DUNEDIN, FLA. - Growing up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Jose Bautista followed the career of Toronto outfielder George Bell.
Bautista eventually broke Bell’s single-season Blue Jays home run record of 47 homers in 2010.
Growing up in Santo Domingo, Francisco Cordero’s favourite player was countryman Jose Mesa.
“I didn’t care for hitters, I liked watching pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Mesa,” Cordero said Saturday morning in the Blue Jays clubhouse.
Cordero grew up to break Mesa’s record for all-time saves (321) by a Dominican last season with the Cincinnati Reds when he closed out a 4-1 win over the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 9.
“He didn’t get the recognition he deserved in breaking the record, even in the Dominican,” said Bautista.
Cordero’s fastball was clocked at 101 mph with the Tigers and again with the Milwaukee Brewers when he was a young pup.
And this spring, as he prepares for his 14th season?
“Maybe 92 ... I’m not the same guy in the spring,” said Cordero, 36, before working a scoreless ninth against the Atlanta Braves. He hit 91 mph with his best fastball, in a 1-2-3 ninth.
The thing about the game is the sky is the limit.
Bautista dreamt of being like Bell and was better. (Although Bautista has yet to win an MVP award).
Cordero wanted to be the next Mesa and was better.
And Cordero is not finished.
Cordero worshipped Mesa, was upset when he blew a ninth-inning save for the Cleveland Indians — Craig Counsell hit a scoring fly ball to force extras — and the Florida Marlins won Game 7 of the 1997 World Series in 11 innings.
Now, Mesa and Cordero work with personal trainer Angel Done at the Centro Olympico gym in the capital during the off-season where Olympic athletes from the island train.
They’ve played in the same charity softball events.
“Jose congratulated me on breaking the save record, he was happy for me,” Cordero said.
With Sergio Santos as the Jays new closer, Cordero will have few opportunities to add to his total of 327 career saves.
“When he came over we told him he would pitch the eighth,” said manager John Farrell.
Cordero is the sixth highest-paid player (behind Bautista, Kelly Johnson, Ricky Romero, Adam Lind and Yunel Escobar) on the Jays this season, earning $4.5 million on his one-year deal.
The reliever’s welcome to the big leagues moment came the day he was welcomed to the big leagues.
Promoted from double-A Jacksonville, he arrived at Tiger Stadium in the seventh inning.
“I’m sitting in the clubhouse, they phone to the dugout to ask if I’m supposed to get into uniform, they tell me to get dressed, I go to the dugout, shake hands with the manager, he says ‘congrats ... you’ve got the ninth,” Cordero said.
Tigers manager Larry Parrish didn’t any waste time getting Cordero in, giving him ball, trailing the Chicago White Sox 6-2.
Cordero retired Chris Singleton on a grounder and then faced slugger Frank Thomas.
“I threw a slider and man, he hit a bullet right at my head, I mean right at my head,” Cordero said. “It must have been travelling at 100 mph.”
Cordero finished his first inning in the majors striking out Magglio Ordonez and Brian Simmons.
The set-up man was on the same staff as Darren Oliver with the Texas Rangers in 2000-01 and with Carlos Villanueva in 2006-07 with the Milwaukee Brewers.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has improved his bullpen with Cordero and Santos pitching the eighth and ninth. Farrell also has Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, lefty Luis Perez, Oliver and Villanueva.
That’s a tad better than the first seven relievers the Jays trotted out after the July 27 deal which saw the Jays move pitchers Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, Zach Stewart and Frasor to obtain centre fielder Colby Ramus. The first seven were P.J. Walters, Jesse Litsch, Trever Miller, Shawn Camp, Jon Rauch, Janssen and Frank Francisco.
“From the day I walked into this clubhouse these players have made me feel at home,” Cordero said. “They made me feel like I was here before. I know a couple of guys, but not one day since I got here have I felt down. It’s a room full of happiness.”
Ah, yes, the great atmosphere in the spring training clubhouse story — reported here first.
We have not heard that since, oh, maybe a year ago.
Live action does not begin until April 5 when the Jays open in Cleveland.
Everyone is undefeated in March.
Losing streaks, bad outings, lack of playing time and blown saves have a way of changing the mood-lighting in a clubhouse.
Baseball’s all-time save leaders
1. Mariano Rivera 603
2. Trevor Hoffman 601
3. Lee Smith 478
4. John Franco 424
5. Billy Wagner 422
6. Dennis Eckersley 390
7. Jeff Reardon 367
8. Troy Percival 358
9. Randy Myers 347
10. Rollie Fingers 341
11. John Wetteland 330
12. Francisco Cordero 327
All-time Dominican save leaders
1. Cordero 327
2. Jose Mesa 321
3. Armando Benitez 289
4. Jose Valverde 242
5. Antonio Alfonseca 129