ICYMI: Bautista's road to his first home run title

Jose Bautista after his 50th homer in 2010 off Mariners Felix Hernandez gave the Blue Jays a 1-0 win.

Jose Bautista after his 50th homer in 2010 off Mariners Felix Hernandez gave the Blue Jays a 1-0 win.

Originally published on Sept. 16, 2010

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
He was hoping to head to Florida in the fall of 1999.

Hoping to get on a plane, with a $300,000 US signing bonus from the Cincinnati Reds, and fly from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to training camp in Sarasota, Fla.

It wasn’t one of those “missed him by $5,000” stories scouts talk about. 

Carl Linder was buying the Reds from Marge Schott. 

The Reds said no to the expenditure.

So, Jose Bautista took a different path on his way to the majors.

He boarded a Florida-bound plane, enrolling late at Chipola College, a junior college powerhouse in Marianna, Fla.

* * * 
Bautista arrived on campus, walked into a meeting with eight or 10 players, including catcher Robbie Fleck.

“We turn around and here is this skinny kid, with big ears, carrying his cleats in a plastic bag,” remembered Fleck, a life insurance agent in Marianna. 

This is how day one in America began for the 18-year-old Latin:

“We’re a bunch of country red necks we say ‘did you just get off the boat?’ laughing, picking on the new guy,” Fleck said.

Later players headed to the field.

“Someone hits a ball to straightaway centre, Jose catches it over his shoulder, plants his foot two feet from the fence -- 385 away -- turns and throws a laser. We were shocked.”

And then Bautista had his turn in the batting cage.

“Our gym is beyond the left-centre field fence,” Fleck said. “They pump up an inside fastball on him, it landed in the parking lot and hit the gym on the bounce ... about 460 feet, like 90% of his bombs this year. 

“We quit messing with him. We knew he was legit. This was before we knew his character or work ethic.”

* * *
Fleck invited six players, including Bautista to his house, 12 miles from Marianna to Altha (pop. 5,500) a zero stop light town with two blinking caution lights for American Thanksgiving that first year. 

“They got to experience some good Southern food, better than staying at the dorm and going to Wendy’s. He was very polite, well mannered,”

Good Southern food like turkey and dressing, ham, homemade mac & cheese, green beans, fresh cream corn, collard greens, chicken and dumplings, potato salad, fresh field peas, sweet potato soufflé, fried corn bread and for desert homemade pecan pie and 12-layer chocolate cake. 

All made by Fleck’s mother Janet.

“He was better than the rest of us,” Fleck said. “You have to respect a guy, regardless how much better he was, he put in the time.”

Fleck was at Tropicana Field to see his pal and the Jays last month.

Sometimes they talk as often as every other day, but not always about ball. Fleck will tell his pal how his son Bryson, four, said “daddy your friend is on TV again.”

“We talk about life, I’ll ask what city are you in my kids, one night he explained his swing to me,” said Fleck, .

Bautista leads the American League in homers. 

Fleck does not lead the Big Bend adult league in homers. He has raised his average 35 points playing for the Liberty County Diamond Dawgs, adding “I’m only carrying 50-60 extra pounds, since I blew my arm out in college.”

* * * 
Once Bautista earned respect of his fellow Chipola Indians that first practice a nickname soon followed. 

Jordan Keller of Melville, Sask. began calling him ‘Hoser’ after the “second time he threw me out from right field trying to score from second in an intra-squad game” in 1999.

“All the Canadian players called me that,” Bautista said after a recent Jays game.

Outfielder Eric Bernier of Laval, Que., Ivan Naccarata of Longueil, Que. and Montreal infielder Russell Martin were recruited by coach Jeff Johnson, playing with Bautista in 2000. 

Johnson has had experience with Canucks, including Adam Loewen of Surrey, B.C. selected fourth over-all in 2002 and Drew Parker, of Surrey, B.C. who pitched Chipola to the 2007 Alpine Bank World Series title.

