, and out of maybe a 15-minute meeting, I did not hear one positive thing.”

Every flaw in Bautista’s approach and attitude, every failure on his ledger, was highlighted in this meeting. He did not recognize the person they were describing. He felt attacked, wrongly accused. “I heard my biography written by somebody who I don’t know, with all kinds of wrong information.” The extent of their doubt became clear.

More consternation followed. That same day, in a scene he remembers as “embarrassing and degrading,” Bautista was on the field stretching when he was ordered back inside. The new general manager, Neal Huntington, told him that by not showing sock he was being disrespectful to the game. The next day, Bautista wore his pants rolled up to his knees. That led to another meeting at which he was told he was mocking the organization and being defiant.

Huntington, still the Pirates GM, does not dispute this version of events. “If it took us a third meeting to get the pants worn properly,” he says, “he was being defiant.”

With this confrontation over something so small—exactly the kind of thing he’d once tried to mediate—Bautista began his final few unpleasant months as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Relations with management deteriorated even further; at one point, complaining to Huntington about a history of “unfair” treatment, Bautista suggested the team trade him. He was told, as he remembers it, “Nobody wants you.”

But in fact, one team did. Alex Anthopoulos, then Blue Jays assistant GM, saw Bautista’s name on a list of players available to any takers. At the time, Toronto’s third baseman, Scott Rolen, was injured. They needed somebody. Although Anthopoulos says he got some damning reports on Bautista—“That he had ‘bad makeup,’ ” says the GM, using the catch-all baseball term for poor attitude and approach—he saw him as a versatile athlete, and they could get him for very little in a trade.

There’s a large chart on the wall of Anthopoulos’s office. It shows the names of every non–Blue Jays player on a big-league roster, ranked by ability and importance to his team. At the bottom are the part-time players, the fill-in guys; at the top are the superstars. When the Jays acquired Bautista in August 2008, he was ranked on the next-to-bottom rung: an average player on a non-contending team. “In a championship club,” says Anthopoulos, “he’d have been on the bench.” Today, Bautista would be ranked at the top: franchise player. That’s an almost unheard of transformation. What happened?

José Bautista

(Photo: From Reuters)

He’d been thrown to the refuse heap and fell into a baseball rose garden—exactly the right team at exactly the right time. The Blue Jays of 2008 were not contenders; they offered opportunity for a player, like Bautista, with untapped potential. And they employed two men—manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy—who knew just how to tap it.

When they looked at Bautista, they saw a dichotomy—a power hitter who couldn’t pull the ball. “He couldn’t pull nothin’,” says Murphy. “Everything was to right field.” After years of training in the Pirates’ system, Bautista was late to almost every pitch. It wasn’t that his swing was slow; it was that he wasn’t getting his hands into position—back and loaded like a spring—early enough.

“Cito identified it,” says Anthopoulos. Before he became a manager, Gaston was considered one of the best hitting coaches in the majors, and “start early” was his mantra. He explained it to Bautista. Murphy took him in front of a mirror and showed him. For the rest of that season and into the next, he heard the same thing over and over: start earlier. “He just couldn’t get it,” says Anthopoulos. “He couldn’t click.”

One day, it happened. Bautista credits the breakthrough to Vernon Wells, the Jays’ leading hitter at the time. You may think you’re starting early, Wells told him, but it’s not early enough. So why not try going to the extreme? One game, one at-bat, one pitch, try starting “stupid early,” Bautista remembers him saying. “Just for shits and giggles. Just do it.” In a day game against the Minnesota Twins, he did.

“I remember the pitch,” says Bautista. “It was a fastball in.

I reacted. I hit a line drive off the wall. It was just, like, man! This is what it’s supposed to feel like!”

But how to do it consistently? He learned to look for a signal, something in every pitcher’s windup to trigger his early start. It was the moment the pitcher took the ball out of his glove. Every time Bautista saw that, he started to load the spring. It worked.

In September 2009, Bautista hit 10 home runs, one for every 11 at-bats—a Babe Ruth pace. But it was only a month, and no one knew what it meant. Had he figured it out? Was he a future star? “I wasn’t convinced,” says Anthopoulos. “No one was.”

