Bautista should be basking in career year

I hope you saw what Jose Bautista did on Thursday night. And I hope you enjoyed it free of skepticism.

In Toronto’s 13-2 shellacking of Minnesota, the major-league home run leader added No. 53 and No. 54 to his remarkable season. And he did so with an entertainer’s flair.

In the seventh inning, he sat on a 3-1 fastball from submarine right-hander Pat Neshek. The bat whipped through the zone, Bautista’s hands moving faster than Ginger Baker’s ever did. The result was a colossal shot into the hard-to-reach third deck at Target Field. It was Bautista’s second grand slam this year.

In the ninth inning, he lunged at a down-and-away heater from left-hander Jose Mijares. The ball took off toward right – a little unusual for Bautista. (Note: If you appreciate “using the whole field” and “going the other way,” then he is not your guy. He doesn’t see the point.)

Bautista, in fact, had not hit a home run to the opposite field all year. This was the first. It dropped into the right-field overhang. Rare is the player who hits 30 home runs in 70 games after the All-Star break, as Bautista has.

The performance was noteworthy, although the game itself was not. So it has gone this season for Bautista, the still-underappreciated slugger whose Jays will finish out of the playoffs for a 17th consecutive year.

And if you caught Thursday’s highlights, I hope you turned to the person next to you and said, “Man, what a year for that guy. Good for him.”

But it’s possible that someone out there arched a skeptical eyebrow and uttered an audible, “Hmm.” If that was you, please allow me to explain why Bautista deserves admiration, not suspicion.

We know that Major League Baseball hasn’t completely eradicated performance-enhancing drug use from the sport. We know that MLB isn’t testing for human growth hormone, thus leaving a foothold for cynics. But we also know that the current testing program, which is quite strong, has scared straight many would-be cheaters.

And then there is this, the most commonsense argument of all: Baseball players produced 50-homer seasons long before steroid use infiltrated the game. Why, then, should we question Bautista’s achievement now, at a time when players are tested multiple times each year and there is zero evidence that he ran afoul of the rules?

There are perfectly legitimate baseball reasons for what Bautista, 29, has accomplished. He worked with Jays manager Cito Gaston and batting coach Dwayne Murphy to retool his swing last year, resulting in a 10-homer September (to end a 13-homer year).

Obviously, Bautista carried the good habits into this year. He is recognizing pitches exceptionally well. He is swinging mightily at the strikes and laying off the balls. Sounds easy. It’s not.

The next walk will be his 100th this year.

“He’s selective,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said this week. “When you look at the home runs that he’s hit, he’s not a wild swinger. … That’s probably a big reason he’s hit so many home runs. He’s making people throw him strikes, and he’s not getting behind in the count.”

Bautista’s midcareer renaissance should be one of the best baseball stories this year. Here we have a journeyman – discarded by the Pittsburgh Pirates two years ago – remaking his approach to the game.

Instead, we are left to wonder if many fans have lost the ability to be inspired by the unexpected feats of a professional athlete. If you’re unnecessarily cynical to the point of disbelief, why watch in the first place?

“One thing is to say that, given the history of baseball and what happened in the past, it gets people to think and wonder,” Bautista said during an interview in Toronto this week.

“But another thing is to say that I’m on steroids. If people would be saying that I’m on steroids, I would be really upset. That’s not the type of person I am. I don’t accomplish things that way. I’m a very hard worker. And I know what’s led to my success.

“I know what the history of baseball was. And if being successful and hitting home runs is going to make people ask me questions, I don’t care if I have to answer them, because I have nothing to hide. So, I’m not worried about that.”

Bautista’s willingness to answer questions on the issue is impressive – and not surprising, given his thoughtful nature. But doesn’t he deserve better?

His parents, who reside in the Dominican Republic, grew concerned about their son’s image after hearing about speculation in the U.S. Aren’t they supposed to be busy accepting congratulations from everyone in town?

“That bothered me a little bit,” Bautista acknowledged. “They know how I do things, how I’ve accomplished things my whole life.”

Bautista has been an easy target for critics, because he wasn’t a “name” player before this year and lacked a strong big-league track record. But there is also a double-standard at work here.

Players and pitchers of every shape and size used PEDs during what Alex Rodriguez, noted baseball historian, has called the “Loosey-Goosey Era.” Yet, in this year of dominant pitching, has there been any speculation about whether the no-hitters, perfect games or otherworldly statistics were chemically enhanced? Of course not. Any such suggestion would be absurd.

The same goes for Bautista.

“We have a testing program in place that is the most strict in professional sports,” Bautista said. “I don’t know what else, as an industry, baseball can do. It’s been in place for six years. Everybody talks about how it’s in the past. It’s time that it’s gone in baseball.”

Those are the words of the man who should be able to enjoy his newfound place in baseball history. No evidence. No asterisk. No doubt.