Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista was dealt plenty of curveballs on his way to becoming a five-time MLB All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger.
The 34-year-old Bautista took each challenge in stride, specifically when four of the teams he played for in his first season tried to overhaul his swing or lowball him on potential offers during his journey to the majors.
“Even though I loved the game, I understood the business part,” Bautista says.
Sure, the road was long and sometimes arduous. It took Bautista six years to showcase to the baseball world exactly what he was capable of behind the plate – but he wasn’t complaining. And after all, baseball – his key to growth and prosperity as a youngster – came second in the grand scheme of things to his role as a student and son back in his birthplace of Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic.
“I mean, it's my dream. I just had to figure out a way to get enough information and learn enough that way,” says Bautista. “I didn't even have 1,000 at-bats. Most guys, in order to go to the big leagues, get at least 1,500 to 2,000 at-bats. I always wanted to play and be a professional, but I always kept things in check with my education.”
As a boy, the player who we would later learn to call “Joey Bats” first came into contact with the sport at the age of 5, playing with neighborhood children and his father in the backyard. At that point in time, Bautista began to play on little league teams that weren’t very organized. He continued to grow, and before he knew it, he was playing in a much bigger league as a teenager with friends in a stadium near his house.
However, before stepping foot in a batter’s box, Bautista knew that his schooling was a precursor to his future as a baseball player.
“As I kept my schoolwork in check, my parents allowed me to do pretty much anything without getting in trouble,” Bautista says.
In the classroom, he was earning grades the equivalent of home runs. He also developed an affinity for mathematics.
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging but I was a pretty decent student. I got good grades. I was the top of my class; in the Top 5 percent,” says Bautista. “I enjoyed subjects like physics, math, and chemistry. There’s no denying it [math], no interpretation. For some reason, numbers were easy to me.”
Side by side, his goals of becoming a successful student and baseball player were taking flight. Bautista’s next stop in his maturation process took place still in his teens, where he would attend a private Catholic high school, all the while playing in three different baseball leagues. He graduated as the youngest in his class and only had Saturday’s off.
“During my years as a teen, I mostly just exercised at the stadium. Down there, we played twice a day on each team so I basically played six out of the seven days in a week,” Bautista says.
Lifting weights was not part of the Dominican culture, says Bautista. What he and countless other little leaguers would focus on is stretching and conditioning. Around this period of his life, he was standing close to 5’10” and tipping the scales at roughly 150 pounds.
Throughout his youth baseball career, Bautista had premier instruction from Dominican baseball legends. He was able to learn how to play the game the right way and see firsthand just how important the sport was and is to his countryman.
“I played on that team [Quique Cruz league] since I was 12 until I was like 17 years old,” says Bautista. “Mostly, I played for fun because I liked it. Up until I was 16 or 17, was when I started getting good.”
He added, “Baseball is our pride and joy – our most popular sport. It’s something that you don’t take lightly.”
Towards the end of his high school playing days, Bautista began receiving offers from major league scouts to come practice at their complexes. He’d work out with teams such as the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Cincinnati Reds. Meanwhile, Bautista studied business at Pontificio Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestrain, what was one of his countries’ top schools in that category.
“Back then, they allowed people that were getting looked at - people that were not signed to a contract with that particular team - up to three months to get evaluated. I took full advantage of that,” Bautista says. “It was a great experience for me. I was part of the group as if I signed a contract. I did exactly the same as all those guys did. It was pretty similar to the way it is now.”
When those three months were up, and the teams had to make a decision on a contract offer for the teenage Bautista, he found out just how the game was really played – at least off of the baseball diamond.
“The contract offers I got, I didn’t feel like were better offers than going to college. They weren’t of better value than what I valued my education at,” says Bautista.
It was a reality check for him. He didn’t take it personal and unbeknownst to him, Bautista would experience a lot more trials and tribulations in the near future. For now, though, Bautista had to take the good with the bad, until he found a break.
