Time to admire Jose Bautista's greatness

Jose Bautista leads the majors with 16 home runs and a .370 batting average. AP Photo/Jim Mone

We ignore Jose Bautista. At best, we politely pay half-attention, not ready or willing to acknowledge the numbers he's putting up and maybe hoping he stops. The Blue Jays' right fielder leads the major leagues in batting average, home runs, runs scored, total bases, on-base and slugging percentage and OPS. Bautista is the tree in the forest. Yes, we hear, but why do we pretend not to? He's a quiet, understated man who plays for a Canadian team that is virtually ignored in the U.S., even among baseball fans. Where is he from? Why is he never on TV? Does he speak English? How did he get so good?

Is he taking steroids?

It's that last question that's our greatest fear and, let's be honest, a main reason Bautista's spectacular performance has yet to be given its due. We're afraid he's using PEDs, and that's an issue we're all tired of dealing with. Our energy and attention spans regarding the steroid era are exhausted; we're Barry Bondsed out. Bonds, however, might wind up being the name that surfaces here. Look at the similarities between Bonds' numbers through the Giants' first 40 games of 2001, when Bonds hit 73 home runs at the age of 36, and Bautista's numbers at age 30, through the Blue Jays' first 40 games of 2011.

Bautista is hitting home runs at a historic pace and he's doing it in what we like to refer to as the post-steroids era. So we watch and hold our collective breath, hoping we're not being lured into enthusiasm for a home run chase that degenerates into something like the joyless march to the inevitable through which we all slogged in 2007, when Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs.

J.P. Ricciardi, now a special assistant to Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, was the Blue Jays' GM who brought Bautista to Toronto. "The commissioner has done a great job of cleaning up the game," he told me. "There is definitely testing going on. You don't think this guy's getting tested? Obviously he's passed every test. Everybody's skeptical about certain things. This guy has had to have gone through the whole process and nothing has come up on this guy. He's being tested like everyone else. I never thought he was a steroid guy and I don't believe he is."

Since May 15, 2010, Bautista has hit 63 home runs -- 22 more than Albert Pujols' next-best total of 41. Remarkable considering that in his first 1800 career at-bats, Bautista hit just 60 home runs. Born in the Dominican Republic, Bautista attended junior college in the U.S. and speaks fluent English with no trace of a language barrier. Selected by the Pirates in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, he became a Rule 5 pick by the Orioles, but was later waived. "He never really got to play," Ricciardi said. "Those guys get passed along." During a two-month span of 2004, Bautista passed through the Orioles, Devil Rays, Royals, Mets and back to the Pirates. With Pittsburgh from 2006 through 2008, he never hit more than 16 home runs in a season. In August of 2008, he was sent to Toronto for a player to be named. "Any team could have had him," Ricciardi said. "He was on waivers. We thought he might be a super-utility guy and now he's recreated himself."

Bautista's evolution has produced a .708 slugging percentage over the last calendar year, more than 100 points higher than reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, and a 1.129 OPS that is the best in the majors. I asked Ricciardi what suddenly changed. "He's the Karate Kid -- you watch him, he's wax on wax off," he said. "He would take batting practice and absolutely put on a show, hit 10 into the second deck, high and far and deep -- and then in the game, he'd get very rotational. His timing on his front foot wouldn't be right. He'd either be late and try and rush everything and make up for it with his body instead of making his hands work. When he was early, his front side would come with him and he would never get to his power because he'd always be drifting toward the pitcher. Now he's timing on his front foot and hitting down through the ball and not being rotational."

A generic team now dressed in odd, denim-colored uniforms and black hats, the Blue Jays seem eons removed from Joe Carter's jubilant trip around the World Series bases. Given Toronto's lot in the AL East, competing against more lucrative franchises like the Yankees and Red Sox, some fans might believe the Blue Jays will never see the postseason again in their lifetimes. Without consistent national television exposure, it's easier to rationalize overlooking Bautista's place in the game. "If he was playing in New York or Boston, forget it," Ricciardi said. "They'd be erecting statues of him. I love the kid. I honestly love the kid. He's a great person and all the things that are happening to him couldn't happen to a better guy."

Fifty-four home runs last season was enough to say "Wow," but not enough to force historic comparisons or stare the PED issue square in the face again. The consensus reaction to Bonds' perjury trial this year might best be described as our long national indifference. I hope we don't remain indifferent to Bautista, or to the Blue Jays for that matter. Bautista is the best hitter in baseball and, eventually, we have to relax and trust what we're seeing again.

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