I remember with great clarity the very first time I saw Jose Bautista step into the batters box at PNC Park. The date was August 11, 2004 and the Pittsburgh Pirates were 53-58 – still well within striking distance of their first non-losing season in over a decade. Bautista was an interesting story, having bounced around the majors all summer as a Rule 5 player. He had started the campaign in Baltimore, where the Orioles were essentially languishing as the Pirates A.L. doppelganger.
The Orioles had been non-competitive since 1997, outclassed and outspent by their A.L. East brethren – the Yankees and Red Sox. The Orioles had snatched the promising 20-year-old player in the 2003 Rule 5 Draft back in December after the team that had drafted ad developed him – the Pittsburgh Pirates – sat back and watched. Bautista had been mediocre at best in his budding professional career, a light-hitting platoon-type without a true position.
After playing in just 16 games for the 1994 Orioles –a squad that boasted a list of aging former All Stars like 1B Rafael Palmeiro, C Javy Lopez, Utilityman B.J. Surhoff, and OF Tim Raines – Bautista was allowed to be plucked off waivers by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He spent a total of 12 games in sunny St. Petersburg for the Devil Rays before being sold to the Kansas City Royals on June 28. The Royals were the worst team in the American League and they would roster a league-high 33 position players before the year was over.
Bautista arrived in Kansas City just in time for a string of games where the Royals would go 2-11, accumulating a total of 26 plate appearances and a slash line of .200/.231/.240. It took just two weeks for the Royals to decide that Bautista was not the man they were looking for, and he was traded to the New York Mets on July 30 for 1B/OF Justin Huber. On that same day – mere hours after becoming a Met – Bautista was traded back to the Pittsburgh Pirates along with 1B/3B Ty Wiggington in the infamous Kris Benson trade. Despite never playing an inning for New York, Bautista was in fact added to the Mets active roster on July 30. The trade to the Pirates made Bautista the first and only player to ever be on five different major league rosters in the same season.
Back to that fateful night at PNC Park, Bautista started in right field for the Bucs and went 0-for-2 with a strikeout before giving way to pinch-hitter Rob Mackowiak in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Pirates would go on to win the game that night 8-6 in 11 innings when Craig Wilson drilled a walk-off, two-run home run off of San Francisco Giants RP Dustin Hermanson. The game was the fifth contest that Bautista had suited up in the Pirates jersey, the start if what would be an enigmatic five-year run with Pittsburgh.
Nicknamed “Joey Bats” by the Pirates broadcast team, Bautista would find minimal success with the Pirates, despite being given every opportunity to win a starting position for the club. He would play mostly outfield from 2004-2006 before the Pirates traded away incumbent Joe Randa and moved budding All Star Freddy Sanchez to second base, opening the door for Bautista to become the starting third baseman the Pirates had been searching for ever since giving way 3B Aramis Ramirez to Chicago in 2003. Bautista was inserted into the lineup in every way possible – leading off, batting second, even hitting clean up some nights – and by 2007 he was the man at the hot corner at PNC Park.
Defensively, he was well below average. Offensively, he had some moments but ultimately he was a disappointment. In 2007, he would rack up 126 games at third base for the Bucs, as well as spending time in all three outfield slots. Manager Jim Tracy was high on the now 27-year-old and Pirates brass was intent on waiting out his hitting woes as long as possible. He would hit a respectable .254/15/63 in 2007 over 142 games, but in 2008 the Pirates moved on from Tracy to new manager John Russell and made a major trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox that sent slugger Jason Bay to Boston and brought highly-touted third base prospect Andy LaRoche to Pittsburgh.
From his first day in Pittsburgh, LaRoche was handed the third base job and told to run with it. Jose Bautista became a utility player for the 67-95 Pirates. Eventually, a platoon situation evolved where Bautista was inserted based on match-ups. His 2008 season was mirroring his 2007 campaign until he bottomed out in the second half. After hitting just .157 after the All Star Break in 2008, the Pirates were determined to shed his $1.8 million contract. On August 21, 2008 Bautista was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in a straight dump move – the Pirates would receive a player to be named later from the Blue Jays. Four days later, Toronto sent Catcher Robinzon Diaz – a career minor-leaguer who had only 14 major league plate appearances – to the Pirates to complete the trade. The deal went totally under the radar in Pittsburgh, with many fans just happy to see Bautista gone. His inability to drive in RISP and lackluster defense had made him very unpopular with Pirates fans. His morale had gone downhill since losing his starting start, and Bautista was simply an unneeded player in the Pirates current “youth movement” based around Sanchez, LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, and newly-found power hitter Garrett Jones.
Bautista went to Toronto in 2008 and struggled just as he had in Pittsburgh. In 2009, he put up a typical Jose Bautista season (.235/13/40) while playing mainly as a forth outfielder for the 75-87 Cito Gaston-led Blue Jays. However, the Blue Jays were acquiring others in similar career paths as Bautista. The Cincinnati Reds gave up on struggling third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and dealt him to Toronto for aging Scott Rolen. Both deals brought the Blue Jays two similar players in Bautista and Encarnacion; both had talent but needed a change of scenery.
