By Jason Menard
If baseball fans can’t see their way to embracing Toronto Blue Jays’ all-star slugger Jose Bautista, it may be because their view is being obscured by Barry Bonds’ oversized head.
While Bautista will be the feature attraction at this year’s all-star game, it was only a couple of months ago that Time magazine called the Dominican superstar “the best baseball player you’ve never heard of.”
I think Time got it wrong. I think fans are well aware of whom Bautista is; I just think fans hesitate to jump in with both feet when they’re so wary of the other shoe dropping. And that shoe has been used by the Bonds’ (allegedly), the McGuire’s, and the Sosa’s of the world to stomp on the hearts of fans.
Why else would there be any holding Bautista back? Here is a guy who has scratched and clawed for everything he had. He’s a guy who plays the game the right way, seems genuinely pleasant and respectful in interviews, appeals to all demographics, and provides plenty of pop in a league that’s seen much of the juice (literally and figuratively) seep out of hitters’ bats. Even playing outside of the U.S. shouldn’t be an issue for a player performing on-field feats of this magnitude.
Back in August 2010, the Toronto Star’s Damian Cox wrote a piece called “Gotta At Least Ask the Question” that, while not outright accusing Bautista of doping, suggested that the baseball environment is such that the question must be raised. Cox was pilloried by readers and some media watchers, but he’s not entirely wrong.
I don’t believe that Bautista is doping. I firmly believe that a combination of opportunity, finally finding the right hitting coach, and organizational faith have combined to allow the 30-year-old’s natural talents to blossom to the point where he’s the most feared hitter in the league.
I also believe Bautista’s dedication to his craft and work ethic can’t be understated. Last year he hit 54 home runs in 161 games, but his batting average was a pedestrian .260. His on-base percentage – thanks in part to drawing 100 walks — was an adequate .378. Basically, he had plenty of pop, drove in a bunch of RBIs, but was only an OK hitter overall.
Bautista’s dedication wouldn’t allow him to rest on his laurels. In half as many games (81, thanks to injury), he’s on a similar home-run (29) and RBI (61 pace), but he’s worked diligently at becoming a more well-rounded hitter. His batting average is up 73 points to an outstanding .333 level, and he’s already drawn 71 walks (14 intentional compared to two all of last year). His on-base-plus-slugging percentage is an other-worldly 1.158.
If pundits were saying that Bautista’s 2010 campaign was one for the ages, what do we make of this one? And those who fairly wondered if Bautista would be a one-season wonder akin to Brady Anderson’s 50-HR 1996 campaign now have to be comfortable that the Blue Jay is the real deal.
It’s a great story, with an outstanding main character who should be a role model for all kids about perseverance and playing the game the right way. But it’s still a story that people are leery of telling not because of who Bautista is, but rather who Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jose Canseco, and Jason Giambi were.
All of the above, except Bautista, have had their names linked to steroids either as admitted users or they have been strongly implicated. Unfortunately, the one player who has not been linked to the league’s drug era is the one who is suffering from it the most.
It’s not guilt by association; it’s guilt by affiliation. Too many fans have placed their faith in those who have proven unworthy of it that they’re watching Bautista’s feats with a jaundiced eye.
Unfortunately for Bautista, he’s the victim of MLB’s Reverse Boy Who Cried Wolf phenomenon. The league cried “Nothing’s wrong!” so many times when there were, in fact, juiced-up wolves running rampant between the white lines that fans are having a hard time buying the “Nothing’s wrong!” line now that it appears it is, in fact, true.
Personally, I choose to believe in Bautista. I’m enjoying his exploits and choosing to view him as a wonderful ambassador for the game. Other fans may be reticent and holding back on their acceptance of the Blue Jay, but that’s their loss.
And MLB is losing out on an ambassador not through anything Bautista’s done, but by the culture it allowed to flourish that now shrouds every moment of greatness in doubt.