Elliott: Bautista and his flippin' bat head to Braves

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By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

Growing up in the capital of the Dominican Republic in Santo Domingo, Jose Bautista wanted to be just like his favorite player: George Bell.

Bell earned American League honours with the 1987 Toronto Blue Jays. 

Yet when Bell joined the Chicago White Sox he had a blowup with manager Gene LaMont when he was relegated to bench status behind future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and left fielder Bo Jackson. Bell blistered his manager in the press, LaMont challenged his benched slugger behind doors of the manager’s office before Game 3 of the 1993 American League Division Series against the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome.

Without a job that offseason Bell proclaimed, “I ain’t leaving the island for less than $1 million.” Bell’s friends told him “George sometimes you have to take one step backwards, to take two steps forward.” Bell turned down the handful of minor-league offers, retired and remained in the Dominican at San Pedro de Macoris. 

Bautista never won an AL MVP award like Bell but he won consecutive major-league home run titles (2010-11). And unlike Bell, he took a step backward signing a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves and general manager Alex Anthopoulos. If Bautista, now once again a third baseman, makes the 25-man major league roster he will earn $1 million US on a pro-rated basis of what remains in the season. 

Bautista was paid a five-year $70 million deal which expired at the end of the 2016 and then played last year on a one-deal $18 million contract. So much for the theory Bautista was “too stubborn” to accept a minor-league deal.

Bell later took a coaching stint before showing up one spring and being told by the Jays “Oh sorry, we don’t have your salary in the budget this year.” Bell took the next flight home. Still Bell’s name is on the Level of Excellence as Bautista’s name will surely be some day.

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Anthopoulos, as the assistant Jays GM, and Jays scout Tony La Cava, who is still with the Jays, but his picture is on some milk cartoons around the Rogers Centre press room, orchestrated a trade Aug. 21, 2008, acquiring Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates for the latest “Jays catcher of the future,”  Robinzon Diaz, who played 44 games in the majors. 

Bautista will play this season at age 37, turning 38 on Oct. 1, which means he is the same age as Curtis Granderson, the Jays current platoon lead-off man, who hit a grand slam in Wednesday’s 15-5 win over the Kansas City Royals, Bautista is three months younger than Seattle Mariners’ outfielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 39 homers and drove in 119 runs while batting .288 with  a .946 OPS. 

He is younger than Albert Pujols, 38, who hit 23 homers, drove in 101 runs, while batting .286 with a .672 OPS. Plus, he is three years younger and in better shape than his good friend David Ortiz, who retired from the Boston Red Sox after the 2016 season with a .315 average, crushing 38 homers, driving in 127 runs with a 1.021 OPS.

Reporting to the Braves spring facility in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., he is expected to work under instructor Adam Everett for a week and then possibly play for class A Florida Fire Frogs in Kissimmee. The Braves hope he will steadily move upwards through the chain all the way to Atlanta..

“There are certain things you know you’re going to get with Jose,” Anthopoulos told MLB.com. “He’s going to be in tremendous shape. He’s going to work hard and study hard. He comes to win, and he plays to win.

“I learned long ago, you don’t bet against this guy. He’s very proud and very determined. He’s somebody I’ve always said would play into his 40s. I can’t speak to what happened last year with him. He’ll be the first to tell you he didn’t play well.”

The Braves had been one of the teams mentioned in regards to Bautista this winter, along with the Tampa Bay Rays. An agreement was never reached. Bautista was the Pirates’ primary third baseman in 2007 and played in 119 games at third for the Jays (102 starts) from 2008-17. 

Now the question for the six-time All-Star and two-time AL Hank Aaron Award winner is there room at the inn for Bautista at third? 

Third baseman Ryan Flaherty hit a three-run homer, ending a 131-homerless at-bat streak, helping the Braves to a 7-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies Wednesday in his 14th start at third for the Braves first 17 games. And Johan Camargo who played 82 games -- 43 at third -- last season with the Braves as a rookie was activated from the disabled list the same day. The Braves signed Flaherty in the spring out of the Phillies camp after Camargo was injured. 

On a day of comings and goings, first baseman Freddie Freeman departed after he was hit by Phillies reliever Hoby Milner -- son of ex-Jay Brian Milner -- on the left wrist. That would be the same wrist fractured when Aaron Loup hit Freeman a year ago. The Braves did not announce Freeman’s  X-ray results. 

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Flaherty, 31, had played second for the Baltimore Orioles and had chirped Bautista rounding the bases after a homer in the same at-bat he’d been knocked down at the Rogers Centre. And Flaherty knocked Bautista again post game. It was one of the many times Bautista gets knocked down, Bautista gets up and Bautista goes deep dust ups against Baltimore.

When the franchise history of the Blue Jays is written the most important homers off the top will probably look like this

1. Joe Carter off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series at the SkyDome.

2. Robbie Alomar’s “take-that” two-run shot to right field after Dennis Eckersley had ended the previous inning striking out Ed Sprague and firing an imaginary six gun into the Jays first base dugout in Oakland.

3. Sprague’s two-run pinch hit homer in Game 2 off the 1992 World Series in Atlanta. If Sprague does not go deep, the Jays come home 2-0, rather than 1-1.

Yet, how many of those homers were hit while the riot squad was marshalling at Queen’s Park? None.

Plate ump Dale Scott had waved Rougned Odor back to third after Russell Martin’s throw to Aaron Sanchez kicked off Shin-Soo Choo’s bat into no man’s land. The play was overruled and Odor scored. Tensions were high as an iceless CN Tower.

