The man leading the major leagues in home runs was once a baseball orphan. All Jose Bautista(notes) wanted was a home, somewhere he could unpack his suitcase. Too many times he crammed it with his stuff and sent it to an unfamiliar place and tried to fit in only to be told he wasn't good enough.
In all likelihood, no baseball player ever again will do what Bautista did in 2004. He was the property, at one point or another, of a major league-record five teams. One-sixth of baseball employed Bautista that year, the length of time varying from a few minutes to a few months. He went through nearly every possible transaction. Chosen in the Rule 5 draft (by Baltimore). Traded (to Tampa Bay). Sold (to Kansas City). Part of a three-way deal (with the Mets, who held his rights for an eye blink before sending him back to his original team, Pittsburgh). Abandoned (by each redeemer).
"Nobody wanted me," Bautista said. "And then somebody wanted me. And then nobody wanted me again."
Which makes him chuckle, since plenty of teams seem to want him now.
Bautista is a Toronto Blue Jay, and as July descends and the trade deadline stands nine days away, the fact that he's still atop the big league leaderboard in home runs – that the Orioles and Rays and Royals and Mets and Pirates see his name ahead of Ryan Howard's(notes) and Adam Dunn's(notes) and Prince Fielder's(notes) and Miguel Cabrera's(notes) – flabbergasts even him. And yet his 26 home runs are very real, every one a pull shot, nearly two-thirds more than 400 feet, each coming from a right-handed swing that underwent serious reconstructive surgery alongside a psyche in need of some TLC, too.
San Francisco and Detroit and Atlanta and the White Sox have inquired about trading for Bautista, sources said, because for all of his past deficiencies and for everything sample size teaches us about weighing past performance, they believe this is no fluke.
It's an unlikely story: utilityman turns into the Bambino. Bautista's job itself implies that he goes about his duties with a wrench and drill, a fix-it guy who patches problems but never is the solution. He sees himself blessed and cursed with the ability to play every position but catcher. Versatility would always keep him employed; versatility would also pigeonhole him to a scattershot role.
It's why, at 23, he found himself jumping from Class A to the major leagues with the Orioles, and why the woebegone Rays and Royals took chances on him, and why the Mets and Pirates wanted a piece of him. Each saw something, perhaps a sliver of what shows today, a single swing of superlative speed, most likely, as Bautista's quick hands for years left scouts dreaming.
Everyone wondered just how good Bautista could be if he started his swing earlier. They told him that – late on fastballs, too slow to load weight, killing those quick wrists with poor timing – but none of it stuck, not until Bautista arrived in Toronto.
He came on a waiver claim. Alex Anthopoulos, now the Blue Jays' general manager, was monitoring the wire from the team’s baseball operations office in August 2008. Pittsburgh exposed Bautista. Anthopoulos had liked his tools and versatility, called superscout Tony LaCava to confirm both still existed, went to then-GM J.P. Ricciardi for approval, claimed Bautista and acquired him for catcher Robinzon Diaz(notes).
By July 2009, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston and coach Dwayne Murphy were working on retooling Bautista's swing. They would hold hour-long conversations about it. What never got through to him in Pittsburgh seemed clear: If he started earlier, those swing-and-miss fastballs would cease.
"Good hitters get ready," Gaston said. "If you get ready, you've got a chance. If you don't, you've got no chance."
Bautista's chance came when the White Sox claimed Blue Jays outfielder Alex Rios(notes) off waivers, opening up a position in August. The more at-bats he received, the cleaner the new swing felt. On Sept. 10, 2009, in an afternoon game at Rogers Centre against Minnesota, Bautista doubled and homered, both line drives.
"My hands felt like they were 1,000 mph," Bautista said. "After that day, I tried to repeat that feeling. And I've felt good ever since."
In Bautista's first 1,654 major league at-bats, he hit 49 home runs. Over his last 432, comprising this season and September and October of 2009, he's got 36.
Or perhaps all three, which is part of what draws teams' interest. Executives respect Bautista's ability to shake off the indignity of getting dumped by five teams in one season. They like that at 29 years old he is epitomizing the late bloomer, with enough good skills (power and plate discipline) to offset the bad ones (a sub-.250 batting average and mediocre defense).
And with his cost particularly intriguing – Bautista stands to get an arbitration raise next year somewhere in the $5 million to $6 million range, extremely affordable for a potential 40-homer guy – the Blue Jays needn't purge him at the deadline. Unless Anthopoulos fetches a top-of-the-line prospect, there's little need for him to even consider Bautista's name.
"He's got 26 home runs," Murphy said. "I think he's doing fine here."
Bautista concurs. He likes the city. He associates it with success. Even if Toronto isn't winning, he rescued his career there, salvaging his talent. It helps him treat 2004 for what it was: the long journey that led him to where he is today.
Home and unpacked, finally.