Bautista stays on-message in ‘happy’ return to Toronto

Jose Bautista meets with the media to comment on signing a one-year deal to remain with the Toronto Blue Jays.

TORONTO — A Jose Bautista press conference is always an interesting experience. Few athletes are quite as adept as Bautista is with a microphone in front of his face. He’s very keen to how he can use the media to resonate a greater message, and he chooses his words with exceptional care. He doesn’t slip up; doesn’t say anything unplanned; doesn’t let emotion hijack his voice and start spiralling away. Those lobes of his brain remain separate.

He listens to every question he’s asked thoroughly, carefully considers the semantics, and answers in succinct, thoughtful, often innuendo-laden sentences. What’s important to remember is there’s always a reason for the things that he says, whether he’s being sober and unshakably loyal to his talking points, or caustic and scorching the earth beneath the feet of someone who has left him aggrieved.

Saturday, making his first public comments after agreeing to a one-year, $18-million deal with the Blue Jays, Bautista was the former. Calm, subdued, relentlessly on-message. This press conference would not be one for the canon of Bautista bellicosity.

“Bright lights today,” the 36-year-old said as he climbed atop a podium deep in the bowels of Rogers Centre, wearing a long, grey jacket, black toque, white hoodie, and purposefully ripped jeans. He sat there just shy of 13 minutes, facing a line of, let’s say delicate, questioning and never once wavering from his message: he wants to be here, he wanted to be here all along, and there was nothing untoward about his negotiations with the Blue Jays.

And, hey, fair enough. Bautista’s agent, Jay Alou, told a group of reporters after the press conference that his client had left offers of a higher value and longer term on the table in other markets in order to return to Toronto. When a reporter asked Alou how superior those deal were, he simply looked away and ascended his outstretched arm upwards as if he was hailing a cab.

Speaking of arms, Bautista says his feels much better going into this season than it did going into last, when he was still feeling the effects of the shoulder injury he suffered in 2015. He also said he would be willing this season to play some first base, or any position on the field that would help his team win, which has to be encouraging.

That was about the extent of the pertinent news to come from Bautista’s comments Saturday, as he stayed true to his talking points and steered clear of airing grievances or providing any commentary that could have stirred commotion. No headlines would be made on this day. But, boy, did Bautista ever have his opportunities to.

He was asked if he felt his oft stated desire to remain a Blue Jay was truly reciprocated by the team, who spent their winter trying to spend money on other free agents, like Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler, before exploring several unsuccessful trade scenarios, and ultimately finalizing a contract with Bautista late in the offseason.

“I think the desire was mutual. It was there all along,” Bautista said. “It just happened that the deal got struck when it did.”

He was asked about ending up with a one-year deal after reportedly asking the Blue Jays for a substantially more robust commitment this spring, when he famously said, “I’m not willing to negotiate; I don’t think this should be a negotiation.”

“I mean, rumours are rumours. And everybody would love to be on a long-term deal. But you get what you can get,” Bautista said Saturday. “The most important thing is being happy and being where you are. And I’m happy and where I want to be.”

He was asked about the public comments made this December by Baltimore Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who said Alou had reached out to his team several times about a potential contract but that he had met those attempts with a resounding no, adding, “our fans don’t like Jose Bautista—and with good reason.”

“I didn’t personally talk to anybody there. I don’t know to what extent the communication with my agent went. It doesn’t matter. I’ve always said it: I want to stay here and be here. And this is where I am. And I’m extremely happy and I’d rather focus on that than all the other stuff that was going on,” Bautista said. “The way that I like to look at it is: everybody’s entitled to an opinion. And [Duquette’s] no different.”

He was asked about a free agent market that seems to have significantly soured on players just like himself: 30-something, right-handed sluggers. A market that appears to value power bats much less enthusiastically than it once did, leaving Bautista—plus the 2016 home run leaders of each league—on the table until late in the off-season.

“I don’t know. It’s tough to read,” Bautista said. “I think you guys will analyze it. I think some experts will analyze it. And the players, the ones that get opportunities to play, will go out there and try to do our best and focus on playing. Hopefully everybody’s happy at the end of the day.”

He was asked how much he feels the qualifying offer the Blue Jays extended him at the beginning of the off-season, which tied his free agency to draft pick compensation and has submarined the markets of many players before him, affected the offers he received this winter.

“Again, that’s another difficult question to answer right now. I think after some time has gone by, and all the industry experts put their brains to it, they’ll figure it out,” Bautista said. “I don’t know. It had some impact. How much and how? I can’t tell.”

He was asked about his capabilities as a defender in right field, where he has just nine outfield assists over his last two seasons after putting up 12 in 2014 alone, and where he was worth -8 defensive runs saved in 2016, which ranked among the bottom 20 outfielders in baseball.

“I’ll just go out there and play and we’ll see what happens,” said Bautista, whose defensive play in 2016 was clearly hampered by injuries to his toe and knee. “I’ll let that take care of itself.”

He was asked about the premium he puts on existing in this market from a commerce perspective; about not what he does for Toronto, but what Toronto does for him, and his ability to be a marketing brand through his many Canadian endorsements and business ventures—a side pot of sports stardom Bautista has not been shy to explore, and one that substantially supplements the income he earns playing the game.

“I think those things take care of themselves regardless of where you play,” Bautista said. “I wanted to be here because I enjoyed success here and I’ve been here for a long time. This market, this city, this country, wherever you play or live for ten years almost, it ends up becoming a part of you. So, those are the main reasons why I wanted to be back, and nothing else. And also because we have a great team and we’re capable of winning.”

Then, finally, as the press conference wound to a close, he was asked once more about the negotiation process with the Blue Jays, which seemed to escalate significantly and suddenly after months of little progress. Did he feel the Blue Jays had as strong of an interest in bringing him back as he had in wanting to be back?

“The mutual interest, I always felt was there,” Bautista said. “Maybe the realization that it was a possibility, not as strong.”

And maybe that’s something. Maybe that’s a small hint at the way this reunion came to be, with Bautista letting bigger offers come and go as he waited for the Blue Jays to cycle through a litany of alternatives before circling back to him. “The realization that it was a possibility.” Did Bautista not think it was possible the Blue Jays would want him to return? Or did the Blue Jays not think it was possible to fit Bautista in to their plans? Or was it both?

Who knows. For a man who chooses his words very carefully, it was an intriguing thing to say. As always, a Jose Bautista press conference remains a reliably interesting experience.

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