Johnson saw Bernier and Naccarata with the Canadian Junior National Team at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in April.

“We sent scholarship offers off and didn’t hear back and didn’t hear back, not a good sign,” Johnson said from Mariana. “Somehow we got in touch with Russell Martin’s father who was watching Team Canada at the Worlds in Edmonton. 

“He said ‘give my son Russell schooling, I’ll get the other two.’”

When the threesome arrived the Canucks ranked in order of talent as Bernier, Naccaratta and Martin.

A decade later Bernier, who showed power and hit lead off “never put it all together” according to Johnson. He never played pro.

Martin, an infielder at Chipola, has earned all-star honours catching with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Naccarata, drafted in the 21st round by the Houston Astros in 2002, transferred to LSU where he played third -- Aaron Hill was at second in 2003 -- and went undrafted a year later. 

He signed as a free agent with the New York Mets, then joined the Dodgers system, playing three seasons in the minors and is in his third year with the Quebec Capitals in the independent Can-Am League.

Johnson arrived at Chipola in 1997 and calls Naccarata the best clutch hitter he ever had, adding “If he could play defence he’d be in the majors. With us he knocked in more that he let in.”

Best swing?

“Jose,” Johnson says.

Blue Jays Athletics Baseball

* * * 
Bautista hit .289 with 15 doubles, seven homers and 25 RBIs for the 2000 Indians and was drafted in the 20th round by Pittsburgh Pirates and scouting director Mickey White.

Unable to reach an agreement, Bautista returned to school.

Johnson recalls Chipola needing to win “something silly like eight of our final 10” in 2001 and trailing Pensecola by two runs one day.

“They have a guy on third, one out, off the bat it looks like the ball is over Jose’s head, it’s hit that good,” Johnson says. “The runner breaks from third. Jose catches it over the his shoulder 10 feet from the fence. The runner goes back, tags and heads home. Jose throws him out.

“We came back won the game, make the playoffs.”

Johnson also of Bautista hitting a ball so hard off the top of the Chipola 10-foot chain-link outfield fence he knocked off part of the fence.

One day two hours after practice, players were goofing around after catcher’s blocking drills. Bautista climbed onto the mound -- wearing flip flops, according to Fleck -- and threw a 94 m.p.h. fastball.

“That’s where coach got the idea of making him our closer,” Fleck said.

Besides hitting .306 (two points ahead of Martin). 15 homers (in 186 at-bats, six more than Naccarata to lead the team) and driving in 41 runs, he led with five saves. Chipola won the Panhandle conference.

When Kyle Pawelcyk had a tender arm Johnson tagged Bautista to start the third game of the state championships.

He pitched a complete-game, win in the semi-final with a 95 m.p.h. fastball and dropped down “for sort of a ‘slurvey’ slider,” said Johnson, fanning 12.

Bautista threw 130 pitches, as his agent Jay Alou, son of former San Francisco Giants outfielder Jay Alou, paced. His client was about to go pro -- not as a pitcher. What if he injured his arm? Fleck told Alou: “we’re young and dumb.”

“I played centre the next day, but my arm was sore,” said Bautista, who had not thrown more than 30 pitches in a game. He had a 2.43 ERA and a 41 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings.
 
* * * 
Having signed a letter of intent to South Carolina, as well as a B-plus average in business at Chipola, Bautista had leverage when he spoke with the Pirates again.

The Bucs gave him $600,000 bonus, less than two years after he’d walked into Chipola carrying cleats in a plastic bag, after Reds scout Dejean Watson couldn’t get $300,000 from ownership. 

The good news for Bautista he only spent three seasons in the minors and after hitting .242 with four homers and 20 RBIs at class-A Lynchburg in 2003, the bad news roller coast was set to begin.

Bautistia awoke Dec. 15, 2003 in the Dominican as a Pirates minor-leaguer playing winter ball for Licey. 