Bautista started 2010 as nobody’s idea of a true power hitter. He was even put in the leadoff position in the batting order, usually reserved for small, fast players. But that year he hit 54 home runs, broke the club record, and everything changed. “In the history of the game,” says Anthopoulos, “no one has made more money off of one season.” In the spring of 2011, Bautista was starting his final year before becoming a free agent. The Jays had to decide whether to sign him to a long-term contract or risk losing him at the end of the year. So, over the course of several tense hours, Anthopoulos and Stringfellow negotiated a new five-year, $65-million contract. Staffers in other offices could hear Anthopoulos shouting into his phone. His assistants repeatedly told their boss to calm down and not get emotional.

José Bautista

(Photo: Getty Images)

The deal was a huge risk for the GM: Bautista was a 30-year-old one-year wonder, and there were many who questioned Anthopoulos’s judgment. He got, in his word, “annihilated” on sports radio talk shows. Agents called him asking if he’d lost his mind. Other baseball executives reached out to him. “They’d respectfully tiptoe around it, like, ‘Hey, oh, congrats. But do you mind walking me through what your thought process was there?’ ”

Anthopoulos puts it down to something simple: he’d gotten to know Bautista. He’d seen the performance, but also the man. He witnessed how hard he worked, how much he wanted to be great, how willing he was to do whatever the team asked. Once a doubter, Anthopoulos ultimately decided, “I believe in this guy.”

This should be José’s time—his moment to relax into the role as a star player and the recognition he’s earned, to enjoy the feeling of having the world come to him. But that’s not quite what he’s doing. To be sure, the world is coming to him. He’s just not enjoying it much.

Here is what happens when you spend several days interviewing Bautista in Florida: once he gets to know you, he makes an extra effort. You need a chair? He doesn’t suggest where to find one, the way another megastar would; he goes in search of one himself. He looks all over the clubhouse, past the lockers, past the sunflower seed supply, past the clutch of players preaching the Lord’s word. “Kevin!” he calls to the clubhouse attendant. “Is there an extra chair anywhere that I can use?” He doesn’t return until he has one in hand.

If he’s thirsty, he goes for water and brings you a bottle as well. If he’s forced to miss a scheduled meeting because of team commitments, he says, “I’ll make it up to you.” He goes from TV interview to autograph signing to ESPN recording session and never forgets there’s someone else waiting. At every moment, he is the epitome of graciousness. But he is always on guard, and he almost never smiles.

“José’s very shy,” says his close friend, Pedro Goico. “He’s very to himself.”

Goico, one of the boys Bautista played baseball with in the Dominican, now owns a small business in New York and gets together with Bautista whenever the team comes to the city. When he and Bautista go out for the charred steak the star loves, or a Thai meal at Tao, Goico knows never to bring a group of people. “José doesn’t like new friends,” he says. Fame has increased Bautista’s sense of mistrust. “All of a sudden, you see people approach you and reach out to you for all the wrong reasons,” he says. “You think that everybody wants something from you or wants to get something out of you.”

Bautista employs a company, New York–based Radegen Sports Management, to juggle his endorsements and business opportunities. “Secure deals and sell the José Bautista brand” is how Radegen’s owner, Alex Radetsky, puts it. The offers are constant. “Restaurant people come up to us about restaurants. People come up to us about anything. It could be a line of condiments.” Bautista says no to all of these, says Radetsky. “He’s pretty happy with the portfolio we have.”

Bautista’s every action glows with righteousness, and indignation is never far away. Umpires eject him from games for arguing. Once, he threw his equipment onto the field

The portfolio of Bautista’s endorsements, which generates extra income in the seven-figure range, according to Radetsky, includes Booster Juice, the Canadian cover of the PlayStation video game MLB The Show, Pizza Pizza, TD Bank, the ­Oakville-based diet supplement maker Iovate Health Sciences, an investment in the sports equipment maker Marucci, and an equity deal with sports nutrition firm Fuse Science. He makes no extra money from MLB merchandise sales—that’s an MLB players’ association rule—but players of Bautista’s stature are afforded so-called “highlight opportunities.” In his case, that meant a deal to appear alongside David Ortiz in a U.S.-only ­commercial promoting official MLB jerseys made by Majestic Athletic.

