If you don’t like being called on the carpet and second-guessed for questionable decisions, then the job of a baseball GM isn’t for you. That’s why a player like Jose Bautista is so tantalizing. How many big league executives have been called into the owner’s office and berated for letting the Toronto Blue Jays slugger slip through their fingers? At least, they all can offer the same answer: Hey, the Pittsburgh Pirates let him go twice! But Jose’s story won’t be “The One that Got Away”—more likely, it’ll be “The One That Got It All.” With free agency looming at the end of the 2010 season, he started hitting home runs like Babe Ruth, and never stopped. A talented player that no one could quite figure out, Jose finally just figured it out for himself. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Jose Antonio Batista was born on October 19, 1980 in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) He grew up in Bani, a city about an hour west of the capital. By sheer coincidence, this was the hometown of a major league pitch also named Jose Bautista.

Jose’s parents were educated and hard-working. His mother, Sandra, was an accountant. His father, Americo, ran a poultry farm. Growing up, Jose was good with numbers and with chickens. He often helped his father with vaccinations and equipment maintenance at the farm. Jose’s parents paid for him to attend a good private school. He excelled as a student, particularly in math and the sciences. 

Jose was not a standout athlete in his early years. He was skinny and small—more of a leadoff hitter than a slugger. In Little League, he was good with the glove and fast afoot.

Jose and his brother Luis were very close. They were part of a tight-knit group that remains almost unchanged to this day. They played soccer, basketball and baseball together, and rode bikes all over Bani.

Hoops, in fact, may have been Jose’s favorite sport as a kid. His idol was Michael Jordan.

Baseball, however, proved to Jose’s ticket to fame and fortune. After filling out in his late teens, he began attracting the attention of big league scouts. He considered several offers but did not get one he liked.

By the age of 18, Jose was starting to feel that his value was being compromised by the fact he was a Dominican not subject to the major league draft. He addressed this issue by enrolling for a year at Chipola Junior College in Florida. After a standout 2000 season, the Pirates made Jose their 20th-round selection. He began his pro career with Class-A Williamsport in 2001.

The Pirates knew they had a talented young player on their hands. What they did not realize was that Jose was a perfectionist. He took every out personally, even when he was hitting well. Rather than focusing on his successes at the plate, he obsessed on his shortcomings and stubbornly refused to stick with the fixes his coaches put in place.

Jose’s manager in his first two seasons was Tony Beasley, who would later become a third base coach with the Pirates. Beasley was amazed how a player so good could get himself so out of whack. In a game with Williamsport, Jose followed three hits with an out. He was so upset that his warm-up throws the following inning kept sailing into the stands. Beasley had to pull him out of the game. It happened several more times during his minor league career. 

The 2003 season found Jose in Class-A again, this time with Lynchburg. He was hitting .242 with four homers when he broke his hand 51 games into the season. Jose sat out two months but returned to the field in time to hit .375 in the Carolina League playoffs.

A couple of months later, Jose’s career took an odd detour. In December, he was claimed in the Rule 5 Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. He didn’t take it personally that Pittsburgh left him off the 40-man roster. The Pirates had a lot of prospects and several players had to be exposed. Jose reported to spring training knowing that there was a good chance he would be playing in the majors. Otherwise the Orioles would have to return him to the Pirates.

Jose made the O’s as Melvin Mora’s backup at third base. He appeared in 16 games before Baltimore needed the roster spot and placed him on waivers. Jose had done little to make a name for himself, hitting .273 with no homers or RBIs in 12 at-bats.

Still, Tampa Bay immediately snapped him up. But after 12 games—and a .167 batting average—the Rays sold him to the Kansas City Royals. Again, Jose hardly distinguished himeslf. Even on the lowly Royals, Jose received scant playing time and didn’t produce much when he was on the field.

Before the 2004 season ended, Jose found himself with his fourth club in less than ayear. On the eve of the trading deadline, he headed back to Pittsburgh as part of a three-way deal between the Mets, Pirates and Royals. New York traded catcher Justin Huber for Jose, and then turned around and packaged him with Ty Wigginton for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger.


