SN Magazine: Brunt at home with Bautista

Some cities are laid out along straight lines, a nice, logical plan where traffic proceeds in orderly fashion, stopping and starting when the red signs and lights suggest.

Some cities, but not Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic.

The oldest major European settlement in the New World, founded in 1496, is home to close to four million people, almost all of whom are right now sitting in their cars, standing still, gridlocked, honking their horns merely for amusement and punctuation.

It is nothing like the beach paradise that is the snowbirds’ preferred island haunt. There is the lovely and mostly peaceful Zona Colonial—the old town at the heart of it, the place where Christopher Columbus installed his brother Bartholomew, and later his son Diego, as governors of Hispaniola, before they ran afoul of the settlers and were sent back to Spain in chains.

The rest, though, is painted in shades of hot, sweaty, dirty chaos, ominous alleyways strewn with smouldering refuse, creepy scenes straight out of a Hollywood backlot, and in at least one neighbourhood, folks standing on street corners in broad daylight openly carrying great big guns.

No, it is not for everyone, but it is for José Bautista, the pre-eminent power hitter in baseball.

The garbage and firearms aren’t features of his neighbourhood right in the core of the capital, but they are found not far away, and the congestion, the heat, the urban odours, the noise certainly are.

Since signing a five-year, $65-million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays last year, he could live high on a verdant hilltop behind locked gates overlooking the sapphire blue Caribbean Sea, as is the habit of the wealthiest one percent of the Dominican population. Instead, he resides here with his girlfriend, Neisha Croyle, and baby daughter, Estella, in a very nice but relatively modest condo where units sell for a fraction of what they would in a similar building in Toronto.

There isn’t even an ocean view.

“I don’t know anything else,” he says, darting through traffic on foot during the short walk home from his local gym.

From the cars—including one remarkable vehicle with something green growing all over the outside of it, like a motorized Chia Pet—there are shouts and hoots and hollers as the local hero is recognized.

“This is where I was born and grew up,” Bautista continues. “There are a lot of negatives, but it’s what I’m used to. I like the lifestyle. Everything’s close. Besides all the things you’ve got to deal with, it’s a really nice place to live.”

So let us now begin knocking down the stereotypes, one by one.

The creation myth of Dominican baseball centres on poor rural kids learning the game on hardscrabble diamonds, improvising gloves out of milk cartons, playing barefoot because they have no shoes. Blue Jays fans in the early days knew that story well because of the team’s early investment on the island, setting up an academy under the care of super scout Epy Guerrero. Alfredo Griffin was from Santo Domingo, and both Tony Fernández and George Bell hailed from that baseball Bethlehem known as San Pedro de Macorís.

All were boys who escaped deprivation thanks to their genius talents, locked up with a modest signing bonus that still represented a king’s ransom to them and to their families; baseball as deliverance, as the ticket out. And José Bautista is none of the above.

“I come from a totally different place,” he says.

His childhood was urban, not rural, though his grad school–educated father, an agricultural engineer by profession, did make his living operating a poultry farm. (His mother, Sandra—his parents are now divorced—also completed graduate school.)

His upbringing was not deprived, but comfortably middle class, part of a tiny demographic sliver of the Dominican population.

He attended private school and learned to speak English by taking extra classes. His parents valued education above all else. Baseball was recreation. Or at least it was until Bautista, though undersized as a kid, began to show unusual promise, which led him to a different Dominican than the one in which he had grown up.

“I was fortunate, and I feel proud to say that I was,” he says. “That’s not to say that in baseball anything was handed to me. I had to work equally as hard as the other kids. And for the most part, I played where the best competition was—and that’s in the lower levels of society. I grew up with these kids. I had to deal with them all the time. I lived basically two different lives.”

Sportsnet image

Jose Bautista at work in the batting cage.

Bautista excelled at the game, and his father, at least, began to agree that baseball might indeed be a career option. There were signing bonuses offered—but for him, the money could wait. “I got offers from $5,000 to $50,000,” says Bautista, “but that’s not something that I wanted to drop out of school for. I was in a position where $5,000 was just not going to make it, not only because I didn’t need the money but because I valued my education at a higher amount than that.”

Instead, after high school, Bautista enrolled at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., with the main goal of further developing his baseball skills en route to the big leagues. His mother wasn’t thrilled.

“When you’re from a certain level of society and you have some economic independence, you’re not expected to try to be a baseball player for a living,” he says.

Plus, there was the simple fact of leaving home.

“That’s just not the norm here,” he says. “People don’t leave home at 18 to go to college two hours away or two provinces away. You go to college, but you live with your parents until you’re ready to get married. I did something totally different. I didn’t really have anyone to identify with or talk to. But I got to college and there were a couple of Dominican kids there who helped me out a lot. It was smooth sailing after that.”

Smooth sailing… sort of, though others would regard Bautista’s story as one of the sport’s best-ever underdog tales.