On his off days, Bautista does public appearances and autograph signings for the Toronto memorabilia company AJ Sports World. He attends TD Bank corporate events, lunches and golf days with executives. And because he’s José Bautista, he is always trying to say the right things, behave the right way.

José Bautista

(Photo: Courtesy of ESPN)

Radetsky connects with his client every day. Business relationships at this level demand a high degree of personal contact, a semblance of friendship. Business partners are encouraged to support his charity, the Bautista Family Education Fund (registered in Florida, not yet in Canada), not because it’s required contractually (although it often is), but because that’s what friends do. In return, says Radetsky, “José calls someone on their holidays. Or someone’s son is graduating from high school and José sends him a text message or calls him. That’s not part of the contract; that’s just part of the relationship.”

Even when he’s not paid to deal with the public, the public is always there, waiting for the opportunity to pounce. A customs official at Pearson Airport, Mark Weber, watched as Bautista, arriving in Toronto after last year’s all-star game, was forced to wait an unusually long time for his bags in the luggage area. As people became aware of Bautista’s presence, more and more of them came up to ask for autographs and pose for pictures. “I was very impressed by his humility,” says Weber. “He spoke to all of them, and he was there for some time in a situation where I think he probably just wanted to get his bags and go.”

Yes, he did. He wanted that desperately.

“I wish I could put a mask on sometimes,” he says.

While saying, for public consumption, that he appreciates the attention, he yearns for anonymity. “You just want to do normal things and not have people want to take pictures or sign autographs all the time.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy the benefits of being ­successful and wealthy. Recently, after a long search, he bought a large, modern home with a fountain in south Tampa. Open concept, cinder block construction, it was more home than he’d ever imagined living in. The owner had been desperate, Bautista admits, having been tied up in litigation for years. “I bought it for substantially less than its market value.” He lives there with his family in the off season and during spring training. In Tampa, he’s able to relax.

Not in Toronto. Every season in this city he has lived somewhere new, renting each time and occasionally finding trouble. A condo he rented in the Distillery District didn’t live up to its billing. “I could have had a good case of false advertising against the people that I rented it from,” he says. “They dressed it up nicely over the Internet, and then I showed up and it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t even functional. The kitchen was terrible. The stove didn’t work. The water didn’t drain from the tubs. I would take a shower and the water would be up to my knees.”

He managed to break the lease, and with the help of a real estate agent named Kenny Shim, who handles the housing needs of a number of Blue Jays, he found an apartment in The X condo building at Jarvis and Charles. But he found traffic frustrating when he drove his Range Rover to the stadium. “And I can’t use public transportation because then I’m going to be signing autographs and taking pictures the whole time.”
Last year, Bautista tried renting a home in Mississauga and had an even worse experience. In the middle of summer, while he was out of town, his house was broken into. “They kicked in the door.” Luckily, Neisha and Estella were in Pittsburgh with her parents. “They took all our luggage and her shoes and stuff,” he says. “It was high-end stuff, so it was worth something.”

Bautista had the Blue Jays move all of his furniture and belongings into storage immediately, and for the remainder of that injury-interrupted year, he and his family lived in a hotel. He insists it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the city—“You don’t need to convince me that Toronto is a great place to live”—but it has increased his wariness. “Now my family is worried about safety, and there are no gated ­communities.”

As spring training and the first months of this vital season unfolded, Bautista seemed more or less his old self. He struck out more and walked less, but if his wrist was troubling him, he wasn’t showing it. He hit six home runs in Florida and continued once the season began in April, hitting 11 in the first quarter. But still there is worry. Of course, this isn’t new. When Bautista became the premier power hitter in the game, many officials and fans wondered if he’d done it by taking steroids or other performance enhancers. He passed blood test after blood test, until finally the questions died down. Now that he’s been operated on, new questions have sprouted, one blog asking, “Could José Bautista be damaged goods?”

It seems as though, where Bautista is concerned, there must always be doubt. But he likes it when things go against him, when he has reason to be angry. “That’s what fuels me,” he says. “That’s what gets the best out of me.”

 

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