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"I could recognize balls and strikes well," Bautista says in agreement, "but I used to go out of the strike zone because I felt like I had to prove myself. I always felt like if I didn't get three hits in a game, I would be on the bench the next day. And then, last year, it was different. I felt so good, I was hitting the ball so well, that I felt like I could hit everything." This year, Bautista says, he feels a calmness unlike anything he's experienced before. He's hitting .336. He averages about a walk per game.
"I know I'm in the lineup," he says by way of explanation. The Blue Jays signed him to a five-year, $65 million deal before the season began. There were many who felt that Toronto had, based on one fluky season, overpaid Bautista. Now, with Bautista playing better than anyone else in the game, the deal looks like an alltime bargain.
"Surprised?" Manto asks. "No, I'm not surprised. I saw Jose when he was young. I know what he's about. It takes more time for some people. He couldn't get regular playing time. He bounced around. But he was going to keep working until he got to where he was going."
The one surprise for Bautista? The home runs. He did not expect to hit 54 of them last year. Even after that, he did not expect to be on pace to hit 50 again. He does not see himself as a home run hitter. The home runs are a by-product, he says, of working into good counts and crushing pitchers' mistakes. "He ignores pitches that are not in his zone," Murphy says. "He has the discipline to just let them go. And those are mostly balls anyway."
"So now I'm facing 2--0 fastballs, 3--1 fastballs, and those are the best pitches to hit," Bautista says, and he seems almost sheepish as he says it. When asked if he resents the home runs because they, more than anything, have inspired the whispers (turn 25 of last year's home runs into doubles and Bautista's rise might be universally admired), he takes a second or two to think about it.
"Nah," he says. "I'll take the home runs. They help the team."
AMAZING TRUE SPORTS STORY: Outfielder Jose Bautista
He was often the smallest kid on the Dominican fields growing up. He was a 20th-round draft pick, and he played for four teams his first year. He had a .238 career batting average when he turned 29. He then became the best player in baseball. "I guess I can see why people think I came out of nowhere," he says. "But I didn't. I got the chance. I always believed."
Bautista sits around a table with mobsters. That's the premise, anyway, of a promotion Major League Baseball has filmed for its fan cave, a downtown Manhattan studio where two fans have been conscripted to watch every game of the 2011 season. Bautista is preparing to reenact the Robert De Niro baseball bat scene from The Untouchables with The Sopranos' Steve Schirripa and other actors.
In that famous movie moment, De Niro beats a man to death with a bat. In this more fan-friendly scene, Bautista introduces himself as Joey Bats—also his Twitter name—and sees a laughing baseball at the table. "He should know better," Joey Bats says as he points at the ball. "He shouldn't be near me unless he wants to get whacked."