After unsuccessfully trying to wow colleges with an amateur highlight tape, Bautista found his golden ticket to attend college in the form of a Bay Area businessman named Donald Odermann. Odermann ran a program in the U.S. called the Latin Athletes Education Fund. The program aids Spanish-speaking players and enables them to play college baseball in the states.
Odermann met with Bautista and helped him secure a spot in a North Florida community college, Chipola.
“He wasn’t only somebody that just created the avenue for me to pursue my dream; he was also there and available. He showed me how to do things the right way. I followed his advice, just like I did my parents and coaches,” Bautista says of Odermann.
Following an up-and-down stint at Chipola, which saw Bautista produce a stellar sophomore season after a bad ankle injury hindered his performance as a freshman, he set his sights on the MLB. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who had drafted him two years prior as a 19-year-old prospect, gave him a $500,000 contract offer to play in the minors, which he gladly accepted.
Bautista became acclimated with his first minor league team quickly and was hitting towards the top of the batting order in the third spot. At age 22, he was 6’0”, weighing close to 200 pounds and only three steps away from reaching the major leagues. However, things were about to change very quickly.
After he suffered a broken hand on a punch to a metal trash receptacle, and mixed results at the plate, the Pirates were ready to part ways with Bautista. He bounced around on the waiver wire and trading block for the duration of the 2004 season, playing for a total of four teams including the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Pirates. Rather than team’s not deciding to develop him as a professional baseball player and subsequently letting his confidence diminish, Bautista found a silver lining within the chaos that was his first season in the big leagues.
“Instead of keeping me there and letting me rot, I appreciate the fact that the teams not only tried to get them an asset that they could use, but didn't let me sit there and rot away. I finally ended up where I needed to be,” Bautista says.
Bautista struggled over the next four-and-a-half years in Pittsburgh due to what he deemed a lack “of respect” between himself, coaches, and management. He was adamant that he wasn’t getting the opportunities to succeed, was being utilized incorrectly and looked for a way out. Bautista was traded around the All-Star break in 2008 to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“They were sort of instructing me to do things that weren't for my skill set. When I came to Toronto, it was 100 percent tailor-made to my skill set. If I get a good pitch, hit it hard,” recalls Bautista. “As opposed to Pittsburgh, where you would take a pitch and work the count. Hit the other way, move the runners over.”
His time north of the border was a career renaissance and then some. Bautista spent his first full season in Toronto overhauling his swing with then manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy. In 2010, with distinct changes in place, he struck fear into the eye’s of dozen’s of opposing pitchers.
Bautista crushed 54 home runs out of the park and drove in 124 runs, while batting .260.
“He helped me get back to my normal, free swing. He helped me make those adjustments at the plate and helped me get ready earlier in the delivery, rather than having a defensive swing," Bautista says of Murphy.
He would rack up 133 more home runs over his next four seasons with the Blue Jays. Bautista also battled wrist and hip injuries from 2012-2013. Last year, he played in the second most regular season games since becoming a member of the Blue Jays and drove in 103 runs. This season has started off a little bit rocky for the right fielder.
On April 21st, Bautista aggravated an already sore shoulder on a throw to first base from his position in the outfield. For the majority of the next month, he would spend time as his team's designated hitter, forgoing his duties in the field.
"It's a healing process, you can't really accelerate it. I know that it's not going to be an injury that hinders me in the future," Bautista says. "I expect in about a week or so to start a throwing program and then maybe a week after that to get back in the game pretty soon."
From the Dominican Republic to the major leagues, Bautista saw his dream of playing professional baseball through, even when it didn't seem like he'd have a chance. Patience was demanded, there's no doubt about that, and now with his distinct individual accolades in tow, there's still one more trophy he hopes to collect before he hangs up his cleats for good.
"What I really want to do is win a championship. I've never been on a playoff team, which is the first goal and then winning a championship is the second," Bautista says. "I'm trying to take it one step at a time and get the both of them done, ideally this year. We have a great team in place and I'm looking forward to that challenge."