Walking into the Blue Jays clubhouse one May afternoon I spotted Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski waiting in the middle of the room.
We shook hands, talked about having dinner at the Pink Pony, Gene Autry’s old haunt in Arizona with our Kansas City pal, Bob Dutton.
Looking to my left I noticed Jose Bautista putting on his cleats.
“You here for Babe Ruth?” I asked Posnanski.
Posnanski nodded yes.
Walking over to Bautista’s locker I said jokingly “this guy can write, I mean really write, do me a favour, give him some good answers, no cliches.”
Bautista smiled, saying “you mean like I did yesterday when YOU had the night off?”
Sheepishly I returned to Posnanski and told him what I thought was a funny story.
Bautista passed by on cue and said to Joe: “I can’t talk to you before batting practice, have to do a TV interview, I forgot they had a camera crew here.”
A lot of help, I was.
Bautista did the TV interview.
Then, the SI session in the dugout.
One interview after another.
And one award after another.
He won the 2011 American League Hank Aaron award presented to the top slugger as voted upon by a Hall of Fame panel of hitters for the second year in a row before Game 5 of the World Series in Arlington, Tex.
And during the Jays’ first home stand next April Bautista will be presented with the eighth annual George Gross/Toronto Sun Sportsperson of the Year award.
The award goes to the athlete or sports figure judged to have had the most impact on the Toronto sports scene in 2011.
Bautista was selected over nominees Etobicoke’s Joey Votto, the 2010 winner who plays first base for the Cincinnati Reds, Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada, tennis player Milos Raonic and figure skater Patrick Chan.
“That’s huge,” Bautista said from the Dominican Republic.
It is no surprise where Bautista is donating his $1,000 cheque, which accompanies the Gross award.
Roy Halladay donated his to the Isaac Foundation (theisaacfoundation.com) in 2008 for Isaac McFadyen of Campbellford, Ont. Isaac, who the former Cy Young award winner met through Sick Kids Hospital, was diagnosed with Maroteaux-Lamy Syndrome, or MPS VI. Votto donated his prize to Bloordale minor baseball.
Bautista will forward his to the Academy of Latin Baseball of Toronto. He made a donation of a similar amount last summer to the academy and participated in a camp which brought over 150 children to the Rogers Centre.
The Jays Care Foundation was involved and Bautista made sure everyone had t-shirts and caps. He also convinced hall of famer Robbie Alomar, his father Sandy Alomar, Jose Molina and others to help out at the camp.
And what day at the park would be complete without staying to watch that night’s game too?
* * *
The 2011 season was Bautista’s year.
One home run trot after another.
He became the first to lead the majors in homers in back-to-back seasons — 54 a year ago, 43 this season — since Mark McGwire in 1998-99 when the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman hit 70 and then 65.
McGwire’s numbers, though, were tarnished by a steroid scandal.
Bautista had a better season this past summer than 2010, a campaign considered by some to be a fluke by the journeyman turned home run king.
“It was more gratifying, more satisfying being on the field helping my team win, than proving guys wrong about judgments they made about me,” said Bautista. “I want to go to the playoffs and win the World Series.”
He impressed Jays fans.
He impressed fans from Maine, off-season home of third base coach Brian Butterfield, to Calgary where pitching coach Bruce Walton spends each off season to North Richland Hills, Tex., where bench coach Don Wakamatsu resides.
Well, Bautista had 7,454,753 votes in all-star balloting, the most votes ever.
When the polls closed Bautista said he had three countries behind him: the Dominican, the United States and Canada.
Bautista became the first Jays player elected to start the all-star game since Carlos Delgado in 2003.
He set the voting record, smashing Ken Griffey’s 1994 mark by 1,385,095 votes.
So, much for the anti-Canadian bias and how players are ignored playing north of the border that we hear about sometimes.
“Jose exemplifies everything we want our players to be with respect to community leadership,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “Not only does he support Canada and the city, but he is heavily involved in local Latin charitable foundations as well.
“It’s rare in sports that your best also are your players with the greatest character. Fortunately for us, in Ricky Romero and Jose Bautista, we have two pillars.”
Still as years go, the slugging pillar wanted more.
He improved his batting average .42 points to .302 and his walk totals, while his home run numbers dropped as he missed 13 games due to neck and ankle injuries plus the birth of his child.
He hit .257 in the second half which hurt him in the MVP voting as much as the Jays’ 81-81 record. He finished third in voting with 231 points, behind Detroit Justin Verlander (280) and Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury (242).
“A lack of plate discipline,” said Bautista, explaining his second half. “It’s tricky being patient if you only get one strike per game. It’s difficult to stay patient, the longer it went it wore me down, I chased pitches out of the zone.”
Bautista said he might have a three-game stretch and see a grand total of four strikes.
“The next night I’d see six in a row,” he said. “Individually it was a great year, not that I got a lot more hits, but I walked a lot more. My patience was amazing the first half, I’d take a walk, let my teammates do the work.”
* * *
Bautista grew up idolizing former Jays slugger George Bell, the only Jay to win MVP honours. Bell took over from Tony Pena as the face of the Dominican.
Now it’s flip a coin ... David Ortiz or Bautista?
“I go to his gym where he works out,” Ortiz said this season. “He’s already worked out once, then he’ll work out with me. I’m leaving and he’s starting to work out with someone else.”
The other impression one gets about Bautista is that he wants to be in Toronto, signing a five-year, $64 million contract when he could have played a year and bolted for free agency.
“We expected Jose to be a leader and role model on and off the field,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s more than a great player. He’s a great person that all of our players, fans and community can be proud of. Knowing his work ethic and character, we felt he would be productive, but he exceeded even our greatest expectations when it came to his performance in 2011.”
Bautista was like a yo-yo bouncing from the Pittsburgh system to the Baltimore Orioles in the Rule V draft, then to Tampa Bay, Kansas City and back to Pittsburgh.
J.P. Ricciardi dealt Robinzon Diaz to the Pirates for Bautista late in the 2008 season.
“I felt welcomed in Toronto and Canada,” Bautista said. “Coming from a shaky situation with the Pirates, it was way different. They wanted you, wanted you on the field. They didn’t have the at-bats at the start, but they were patient.”
Now, Toronto is a place he enjoys. He enjoys people from different parts of the world, the entertainment and foods of the world.
“Other than the cold winters it has everything,” said Bautista, who might spend one off night at a steak house or a Japanese restaurant, the next at a “Central European burger joint.”
“I like to eat everything but my stomach can’t handle too much spicy Thai or east Indian food. I like the choices you get in the city, you don’t get that everywhere.”
So easy on the Thai for next season.
Ah waiter ...
He would like an extra plate of strikes.