Two time zones away, at the winter meetings in New Orleans the Baltimore Orioles selected Bautista in the Rule V draft. 

Scout Mickey White, now with the Orioles liked Bautista’s versatility, “he could play second, third, outfield, we thought we’d get him 200 at-bats.” 

The Los Angeles Angels were in town when the end came in Baltimore.

“There was a ball to the wall, Jose went back, his foot hit the turf -- Camden Yards doesn’t have a dirt warning track -- and was off-stride when he jumped,” White said. “The ball hit over his head and Vladimir Guerrero hit a three-run homer.”

White said O’s owner Peter Angelos said: “Get rid of him.“ 

He spent 16 games with the Orioles (11 at-bats); was claimed on waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays June 3 where he played 12 games (12 at-bats) and was claimed by the Kansas City Royals June 28, appearing in 13 games (25 at-bats).

The New York Mets dealt Justin Huber to the Royals for Bautista July 30 and shipped he and Ty Wigginton to the Bucs for Kris Benson before the non-waiver trade deadline. 

In 227 days, Bautista was with the Pirates, Orioles, Rays, Royals, Mets and Pirates playing 64 games with 88 at-bats.

He hit 16 homers in 469 at-bats with the 2006 Pirates. 

Alex Anthopoulos, then assistant GM, saw Bautista’s name on the waiver wire, called assistant GM Tony LaCava and Anthopoulos went to GM J.P. Ricciardi and the Jays put in a claim. The Jays had liked what they saw of Bautista in spring training. 

Bautista arrived Aug. 21, 2008 -- Robinzon Diaz, catcher of the future, was dealt to the Pirates -- assuming the team lead in homers with 12.

* * * 
Once in this memorable season have we seen Bautista frustrated.

It’s a season which included a trip to the all-star game, chasing George Bell’s franchise home run record and getting praise from his dozens of ex-teammates as he makes the rounds.

We saw him at Anaheim Stadium a few hours before the 26th annual State Farm Home Run Derby.

“If one more player asks me why I’m not in the home run derby ....” Bautista said his voice trailing off.

How many people have asked?

“Everyone I’ve spoken to,” Bautista said.

Bautista, surprise AL home run leader at the all-star break was ignored by Major League Baseball in favor or teammate Vernon Wells, Miguel Carera of the Detroit Tigers, Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox.

Bautista did win the Chipola Home Run Derby on alumni weekend in 2009.

“He hit seven the final round,” said Johnson, “We’ve had some battles over the years depending on who shows.”

Johnson has a galaxy of grads: Mat Gamel of the Milwaukee Brewers, Tyler Flowers of the Chicago White Sox; Richie Smith who played at Florida State and Martin. Angels’ Jeff Mathias, who lives in the area, won this spring.

* * *
What do people who knew Bautista in 1999-2000 in the cotton, corn and peanut farming area of Floirda Panhandle think of Bautista.

They knew him long before Bautista took over for departed Alex Rios last August?

“I was one of the first Canadians he ever met,” said Keller. “Jose loves it here, he wants to stay a Blue Jay. He has a good feeling about how Canadians treat him.”
Keller was in Toronto last month to see Bautista and see sister Hilary, 20, Miss Saskatchewan, compete in the Miss Canada contest.

“If I text him right now he’ll get back to me within half an hour,” Johnson said. “He was very competitive in class and on the field.”

He has donated money to the local Liberty County High School to make sure their softball program survived.

“He didn’t let money to go his head,” said Fleck. “He’s a class act. We’ll be friends long after his career is over. It’s nice kicker to say I know the home run leader.

”I played with five or six guys who came through here on the way to the majors Out of all of them, Jose always answer calls. Some guys, I’m not mentioning names, won’t call you back. He’s always been the same Jose. He’s a real guy.”

From almost signing with the Reds, to Chipola, to a Rule V shuttle and now into the Jays record books.