As half-truths go, it at least had the virtue of utility: “I don’t measure my success in home runs,” José Bautista said during a recent break from Grapefruit League action in Dunedin, Fla., and somehow he kept a straight face. The idea was to manage expectations, of course. At that the Blue Jays’ Miracle Man of 2010 has proved surprisingly adept. “As long as you’re driving in runs, scoring, getting on base for your teammates,” he will say, “that’s all you can really ask.” Or: “Sure I hit a lot of home runs last year. But we didn’t make the playoffs. I’d rather hit 30, or even 20, and have our team win 100 games.”
It’s the sort of howler you serve up when you know you’ve become an every-day player at the ripe age of 30; when you’ve just taken a magic carpet ride up the major league home-run rankings; when, on the basis of one astounding 54-dinger season, you have just inked a deal for enough cash to buy a small Caribbean island.
It’s a bit like hearing Barack Obama say he doesn’t care how many votes he gets, and don’t think for a second that Bautista believes it. Whatever the merits of bunts and sacrifice flies, any baseball-related conversation he has these days eventually works its way back to the subject of homers—more specifically, the subject of 50 homers. Because when Bautista stepped up to the plate last fall in a game against the Seattle Mariners and hammered a Felix Hernandez fastball into orbit over the Rogers Centre, he knew as well as anyone that his life had changed. Fifty thrusts a player into the same sentence as Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. It lumps him in with scarlet-lettered stars like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, or invites comparisons to one-season wonders like Brady Anderson—the Alannah Myles of the American League. Bautista would hit four more before the season was out. But 50 is the yardstick with which others will now measure his performance, even if he does not.
Will he repeat? Can he? Hard to say, but if you’re looking for signs, you could do worse than revisiting that crisp afternoon last September, when the Dominican wonder matched wits with one of the game’s pre-eminent pitchers. It is both a garden variety at-bat, and a lens through which the jagged contours of Bautista’s career can be viewed: each muscle twitch and elbow lift speaks to forces that shaped him through eight years on minor-pro teams and major league taxi squads—right up to his chrysalis in Toronto. And milestones have a way of inducing reflection, which might be why Bautista agreed to anatomize the confrontation for us, itemizing his own flaws, scanning for qualities he hopes will keep him at the top of his sport. “Last year was magical for me,” he says, settling by his locker in Dunedin, as footage of his homer loads on a laptop. “I made a lot of adjustments and some other things fell into place.” But to count among the perennial greats—that’s been his dream since he was five years old. “You have one great season,” he says with a smile. “Why wouldn’t you want to repeat it?”
PITCH 1: PREPARATION
It was the great Reggie Jackson who compared fastballs to ice cream. “Every hitter likes them,” he said, “but not when someone’s stuffing them to you by the gallon.” Jackson was speaking of Nolan Ryan, and today’s players might apply the sentiment to Felix Hernandez, the Venezuelan fireballer the Blue Jays faced on Sept. 23. Hernandez, who went on to win last year’s American League Cy Young Award, can sicken a hitter with fastballs when he has a mind to. On a lot of days, he has a mind to.
Bautista knew this from study, and from experience. Seven times he’d gone up against Hernandez, and seven times he’d come up hitless. So the night before the game, he went through his personal routine of studying the last five starts of the pitcher he’d be facing the next day. What he saw can’t have pleased him. Hernandez had won four of those games—most recently a one-hit, seven-inning gem against the free-swinging Texas Rangers. On Aug. 25, in Boston, he’d recorded his 1,000th career strikeout by retiring the hulking slugger David Ortiz. He can throw as fast as 100 mph. But lately he’d been dining off an artful two-seamer that clocked in the mid-90s, and sank like a stone as it neared the plate.
Still, Bautista saw opportunity. “I remember thinking that, if I got to a good hitting count, more balls than strikes, that I could expect that fastball,” he says. “He doesn’t like messing around and walking people. When he’s behind in the count he’s going to throw a strike, and the fastball is the pitch he controls the best.”