 

 

 


Michael Jordan, Wheaties box

     
 

Jose was back where he started his career. In 23 games with Pittsburgh to finish the ’04 campaign, he hit .200 and struck out 18 times in 40 at-bats. Had the Pirates sent Jose back to the minors, would they have had to return him back to themselves? He didn’t care. He was glad to be back among familiar faces after his American League odyssey.

ON THE RISE

Back in the Pttsburgh system for 2005, Jose was delighted to reunite with Beasley in Class-AA Altoona. The manager could see that his taste of major league life had matured him. Jose's improved focus and confidence showed in his power numbers. He belted 23 home runs in 117 games. After earning a promotion to Class-AAA Indianapolis, he got called back to Pittsburgh at the end of the year. He hit .143 in limited action.  

Jose turned heads with a strong spring training in 2006. Initially it had been assumed that he would take over the hot corner for veteran Joe Randa. But pesky Freddy Sanchez hit the cover off the ball during the exhibition season and won the job. In turn, the Pirates moved Jose to the outfield. He impressed Jim Tracy with his willingness to play anywhere the manager put him as well as his ability to drive pitches over the inside half of the plate. Jeff Manto, Pittsburgh ’s hitting coach, predicted he might be a 25-homer guy in three or four seasons. 

Although he began the year at Class-AAA Indianapolis, Jose got a quick recall and split his time between the outfield and infield the rest of the year. The Pirates were not getting the production they envisioned from high-level prospects Nate McLouth and Chris Duffy, so Tracy often penciled in Jose as his center fielder. He responded well with 16 homers and 51 RBIs in 400 at-bats, but he could not get his average out of the .230s after August. That wasn’t a big problem for the moribund Pirates. Out of contention by June, they were content to let their young players make mistakes and determine just what they had.

Heading into the 2007 season, Jose figured he would function as a utilityman once again. Sanchez, now enjoying his new status as the reigning National League batting champ, was solid at third, while Jose Castillo was entering his fourth year as an everyday second sacker. But the Pirates lost patience with Castillo in spring training and moved Sanchez to replace him. Filling the hole left by Sanchez would be Jose, who got his first real shot at being a starter.  

Jose made the most of his increased playing time. He was solid in the field and hit .254 with 15 homers and 63 RBIs. At times, the ball jumped off his bat. Often, though, he got himself out swinging at pitches in the dirt or above his shoulders. Still, after the season, the Pirates were impressed enough to offer Jose a $1.8 million contract to avoid arbitration.

The Pirates gave Jose a chance to solidify his status as an everyday player in 2008, but he responded with streaky, impatient play. At times, he looked unbeatable. During a span of nine interleague games in June, he blasted five homers. But that accounted for nearly half his season total.

In just over 100 games, Jose hit all of 12 homers, with 44 RBIs and a lackluster .242 average. The Bucs finally demoted him to Triple-A in August. The move was made in part to clear space on the 40-man roster. Blue-chip prospect like Andrew McCutchen was tearing it up at Indianapolis, and the team eyed a September call-up. Jose did not request a trade, but Pittsburgh took the first offer that came their way—a man-for-man swap with the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league backstop Robinzon Diaz.


Jose Bautista, 2006 Heritage
     
 

Jose was glad for the change of scenery but unclear on his role with the Jays. Toronto had one of the best-fielding third basemen in history, Scott Rolen. Right fielder Alex Rios was a high-average hitter and a budding All-Star. Manager Cito Gaston told Jose that he thought he was a good player and that he would find him playing time whenever and wherever he could. Jose appeared in 21 games for the Jays to finish out the ’08 campaign. He lined up all over the infield and got some swings as a DH.

Jose took an important step as a hitter during the 2009 season. Working with coach Dwayne Murphy, he improved his mechanics so that he wasn’t rushing his swing. Too often he was getting started late, which forced him to turn his shoulders too quickly to pull his hands through the hitting zone. The net result was that Jose was getting jammed or rolling over the top of pitches he should be driving.

