ICYMI Elliott: Bautista recalls his Chipola College roots

Jose Bautista models the new 2012 Blue Jays uniform. Photo: Dave Abel. 

Jose Bautista models the new 2012 Blue Jays uniform. Photo: Dave Abel. 

Originally published Feb. 13, 2012

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

What’s the biggest worry for the 2012 Blue Jays?

Well, it’s not trying to get by every five days without right-hander Yu Darvish, according to slugger Jose Bautista.

“We have to stay healthy,” said Bautista after participating in the fifth annual Chipola College alumni weekend. He was a star player for the Chipola Indians from 2000-2001.

“Last year we had too many guys miss too much time. Almost every position player went down at one time or another - everyone but J.P. Arencibia was hurt.”

The line to trainer George Poulis’ room was long: Adam Lind missed 24 games, second baseman Aaron Hill 16, third baseman Brett Lawrie was hit by a pitch at triple-A Las Vegas delaying his arrival and shortstop Yunel Escobar was injured for 16 games.

Outfielders Colby Rasmus (21 games), Rajai Davis (58 games) and Travis Snider, before he was demoted, also missed time.

In all 19 players went on the disabled list 21 times. Even Bautista was sidelined - with a neck injury - but still managed a team-high 149 game starts.

Escobar was next with 131 starts, followed by Lind at 125, and Edwin Encarnacion and Arencbia with 122 each.

“We had inconsistent starting pitching, with young guys breaking in,” Bautista said. “And we had the worst bullpen in the majors - I’m stating a fact (the Jays led the majors with 25 blown saves).

“So we had a lot of guys injured, our starters were up and down, our bullpen struggled AND we still finished at .500. If we stay healthy, we can be better.”

Darvish signed with the Texas Rangers, after the Rangers submitted the winning bid when for four days both New York Yankees and Rangers scouts thought the Jays had won the sealed-bid process.

“One guy is not going to be a saviour for any team, (Jays GM) Alex Anthopoulous knows what he is doing,” said the right fielder of his general manager.

“It’s ownership’s decision to give him the money. They’ve got the money.

“We must have one of the richest owners in baseball (Rogers Communications), they bought part of the hockey team right?”

Bautista said he was aware of anger directed towards the Jays when Darvish signed with the Rangers,

“That shows people care and that’s good,” said Bautista. “Hopefully we can get back to the early 1990s when we had four million in attendance.”

Bautista said he didn’t think “Alex will compromise his plan,” which consists of rebuilding through the draft and not handing out nine and 10-year contracts.

“Tampa Bay does a great job keeping costs down and still being able to compete with the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox,” Bautista said.

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“Is it really true?” asked the woman, finally reaching the head of the line of autograph seekers, with her Blue Jays cap, a ball inside a Rawlings box and her young son in tow late Saturday afternoon.

“Was this really the first place you ever played when you came to the United States?” she asked Bautista in a slow drawl.

“Yes, ma’am,” Bautista answered as he signed.

“Well, isn’t that wonderful,” the woman said.

He signed about 300 autographs and posed for cell-phone pictures with the San Jacinto College team from Houston.

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This town of 6,000 ranks far down the scale of top Florida destinations.

There isn’t a Disney World or a Sea World theme park to visit.

There’s not anything to match Miami’s South Beach or Clearwater’s sandy beaches where snowbirds travel.

Yet, this is where you can find slugger Bautista, who never forgets his roots, each February as he returns for alumni weekend.

Why come to northern Florida in 40-degree temperatures before training camp opens in Dunedin?

“Why not come back? This is my family,” says Bautista.

Located in the Florida panhandle, tucked 20 minutes from the Alabama border, this is where Bautista landed in the fall of 1999 after the Cincinnati Reds failed to sign him.

“We’ve grown into a fraternity, this is a chance to catch up with what’s going on in other’s lives,” said Bautista after winning the alumni home-run derby for the first time. “Coming back is not a hard decision to make.”

A year ago Bautista’s uniform was retired by Chipola coach Jeff Johnson and now a blue metal uniform top sporting No. 19 hangs in right field alongside Buck Showalter’s No. 1.

Showalter played for coach Ellis Dungan, who later became a Jays scout signing Gabe Gross, Mark Whiten and Ryan Freel.

“That was a great honour, I was so proud,” Bautista said. “There are people here I call my family. Not everyone goes to school and has so many people embrace them.”

Bautista boasts he could arrive in town find hotels booked and have no trouble finding a place to stay.

Like where? He rhymes off names: former teammates Robbie Fleck, Jonathan Swearinger, Shawn Larkin, coach Johnson and other coaches.

Johnson booked the party room at Beef O’Brady’s for former players and coaches to talk about the three B’s: baseball, burgers and beer Friday night.

“Every year I’m a meaner coach than I was the year before,” said Johnson jokingly. “Every year the stories have me yelling at them louder and longer. But they keep coming back.”

As players talked, two TVs were tuned to the MLB Network. When a spot aired on Florida Marlins Josh Johnson, Bautista said “he’s nasty, one of the nastiest. The only young guy on our staff close to Johnson is Henderson Alvarez.”

Then, Bautista moved his hand in a downward motion to illustrate how much Alvarez’s ball dipped.

