Bautista's greatness must be recognized
Those early days of September, 2009, on a team that was treading towards a 75-win season, seemed uneventful enough. Jose Bautista was a month from his 29th birthday, with a disappointing four home runs and an uncertain future in Toronto.
In that first week, like most every player, he'd gone on waivers. He didn't know that the Boston Red Sox had claimed him and been awarded the claim, only to have their baseball people decide not to make a deal for him and allow him to remain with the Jays. Remember, this is a man who in the wondrous world of the Rule V Draft went from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to Tampa Bay to Kansas City to the Mets back to Pittsburgh in a period of nine months, so not moving on to Boston was a form of stablility.
At precisely the right time. Bautista always had tools that some in the Pittsburgh organization like Dale Sveum had always liked. He'd hit 16 and 15 homers and posted mid-.700's OPS numbers in Pittsburgh, but in September, 2009, he had four home runs and never could quite get his open stance, corkscrew swing in sync, because he could never get the timing of lifting his left leg and getting it down on time.
"Cito Gaston and [hitting coach] Dwayne Murphy were always telling me to stop thinking about getting my front foot down on time," says Bautista. "They kept telling me to concentrate on seeing the ball out of the pitcher's hand. Think simple -- see the ball and hit it hard. See the ball and hit it hard.
"But I was always concerned about the timing device," Bautista says. "I'd done it so long, it was a hard habit to break. But all of a sudden I got it. I finally started concentrating on seeing the ball and letting it fly, trying to hit it hard. When I finally stopped thinking about my mechanics and just thought about seeing it and hitting it, all the mechanics fell into place naturally."
Few noticed. He hit his fifth homer on Sept. 10 against the Twins. In his final 23 games, while many were playing out the season, Bautista was redefining his career. In those 23 games, he hit nine homers. He slugged .629 and had a .976 OPS.
And, less than three years later, as we head to Kansas City for the All-Star Game, Bautista is one of the game's premier stars. From that innocuous Sept. 10 homer against the Twins through the end of the 2010 season, he hit hit 63 homers. Since what Gaston and Murphy preached took hold through this June 29, he has hit 132 homers. Next? Albert Pujols at 91, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera with 90.
Since that date, Bautista leads the Majors in slugging, at .602, followed by Josh Hamilton at .597. He is second in RBIs with 307, trailing Cabrera by five. "He is the definition of a star player," says John Farrell. "He is a slugger, he is an exceptional right fielder with a great arm, he plays the game the way it should be played."
David Ortiz loves to watch and re-watch a home run Bautista hit in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago. Papi imitates the open stance, the left foot in the bucket followed by the astounding bat speed and a home run shooting out to right field some 470 feet off of serious John Axford gas. It was one of two home runs he hit that day, two of his Major League-leading 26 for the season.
Jose Bautista has never forgotten that it was Gaston and Murphy who uncorked that bat speed which, if he remains healthy, will produce three consecutive seasons of 40+ home runs. Yes, it bothered him that when he jumped to 54 homers in 2010 that someone under the cover of anonymity suggested he was a PED creation, but he didn't whine; his friends and teammates knew him and his ability.
The All-Star Game will be a celebration of many a star, from Justin Verlander to Josh Hamilton, Derek Jeter to Joey Votto and on and on, but Bautista must be recognized as one of the game's best. Off the field, he is intelligent, thoughtful and fun. On the field, in slightly more than 2 1/2 years, he has hit 41 more homers than any other player.
He sees the ball, he starts his swing, the leg rises and falls, and as Farrell says, "We all think, 'Where is that going to land."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.