Gaston continued to insert Jose in the lineup, platooning him in left with Travis Snyder and giving Rolen an occasional blow at third. But not playing regularly made it difficult for Jose to correct the problems with his swing. He struggled for the second straight year to keep his average above .200.

MAKING HIS MARK

Jose’s career-changing break came in the second half of August after Rolen was traded to the Cincinnati Red, and Rios wasclaimed in a waiver deal with the Chicago White Sox. Now a regular, he clubbed 10 homers with 21 RBIs in his final 27 games.Jose even filled in as Toronto’s leadoff hitter when Marco Scutaro was injured late in the year. It was a stunning transformation that went almost completely unnoticed by everyone but fantasy baseball owners.

In 2010, Jose came into spring training determined to reproduce his late-season performance. Feeling that he was where he needed to be strength-wise, he did less weight training in the offseason and concentrated more on plyometrics and cardio work. Jose also honing his stroke in winter ball, which helped him hit the ground running in exhibition play with a lusty .439 average, nine doubles and five home runs. He easily won the Jays’ right field job, with his “days off” slated for third base and even first.

But Jose’s fortitude—and Toronto’s patience—was tested early in the regular season. In April, he labored through a slump and barely hit .200. With Murphy making some minor adjustments, Jose heated up and had a big May, cranking out a dozen home runs. By the end of month, he had already eclipsed his single-season best in the power department.

A quiet June brought the skeptics back out, but toward the end of the month, the homer-happy Jays made a change in the batting order. Jose became their #3 hitter, in front of Vernon Wells, who was having a resurgent season after several disappointing ones. That seemed to flip the switch. Jose went on a tear, smacking 11 homers in July to seize the major league lead. One was an inside-the-park job, demonstrating that he could win games with his legs if needed.

With the Jays fading out of contention in the AL East, the team faced a dilemma with Jose. With the prospect of losing him after the season to free agency, the team might have been best served—on paper, at least—by trading him prior to the July 30 deadline. On the other hand, denying loyal fans a chance to watch him battle for the home run crown would be a PR nightmare. Toronto played it half way, announcing that Jose would only be available if an “overwhelming” offer came along. No such deals did, and Jose remained a Jay.


Cito Gaston, 1974 Topps
     
 

Jose reached 40 homers with a two-dinger night against the Yankees in mid-August. New York’s pitchers were giving him a little chin music, and he didn’t like it one bit. He fought back the best way he knew how, by knocking balls out of the park.

What the future holds for Jose is literally anyone’s guess. Should the Jays ink him to a long-term deal? Can they afford to? Is he an elite right fielder for a non-contender or a utilityman for a championship-caliber team? Was this season a flash in the pan or simply the result of a decade of talent and hard work?

And what does it say about the state of baseball? In the year when everyone is probably off the juice, Jose is the game’s slugging champ? Jose won’t worry about that. He won’t be flying under the radar anymore either, though he’ll still be out there proving all those GMs wrong.

JOSE THE PLAYER

Jose is a dead pull hitter. When he stopped listening to batting coaches who suggested he use the whole field and began waiting for pitches he could turn on, the home runs started coming in bunches. At the plate, the change in Jose’s approach is easy to see. He no longer reacts; rather, he attacks. He starts his swing earlier than when he first came up and boasts one of the more violent swings in baseball.

Through August of 2010, not a single one of Jose’s major league home runs had gone to right field. In 2010, he batted close to .500 on pitches he pulled and under .200 on balls hit to the right side. A 150-point differential is more typical for everyday players.

Jose has good speed on the base paths and sports a plus throwing arm. For much of 2010, he ranked among the major league leaders in outfield assists.

In the clubhouse, Jose has taken several young Latino players under his wing, including shortstop Yunel Escobar. He joined the club after being banished from the Atlanta Braves, who questioned his focus and attitude. Jose knows what that’s like, so Escobar couldn’t ask for a better mentor.


Jose Bautista, 2010 Daily News
     

 

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