Following a very good college career, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 20th round of the 2000 amateur draft and signed with them a year later. In 2003, the Orioles claimed him in the Rule 5 draft, and he made his Major League debut with Baltimore the following spring.

What followed was a year unprecedented in baseball history.

On June 3, Bautista was claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay; on June 28, he was purchased by Kansas City; on July 30th, he was traded to the Mets, and that same day wheeled back to the Pirates as part of a multiplayer deal, becoming the first player ever to be part of five different big-league teams in a single season.

Nice to be a footnote in history, but hardly the path taken by blue-chip prospects.

In Pittsburgh for his second go-round, Bautista was given sporadic opportunities but never found a consistent home in the lineup. His ability to play both the infield and the outfield was what kept him employed as a spare part, the 24th or 25th man on the roster.

On Aug. 21, 2008, the Pirates deemed him expendable, and he was dealt to the Blue Jays for the ever-popular Player To Be Named Later (he turned out to be fellow Dominican Robinzon Díaz, a minor league catcher who was released by Pittsburgh following the 2009 season).

Toronto’s manager at the time, Cito Gaston, had liked the brief look he had of Bautista during an interleague series. But the fact was, with the tipping point age of 30 fast approaching, Bautista seemed destined for a career as a utility player—that is, if he managed to cling to a big league job at all.

At the end of the dreadful 2009 season, with the Jays going nowhere, Gaston, to his everlasting credit, decided to give Bautista his first real chance to be something more.

“He was willing to play anywhere for you,” Gaston says. “He never bitched or cried about not playing. He’s the most coachable kid I’ve ever been around in my life. I don’t think the other teams gave him a chance—they just gave up on him. And I’m glad they did. Because now we’ve got him.”

Along with hitting coaches Gene Tenace and Dwayne Murphy, Gaston encouraged Bautista to make small but significant changes to his approach at the plate, and to the mechanics of his swing.

“We talked to him about getting his front leg down a little bit,” Gaston says. “He picked it up right away and he took off. People keep waiting for him to fail, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

As important as any technical adjustments was a simple show of faith. When the Jays waived out-fielder Alex Ríos, Gaston told Bautista the job was his for the remainder of the year, no matter what happened.

“I don’t care about the results,” he told Bautista. “You’re going to be playing from today to the end of the season even if you strike out every single at-bat.”

Bautista rewarded Gaston by hitting 10 homers in the final few weeks of the season.

“He was the main guy,” Bautista says of his former manager. “I’ve got a lot of reasons to be grateful to him.”

The next year, he hit 54 long balls to lead the majors. And after that… well, smooth sailing, though his mom still kind of hopes that he’ll go back to school.

José Bautista is a serious guy. That comes across early and often, while watching his punishing off-season workout regime, or even while sitting over a relaxed dinner at an outdoor café in the old quarter of Santo Domingo.

Bautista brings along a couple of Dominican buddies from his cohort. One seems well on his way to becoming the island’s wholesale liquor king. The other works for a Canadian bank and teaches at Western’s Richard Ivey School of Business. The topics of conversation are remarkably square: investment strategies, real-estate options, and so forth.

There are a whole lot of Peter Pans in professional sport, some of them in the Blue Jays clubhouse—what better place to play out an extended adolescence? Bautista should not be counted among them. He brings considerable gravitas to a boys’ game, which (along with his on-field accomplishments) gives him unquestioned authority among his teammates.

Bautista says there’s a more fun-loving side to him. But he also acknowledges that becoming a father last year forced him to become even more measured in his outlook.

“It just changes your perspective,” he says. “You might have done some things recklessly or not thinking that it mattered. But now I certainly try to be more careful with some of the things I do because I know that someone else’s life depends on me. I’m certainly a more cautious person and more on the conservative side instead of more on the wild and young and crazy side.”

That maturity is part of what the Blue Jays were buying when they signed him to a contract extension following his breakout 2010 season—though it is interesting to hear GM Alex Anthopoulos admit that he didn’t make the deal without qualms, committing to a 30-year-old player who had performed at an elite level for precisely one season.

“I had a lot of agents and a lot of baseball people call me after and ask me if I’d lost my mind, if we had lost our minds as an organization, which is absolutely fair,” Anthopoulos says. “I can tell you, I was sweating the whole way. Afterwards I didn’t pump my fist. I swallowed hard and said, ‘Oh my God, did I do the right thing?’ Three days later, driving to work, I was still questioning myself. We’ve been wrong so much as an industry on players. Players don’t perform, get hurt. Things happen.

“Sixty-five-million dollars is not a small amount of money. And as much as you want to believe in a player, it’s one year. But the mistake we make as an industry is that we bet on the wrong human beings. If José got hurt, or if José didn’t perform, I knew it wasn’t because he didn’t take care of himself, I knew it wasn’t because he didn’t work hard, I knew it wasn’t because he didn’t care about winning. I knew I could check off every other box I needed to check off about the makeup of the human being. I told myself before we did the deal, that’s what I’m going to base it on. I’m not going to sign a player if we don’t have those items.”

