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"The thing you have to understand about Jose," says Jeff Manto, who was Bautista's hitting coach in Pittsburgh, "is that this guy had to succeed. He had some kind of will. Every at bat mattered. Every pitch mattered. If anything, he wanted success too much."
Bautista does remember being reasonably happy that day: The roof of the Rogers Centre was open, and sunlight poured in. And, hey, he was in the Blue Jays' lineup. That was something. Bautista was closing in on 29 years old, he had been passed around from bad team to bad team and none of them had given him a chance. The Pirates thought so little of him that they left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft in 2003, when he was taken by the Orioles. He was given 12 plate appearances in Baltimore in '04, and after one fly ball flew over his head in the outfield, according to legend, Orioles owner Peter Angelos said, "Get rid of him." Tampa Bay scooped him up and gave him 15 plate appearances. The Kansas City Royals bought him and let him go to the plate 26 times before trading him to the Mets, who that same day rerouted him back to Pittsburgh. "I mean no disrespect," Bautista says, "but these were all bad teams. I thought, One of these teams is going to give me a chance. But they didn't."
The Pirates gave him 43 plate appearances that season, but he spent most of 2005 in Double A Altoona. He was given one shot as an everyday player, in '07. In mid-June he was hitting around .280 and was among the league leaders in doubles. But except for a brief power surge in late August, he more or less stopped hitting that summer. "I was terrible," he admits. "I was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. I felt this pressure to crush every pitch just so I could stay in the lineup."
"What stood out with Jose was his amazing bat speed," Manto says. "It was way, way off the charts. We'd watch this guy and think, If this ever clicks, look out.... But you say that about a lot of guys. For some of them, it never does click."
The Pirates kept him around for most of the next season, but it was clear they had lost their enthusiasm. "I went into the office and asked, 'What do you see in me?' " Bautista says. "And they told me—not in so many words—that they really did not see me as part of their future. I said, 'Well, if that's the case, can you give me a chance to go somewhere else?' They said, 'Well, we don't really let players make those sorts of decisions, but we'll look into it.' " On Aug. 21, 2008, they dumped Bautista on Toronto for a player to be named later.
And the Blue Jays, like every team before, had no place for him. They just wanted a spare part. But late in the 2009 season, after they shed the big money contracts of Scott Rolen and Alex Rios, there was an opening. Cito Gaston, manager of the Blue Jays, said, "Jose, I see something in you. This is your chance."
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: Quarterback Kurt Warner
He did not start at Northern Iowa until his senior season. He played well enough to get an invitation to the Green Bay Packers' camp in 1994, but he was released before the start of the season. He stocked groceries at the Hy-Vee store in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He also played Arena football for three seasons and did well enough to get an invitation to the Chicago Bears' camp in '97. But he was bitten by a spider and had to miss the camp. In '98 he played football in Amsterdam and became the third-string quarterback of the St. Louis Rams. In '99 he was moved to second string. Then starter Trent Green got hurt. Then Kurt Warner threw 41 touchdown passes and led the Rams to victory over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, where he was named the Most Valuable Player.
On Sept. 10, 2009, the Minnesota Twins started a big, strong righthander named Scott Baker. Bautista had never faced Baker before, but that did not matter. He knew what to expect. Every day was the same. Baker would try to bust him inside with fastballs. Everybody tried to pound Jose Bautista with inside fastballs back then. He could not hit that pitch. The best he could do was foul it off, and he often could not do even that.
"You're late!" batting coach after batting coach had shouted at him while he flailed away in the cage.