Or how many of those homers were hit with Jays fans firing beer cans from the 500 level -- most only reaching the 100 level? Stay classy Toronto. John Gibbons remembers one whizzing past his head. “For a second I thought Paul Beeston threw it ... but then I saw it was full, so I know it was not his.”

The Jays right-fielder hit a three-run homer off Texas Rangers reliever Sam Dyson to move the Jays onto the AL Championship Series against the Royals. And perhaps you have seen a clip of it. The ball disappears. All the announcers screamed. 

And Bautista throws the bat towards the Rangers dugout in utter “Get Off My Lawn, Get out of Dodge, Now!” disgust. The kids tell me that is a mike drop.

Bautista hit at least 20 homers each of the past eight seasons, but batted .203 with 23 homers and a .674 OPS last year with the Jays.

Anthopoulos said Bautista made the decision to bet on himself by accepting the minor-league assignment almost a month into the season.

I would not bet against Bautista.

Not a guy who survived the Rule V year from hell: claimed by the Baltimore Orioles from the Pirates at the 2003 winter meetings; he was claimed on waivers June 3 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; had his contract purchased June 28, by the Kansas City Royals and on July 30 traded not once but twice: from the Royals to the New York Mets and from the Mets to the Pirates.

In 228 days he was a part of five different organizations, appeared in 41 games, collected 10 hits and zero homers.

Not a guy who did not become an everyday player until the White Sox claimed Alex Rios after the trade deadline and he hit 10 homers in the final two months of 2009.

Not a guy who compares, according to the good folks at baseball-reference to Jeromy Burnitz, Troy Glaus, Pat (The Bat) Burrell, Darryl Strawberry, Greg Vaughn, Eric Davis and Edwin Encarnacion. Hey I remember that last guy. He could hit a dramatic homer come wild card time too.

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The Canuck bomber: The St. Louis Cardinals promoted Tyler O’Neill from triple-A Memphis where he knocked down fences under reining International League manager of the year Stubby Clapp. O’Neill joined the Cards at Wrigley, where they will play the Chicago Cubs. In 12 games, O’Neill was hitting .388 with six homers, 18 RBIs and a 1.221 OPS. Since opening day 2015, he has 93 homers in 378 games -- missing three weeks to win the 2015 Pan Ams in Ajax -- at class-A Bakersfield, double-A Jackson, triple-A Tacoma and Memphis.

He texted his former Langley Blaze coach Doug Mathieson in Aldergrove, B.C. that he wanted a red Blaze t-shirt to wear under his jersey. He could play centre if Tommy Pham isn’t 100% recovered.

At the 2012 Canada Cup, at London’s Labatt Park we spoke to Mathieson, now a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, before the gold medal final. He introduced me to O’Neill. When coaches go out of their way to introduce you to someone it has been my experience it’s either because he’s a stud with a future or he’s a fave. O’Neill was both.

Mathieson and I spoke as O’Neill headed towards the dugout. Mathieson said “Hey, didn’t you forget something?” I looked around thinking O’Neill had dropped a batting glove. He came back, shook my hand and said, “Pleasure to meet you sir.” O’Neill is from Maple Ridge, BC and played at Larry Walker Field. 


Email of the week: “The torch has been passed: from Munenori Kawasaki to Jason Grilli to Yangervis Solarte. The Jays have the spirit back.” Ah, Kawasaki has 22 extra bases for the Jays, hitting .242 in 201 games with a .617 OPS. Grilli had two saves, blew two and had 21 holds after coming over in a June 1 deal from the Braves in 2016 to stabilized the bullpen. He pitched with emotion. Solarte plays the same way but has played less than 20 games. 

Unanswered questions: How much money is each day in Florida costing Josh Donaldson on the free agent market OR re-signing with the Jays while he is on the disabled list? ... Ryan Goins was a nice player, but why do some people insist on calling him young Ryan Goins. He is older than Clayton Kershaw ... How much will the cost of repairing the ice falling through the roof affect plans to make the Rogers Centre less like a dungeon? Even if they remove some concrete it will still be impossible to see the lake because of the condos.  

NY memory: The first time I went to old Yankee Stadium the late harness driver Buddy Gilmour scored us four tickets for Game 6 and 7 of the 1977 World Series. At the last minute two guys cancelled so here we were two rubes from Kingston going to Manhattan for the first time. We were way downtown as it started to rain and it was time to catch a cab to the Bronx. For half an hour we failed trying to hail  a cab. Finally we saw a guy on a side street reading the New York Post.

“You a ball fan?” Yep. Yankees. Mets suck. “Going to the game?” I wish. “We’ll give you two tickets if you drive us there right now.” Sure. 

He stopped in the 80s to pick up his gal. He was a former MP in the Marines and just out after serving in Hawaii. He had inside his lunch basket a a tire iron in case of muggers. So for the tickets, we had a tour guide, a body guard and a driver. 

That night Reggie Jackson walked in his first at-bat. He homered off Burt Hooton in the fourth, off Elias Sosa in the fifth and Charlie Hough in the eighth. We sat way up behind home plate and scored the game. Am glad I was not writing. The next day at lunch I read in Dave Anderson’s New York Times piece Jackson had only swung the bat three times.

Twas the coldest spring ever: Wednesday’s postponement at Wrigley Field marked the 25th of the young season. That matches the 2007 record for most postponements through April. Previous totals through April were: 2017: 12; 2016: 11; 2015: six; 2014: 18 and 2013: 18.