When Bautista led the American League with 43 home runs in 2011, Anthopoulos could breathe a little bit easier.

There’s more to Bautista’s all-business makeup than simply his baseball work ethic. There is also his strong sense of Dominican identity.

“I think our biggest characteristic as a group is we are very resilient,” he says. “We ¬find a way to adapt to any sort of situation. We make something out of nothing. It’s hard to tell somebody from here to give up. If they want something they just keep going until they get it. That’s a great feature to have in the world we live in.”

It’s hard to miss the parallels between the Dominican Republic’s identity and that of this new, baseball home, at least in their shared, complex push-pull relationships with the U.S.

“We’ve been invaded by them, twice, for whatever reasons they claimed at the time, just like they invade other places,” he says, referring to the times U.S. Marines arrived uninvited on the island’s shores in 1916 and 1965. “But we’ve learned a lot from them. We depend a lot on their economy because that’s our biggest trade partner. If we don’t have them, our economy is going to collapse. And if their economy takes a hit, they spend less money down here and we take a hit. So there’s mixed feelings. Some people like them, some people don’t mind them and some people hate them.”

Canada, Bautista understood immediately, is not the U.S.

“It’s totally different,” he says. “I got to see that for the first time when I was with the Orioles in 2004 and I came for a game. It’s just a different country culturally. You see it in people. You notice how they talk to you and how accepting they are of different cultures and people from different places in the world, especially in Toronto because it’s such a diverse city.

“It’s a thousand times easier to be in Canada than the United States.”

The scene shifts a little north, to Dunedin, Fla., the sleepy little blue-hair hamlet where the Jays have carried out the relaxed ritual of spring training since the birth of the franchise in 1977.

Winter has passed with much hand-wringing in Jays land, not because of what they’ve done, but because of what they’ve failed to do. How it happened that fans really expected the team to win the posting battle for Yu Darvish, or sign Prince Fielder, or put live grass in the Rogers Centre, is a story for another day.

Looking on from afar, let’s just say that Bautista, having now committed what figure to be his best years to the franchise, would have been more than happy to share the limelight with Fielder, or Albert Pujols, or any other big bat who might have dropped in behind him and given him a crack at more fastballs, even if it meant becoming the team’s second-highest-paid player.

But now, at spring training, the sun is shining, the angst has lifted, the wealth of young prospects are showing their stuff brilliantly, and one big-name American baseball writer after another has passed through and offered his blessing to Anthopoulos’s master plan.

It is a remarkably happy camp.

At Bautista’s corner locker, the traditional address of every ballclub’s alpha male, the ¬first order of business is to deal with the one lingering sour note from the off-season. Not long before, a story broke back in the Dominican Republic in which he was quoted as saying that he been drug-tested as many as 16 times in the past two years.

In the wake of baseball’s steroid era, Bautista’s out-of-nowhere numbers inspired all kinds of knee-jerk speculation, and in the immediate aftermath of the Ryan Braun positive test (beaten after the fact on a procedural issue), his comments inspired a whole new round of chatter, the suggestion being that he had been targeted by the testers, and therefore persecuted by the baseball powers, because they just didn’t believe his mid-career transformation could have been achieved by natural means.

Asked about it, he stands four-square behind his words. “It is the truth and it was an honest answer,” he says. “Another player asked me how many times I was tested and I gave my honest answer—it was around 15 or 16 times in the last two seasons, counting the mandatory tests. Regardless, I would have had two. So I did get tested an extra 13 or 14 times.

“To me it’s a little more than the usual. But it’s not a complaint. I’m part of the program. If I get picked for 50 drug tests per year, I couldn’t care less. I don’t really mind getting tested a million times.”

It is exactly the no-nonsense, look-you-straight-in-the-eye response you’d expect. And it plays to Bautista’s position as the Blue Jays’ unassailable clubhouse leader. He does not make speeches, he does not seek soapboxes, but he also does not mince words.

Ask for advice, he’ll provide it.

“I can relate to a lot of guys in a lot of different roles because I’ve been that guy. I’ve played second base and third base. I played in the outfield in every spot. Played winter ball. Played in the minors. Been hurt. Been the backup guy. Been the starter. Been the utility guy. Played in the National League. Played in the American League. I’ve had to bunt, hit and run, steal. I hit home runs. I’ve pretty much been every single player in this room except a pitcher or a catcher.”

They know, as well—or they should know—that the best lesson is to watch, and listen, and learn.

“I’m not going to draw attention to myself or talk to guys or coach them or go out of my way to try to tell them what to do because I think that’s what should be done,” Bautista says. “I’m not going to do that. I go about my work, I show up on time, I try to play hard on a day-to-day basis and worry about the things I can control and hopefully that’s good enough.”
And on that foundation rest so many high hopes.

“The reason for the optimism is legitimate,” Bautista says, in a way that makes you believe him. “Everybody should be excited to get going.”