This sort of studiousness sets Bautista apart from many hitters. Jeff Johnson, who managed Bautista for three years at Chipola Community College in northern Florida, likes to point out that his star hitter maintained a grade point average above 3.0 and showed the same attitude on the diamond that he showed in class. “He’s probably got his head on his shoulders better than any kid I’ve been around,” says Johnson. “He was a joy to coach.” Bautista’s teachability has carried on. In the summer of 2009, a year after Toronto acquired him off waivers, he listened intently as hitting coach Dwayne Murphy proposed a tweak to his batting strategy. “You need to be ready for pitches earlier,” Murphy said, “and to look for the right pitches to hit.” Practising in front of mirrors in the weight room, and in the cage during batting practice, Bautista learned to start his hitting motion about the time the pitcher withdrew the ball from his glove. The change gained him an astonishing one second against the pitcher’s delivery—time he could use to judge pitches as they came in. And Murphy’s “tweak” quickly became legend: in the last month of ’09 alone, Bautista hit 10 home runs.
Against Hernandez, he would need every millisecond. Before Bautista came up in the first inning, the Mariners’ ace had dispatched Toronto’s first two batters with three blazing throws. Bautista says he was determined to get moving early if he saw a fastball, and sure enough, on the first pitch, the footage shows the heel of his front foot lifting as Hernandez begins his windup. By the time Hernandez withdraws the ball from his glove, Bautista is taking his patented Tennessee-trotter step toward the mound. The pitch is indeed a fastball, but it is sinking fast. And that extra moment Bautista has bought himself now comes into play: his body slackens and he lowers the bat to elbow level as the ball hits the catcher’s glove, low and inside.
Pitch 2: Patience
“At this point, I’m thinking he overthrew it,” Bautista murmurs, noting that earlier in the inning Hernandez’s fastballs had come in no faster than 93. “Now he’s up around 95. I don’t think he’s very loose. He was trying to throw harder than he had to.”
Waiting for hittable balls is one of the most difficult things to teach good batters, says Murphy, because most indulge in the belief they can hit anything. “It really gets them in trouble,” he says. “When they’re not hitting a pitch they think something’s wrong with their mechanics. Most of the time they’re trying to hit the pitcher’s out-pitch—the one he uses to finish batters off. They can’t.”
Bautista was no exception, say former and current coaches. As recently as 2008, when the Jays acquired him in a trade with Pittsburgh, he was swinging at everything from fastballs to curves based on no apparent method. By 2009, having addressed his timing problem, he set about forcing himself to lay off all but pitches that suited his new style. Nick Leyva, who held various coaching positions with the Jays before joining the Pirates last fall, was impressed with his perseverance. “A lot of players will have a bit of success and think they’ve got it made and stop doing the things that got them where they are,” he says. “José is a player who will stick to his plan until it’s had a chance to work. Even after he’s gotten results, he’ll keep working hard, stick to his routine.”
It is the sort of perspective learned from riding crests and troughs, of which Bautista has seen more than his share. When he was 23, Pittsburgh left him off its roster, and Baltimore selected him as the so-called Rule 5 draft of unsigned players. Then, after witnessing Bautista miss a line drive while playing right field, Peter Angelos, the Orioles’ quixotic owner, ordered management to dump him. The next day, Bautista was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays, and between December 2003 and July 2004, he was passed between three more major league teams before landing in—of all places—Pittsburgh. There he got his career back on track.
Enduring the vicissitudes of professional sport is one thing; sublimating the urge to hammer a baseball is another. In the game against Seattle, Hernandez’s second pitch looked at first to be a juicy fastball, and on the replay Bautista appears ready to take the plunge. The left leg lifts, the weight shifts forward. But this time the ball cuts hard inside and, at the last millisecond, drops. Bautista, though tempted, quickly checks his swing. “To have any success against a guy like this, I have to make him throw the ball up [in the strike zone],” he explains, and for an instant you’d swear he was actually in the box. He draws a breath, exhales, and tugs at the hem of his shirt. “I’m ahead in the count,” he says. “I can afford to wait for a better pitch.”
Pitch 3: Power
It is an article of faith among fans that home runs begin in the shoulders—that without muscle mass, a home-run king is a fly-ball hitter who strikes out a lot. For that we can thank the Asterisk Gang—Bonds and McGwire and Sammy Sosa—who in their primes would not have looked out of place chasing tourists through the streets of Pamplona. Bautista, it’s worth noting, looks nothing like them. At six feet and 197 lb., he carries 30 lb. packed on over three years of junior college. If chemistry accounted for that gain, logic dictates that he should have been cranking out homers around 2000. Instead, he pinballed around the major leagues and minors, topping out at 23 dingers in double-A in 2005 before his pivotal move to Toronto (for the record, Bautista repeated to Maclean’s his previous denial that he ever took steroids, and broadened it to cover human growth hormone, which is more difficult to detect).