Besides Bautista, the two-time, major league home-run leader, who led all vote getters with seven million in all-star balloting, Johnson has coached Russell Martin, now of the New York Yankees, Adam Loewen now with the New York Mets, Mat Gamel of the Milwaukee Brewers and Tyler Flowers of the Chicago White Sox over his 16 years.

Not bad for a school which has a total enrollment of 2,274 full-time students.

They held a $100-a-plate dinner at a banquet hall Saturday night.

“There’s not a lot to do here,” said second-year outfielder Sasha LaGarde (Pierrefonds, Que.) “As a result all teams become like families.”

In 2007, the ball team, the softball team (which watched the Indians play before and after their practice on a nearby field), plus both the men’s and women’s hoops teams all won either the state or national titles.

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Charles Tatom turns 84 in March.

“Came here to play football in the fall of ‘48 as a running back,” Tatom said. “I played for the basketball team in the winter and in the spring caught for the ball team.

“We were one of the first junior colleges in the state so we played class-D teams across the Georgia line, town teams and the Navy team.”

Tatom, who isn’t backward about being forward, told Bautista he was the oldest living Chipola Indian.

“You know what? Jose Bautista asked me for my autograph,” Tatom said. “He’s the best player I ever saw.

“Does he still field the ball and do that little hop in the outfield before throwing the ball?”

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Currently the Chipola diamond has a grandstand with a clubhouse, manager’s office, weight room and meeting room.

Only the dirt and grass were there when Bautista wore the blue and yellow for Chipola.

“They had a little shack for a grader (to do work on the infield), there were metal benches and pine trees ringed the outfield,” Bautista said.

Players dressed in dorms and hitched a ride on the back of a truck for a lift to the park.

“Here they all are trying to get drafted or transfer to a four-year school,” said Sam Efurd, part of the campus police since 1991 “and they come down the hill hanging out of the back of someone’s pick up truck.

“I had to yell at them to get in the truck, ‘Stop hangin’ on.’”

The trees are gone, cut down after becoming infested.

Chipola president Dr. Gene Prough said money was raised at $25 a pop until enough was raised so the state would match the amount with a grant.

The estimated median household income was $20,608 in 2009, down from $23,861 in 2000, according to city-data.com stats.

After games and after practice, Bautista, along with pals Moises Feliz and Fernando Isa, staged “after practice,” to give each other tips.

Feliz is in banking in Cumberland, Tenn., while Isa is a pharmaceutical rep in Louisville.

“Jose was a stud then, just as he is now,” said Feliz.

When the Cincinnati Reds didn’t agree to sign Bautista, Donald Odermann, who helps place Latin players at American universities, stepped in to make things click.

“Donald worked in the Peace Corps, married a woman from Puerto Rico, so he understood the Latin culture and wanted to help,” Bautista said.

“I was lucky Donald’s guy brought an outfielder in here and coach Johnson said he needed an infielder.”

Besides the Jays slugger, Moises Alou (Canada College in Redlands, Calif.) and Rafael Bournigal (Florida State) are two other major leaguers to come through the program which has placed 200 players in school.

Where did Bautista - known as Hosey (like former Red Sox Dwayne Hosey) rather than Joey Bats - eat as an 18-year old? He and his pals would dine at the Fortune Cookie, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Burger King or Hungry Howie’s Pizza ($5 with delivery in 2000).

“I was a skinny 150 lbs. I needed the carbs,” Bautista said. “We’d go anywhere to eat with who ever was driving. We didn’t have a car. We drove by the Fortune Cookie today, still there, but it’s called something else.”

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Former catcher Robbie Fleck arrived from his softball tournament in time to see the home-run derby.

Fleck told us the story a couple of years ago of Bautista’s first day when “this skinny kid, with big ears, showed carrying his cleats in a plastic bag,” according to Fleck.

“Being a bunch of country red necks we asked ‘Just get off the boat?’ We were laughing at him.”

The giggles stopped on the field. Bautista caught a ball in centre and fired a “laser” home. In the cage he bounced one off the gym 450 feet away in left.

Said Fleck: “We quit messing with him. We knew he was legit.”

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Is it a stretch to say Bautista was accepted at Chipola and given the chance to play in 2000 and didn’t get another chance until Jays’ Alexis Rios was claimed on waivers by the White Sox in 2009?

“That’s not right,” Bautista said. “I had a chance in 2007 playing third with the Pirates. We had Xavier Nady, Nate McClouth and Jason Bay in the field. Most of the time I played third and hit eighth, which isn’t easy in the National League.”

Vernon Wells was once asked after a two-homer, five-RBI game if he had justified his salary? He said no and added there is no way he could ever justify what he earned.

“I disagree with Vernon,” Bautista said. “In baseball you get paid for what you have done. So, when Vernon was hitting .317, with 33 homers and 117 RBIs, he was earning $500,000 or whatever.”

Bautista did not have the same poor upbringing as some former Jays from the Dominican. He came from a middle class family - his father is an agricultural engineer, his mother was an accountant (“that’s where he got his smarts,” said former roomie Fernando Isa).

He’s yet to give them a gift after signing his five-year, $65 million contract extension a year ago, saying he prefers to look after his parents when his father stops working as a poultry consultant.

“I want to give them a retirement that they’ll both be happy with, that’s more important and longer lasting than one single gift,” Bautista said.

He will not forget his roots in the Dominican.

And he has not forgotten his early days at Chipola were coach Johnson gave the seedling room to grow.

Toronto Blue JaysBob Elliott