The return of Jose Bautista and the lessons learned from a sub-standard 2016

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
Jose Bautista signed what is essentially a one-year, $18.5 million contract to return to the Blue Jays. (AP)
Jose Bautista signed what is essentially a one-year, $18.5 million contract to return to the Blue Jays. (AP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Comfort is a home. It is a commute to work that doesn’t require Google Maps, a park where the kids like the playground equipment, a gaggle of friends that accepts idiosyncrasies for the harmless tics they are. It is what made Jose Bautista stare at one contract offer this winter worth tens of millions of dollars more than another and choose the one with the smaller number.

“I wanted to be happy and comfortable,” he said. “And this is where I’m happy and comfortable.”

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He sat in a near-empty clubhouse at the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring home, shirtless after a 90-minute workout that followed another game where flashes of the old Jose Bautista – the one who punished pitchers with enmity – revealed themselves. He demurred. It’s just spring training, he said, and Bautista is right. Hidden behind the facade that stares daggers at umpires, behind the demeanor that makes him no friends in opposing clubhouses, is a mind that refuses to bow to the whims of a day, a week, a month, even a year.

Thirteen seasons in the major leagues, spent on the fringes, on the bench, on top of the whole sport and, last season, on the disabled list, taught Bautista as much, and they’ve carried him here, to his comeback. And though he may believe that too tidy a narrative, the sting of 2016 remains fresh. The hullabaloo last spring over a reported monster contract desire and the injuries that hobbled him almost all season and the free-agent market over the winter that took months to develop and ended with him back in Toronto.

“Of course [the market] bothered me,” he said. “I’m human. And anybody that knows what they can bring to the table will be frustrated. And I’m sure I was not the only one.”

The soft free-agent market finally bore fruit for Bautista come mid-January. He received a three-year offer, according to two sources. (Bautista would not confirm that but did not deny it when offered the chance.) He had well over $50 million in guaranteed money on the table. (Ditto.) And ultimately, he signed what is in essence a one-year, $18.5 million deal because “you look at the factors – loving the city you play in, marketplace, a chance to win, taxes, endorsements – in a balance and make the decision you think is best for you. And understanding I came off a tough year, where I necessarily didn’t have the most fun I had playing in the big leagues, this was the best place.”

In Toronto, Bautista remains a demigod. There, he is the impaler of 227 home runs over the previous six seasons, not the 22 he hit last year. There, he is the face of the Blue Jays’ renaissance, not a 36-year-old whose bat speed scouts last season questioned. There, he is the emperor of the bat flip, not the guy who got jaw-jacked by Rougned Odor. Comfort isn’t just his familiarity with Toronto. It’s Toronto’s with him.

“I think they see me for who I am most of the time,” Bautista said, and that is a fully formed person, not the caricature of him that exists across the border. He is loyal and mercurial, caring and self-interested, successful and ineffective. In other places, the act might have worn tired. In Toronto, his return drew huzzahs. And, yes, some of that came down to the length of the deal and dollar amount not crippling Toronto for years, but the Blue Jays are Canada’s team, and those who neither know nor care about contract details just wanted the bearded one back.

Jose Bautista hopes to have put his injury problems of 2016 behind him. (Getty)
Jose Bautista hopes to have put his injury problems of 2016 behind him. (Getty)

So he is, a bit more scraggly than usual, in the same great shape. Those 90-minute postgame lifting sessions aren’t slapdash. Bautista focuses on mobility and functionality, two core tenets of his overall program that during the offseason included a personal chef and nutritionist. Even if he could not have prevented the freak injuries of last season – he hurt his shoulder, knee and toe, and with his mental acuity thusly affected, one could add his head and make a nice little song of it – Bautista’s nightmare includes getting up one day and sensing age catching up.

“You wake up in the morning and feel like you’re walking on broken glass,” Bautista said. “You feel like you constantly have to take medicine to control pains and aches and muscle soreness. I haven’t done that the last three years because I don’t think that’s healthy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to sometimes.”

Life at 36 can be an exercise in bitten tongues and discretion playing the better part of valor. Bautista has an opinion on just about everything. He learned sharing some brings attention he doesn’t desire. He doesn’t talk politics. He said baseball’s new collective-bargaining agreement is “OK.” He won’t ever offer expectations or goals, even if his bad year included a not-bad-at-all .366 on-base percentage and .452 slugging percentage.

He’ll do what he always does, stubborn Jose Bautista, intransigent because it’s what he knows. He’ll let those little slights burn deep inside, remind himself of when he was a nothing who was the only one who believed he was a something, get ready to drop the word aberration on those who wonder about last year. He’s back, geographically, but that was the simple part. The rest is his to earn.

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