But he’s always had good bat speed, and as he got better at choosing his pitches, it became increasingly clear that Bautista, a right-handed batter, would gain much by pulling the ball—that is, getting around on pitches early and carrying them to left field rather than trying to poke them toward right. This too required him to abandon old habits. “Most coaches think that being a good hitter means you have to go opposite field,” says Murphy, the hitting coach. “Nobody teaches you to pull the ball.” Freed of that preconception, Bautista harnessed power he knew was there but never consistently tapped. By the time of the game against Seattle, 48 of his 49 homers had flown to left field, while inside fastballs that once confounded him were suddenly his dish of choice.
Was Hernandez aware of these adjustments? Probably. But at this point of his battle with Bautista, other influences have come into play: he is visibly ticked, for one, scowling as he paces off the mound toward the first-base line. Mariners catcher Adam Moore need hardly send his next signal—four ?ngers extended toward the dirt—after Hernandez returns to the rubber. The pitcher nods curtly. Fastball it is.
This time the ball flies higher and further outside, causing Bautista to foul it off. “If you look at my swing path, I’m definitely trying to pull it,” the Jays slugger says, pointing to his hands. “But the ball kept going straight rather than coming in toward me.” He also speaks of “getting too big,” meaning he swung too hard. “My game plan was to stay small and let [Hernandez] provide the power.” Still, the ball makes the same satisfying thwock! as a homer does when it hits the bat. A cry of excitement rises from the seats, then quickly dies as the ball glances over the backstop and strikes the face of the second deck.
Pitch 4: Perfection
A flawless baseball swing is a sight to behold, and it is possible the force of Bautista’s last cut crept into Hernandez’s subconscious. More important to both players, though, was the choice the pitcher now faced. Clearly, Bautista understood his fastball better than most hitters, and at 2-1, he remained in the driver’s seat. Hernandez has a formidable array of changeups and curve balls, but Bautista doubted he’d use them. “I think he felt I was a little bit late with my last swing. So I’m telling myself, ‘I’m going to sit on the fastball again, and hopefully this one moves to the inside part of the plate. If he throws off-speed for a strike, I’m going to tip my hat to him and battle with two strikes.’ ”
The rest is Blue Jays history, and, for Toronto’s increasingly dormant fan base, a taste of past grandeur. Hernandez’s fastball cuts inside, right where Bautista had hoped, and this time there’s no mistaking the telltale sound of ball on wood. The sparse crowd of 12,590 bursts into a roar. Up in the broadcast booth, Sportsnet’s play-by-play man Buck Martinez snaps to attention. “Swing and a drive!” he shouts. “High fly ball, left field! This is deep! This iiiiisssss—fiffftyyyyyyy! José Bautista! His first hit against Hernandez is home run number 50!”
Bautista recalls a wave of relief as he rounded first, knowing he could now move on with his life. “For six or seven days, people had been asking me, ‘When are you going to do it? Are you going to do it today? Are you going to do it now?’ My teammates, my family, my friends, the fans—everyone. It was a bit overwhelming.” Meantime, the steep trajectory of the ball had him worried, he confesses. After sailing “up into the jet stream,” it was moving almost vertically as it came to earth. Basically, he’d hit the mother of all pop flies.
Now, as he watches his home-run swing in replay, he knits his brow. “My legs open up earlier than I wanted,” he says. “I know it’s either going to get caught or go out of the park, because it’s so high. The fielder was going to get to the wall and jump if he had a chance.” His reaction brings to mind the words of one of Bautista’s minor league managers, Tony Beasley, who describes his former charge as “a perfectionist among perfectionists.” “There were times I had to take him out of games and sit with him on the bench and say, dude, you got three hits today and lined out in your fourth at bat,” recalls Beasley, who had Bautista for parts of three seasons in the Pirates’ system. “But that’s what makes you an excellent player. If there’s anyone who will show up every day, if there’s anyone capable of doing what he did last year, it’s José.”
That might explain why, as his onscreen self circles the bases, basking in cheers and running a gauntlet of backslaps in the dugout, Bautista is deep in thought. “I’m glad for the home run, and for everything I’ve gotten,” he insists, but he’s not entirely convincing. “It wasn’t the prettiest swing. In my next at-bat, I’ll be making sure that doesn’t happen.” That’s a whole other order of perfectionism, all right—and a sign, perhaps, of greater things to come. However they measure success, Jays fans are unlikely to complain.