Toward the end of 2009, the Blue Jays made wholesale changes to both their front office and on-field coaching staff. One change that went unnoticed at the time was the promotion of Dwayne Murphy from first base coach to hitting coach to replace the retiring Gene Tenace. Murphy had been the hitting coach during the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks World Series run, a season which saw Luis Gonzalez, Reggie Sanders, and others enjoy career years at the dish. Murphy was a guru of sorts around the game, spending time all around the Toronto minor league system as a roving instructor and being credited with the success of 1B Adam Lind, 2B Aaron Hill and young Cuban SS Yunel Escobar. The promotion of Murphy has been credited with the complete turn around of Jose Bautista as a hitter. He spent an entire year with Bautista, teaching him to utilize his pull power by hinging his swing on a high leg kick. Bautista went from a player destined to be a career journeyman to the premier power hitter in the major leagues in the span of one year.
In the final month of 2009, Bautista hit 10 home runs. That power surge carried over in a major way to 2010, when “Joey Bats” finally lived up to the nickname given to him by Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown years earlier. He set virtually every team record for power production in 2010 – hitting 54 home runs, driving in 103 RBI, and posting an OPS of .995. In 2011, Bautista proved that he was no fluke. He once again dominated the American League, hitting 43 home runs and driving in 103 RBI while adding a league-leading 132 walks and 1.056 OPS. His record-setting numbers made him a household name across the Country, and earned him a five-year $64 million contract extension that made him one of the highest paid players in the game.
While injuries cut short his 2012 season, he still managed to hit 27 homeruns in just 399 plate appearances and made his third consecutive All Star Game appearance. So far in 2013, Bautista has shown no signs of letting down, hitting 20 home runs and driving in 54 RBI for the underachieving Blue Jays. While in the game today, we will always hear rumors of PED and steroid usage, Bautista has never been linked to any illegal substances. He is – and at just 32 years old – should continue to be one of the premier power hitters in the game and the face of the Blue Jays franchise, a storied team with a rabid and faithful fan base. The other player the Jays took a chance on, Encarnaion, has blossomed into a slugger in his own right. His 2012 season was off the charts (.280/42/110) and he is at it again in 2013. While much credit is given to the Blue Jays for their patience with both players, it is hard to argue that Dwayne Murphy (now the first base an outfield coach) had a massive impact on the development of both Bautista and Encarnacion.
Did the Pittsburgh Pirates make a mistake in giving up on “Joey Bats” too soon? Most fans who remember watching the young Bautista struggle night after night will argue that the team simply moved a player that was never going to excel in Pittsburgh. The combination of coaching and playing his home games in Rogers Centre both have contributed to the emergence of Bautista. The Pirates have developed a premier power-hitting third baseman in Pedro Alvarez, and while it is fun to imagine what could have been, the odds that Jose Bautista would have become a modern-day version of Babe Ruth while in the black and gold are slim. The Pirates traded away Bautista for nothing, that is the fact that sticks in the crawl of most fans. Diaz played in just 43 games for the Bucs, amounting to a .281/1/20 career line before being allowed to leave as a free agent and bouncing around to five different organizations, never again seeing a major league field.
The story of Chris “Crush” Davis is pretty similar to Bautista, although it took less time for his career to blossom. Davis has been considered a prodigious power hitter since being drafted originally out of high school by the New York Yankees in the 2004 MLB Amateur Draft. He would be drafted three times before finally signing with the Texas Rangers when he was chosen in the fifth round of the 2006 Draft. Davis spent just two seasons in the minor leagues before being rushed to Arlington in the wake of the trade that sent popular All Star first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves on July 31, 2007. Davis was handed the starting first base job for the Rangers during Spring Training 2008 at just 22 years old.
With less than 300 professional games under his belt, he was penciled in to replace Teixeira, who had been the key cog to the Rangers both offensively and defensively since 2003. It was a situation that put massive pressure on a young player who was simply not ready for it. In 2006 – his first professional season- Davis stroked 15 homeruns at Class A-Spokane. In 2007, Davis combined to hit 35 homeruns and drive in 118 RBI between Class A-Bakersfield and AA-Frisco. The Rangers felt that despite posting massive strikeout numbers, Davis was ready to assume his spot in Texas. In 2008, the young slugger had immediate success for the Rangers, posting a .285/17/55 line while platooning at first base with Hank Blaylock, another Rangers mainstay. It seemed that Davis was ready to move to the next level and become the key power bat in the Rangers lineup.
The team had acquired OF Josh Hamilton from the Reds, signed the controversial but talented Milton Bradley, had up-and-coming 2B Ian Kinsler and team captain Michael Young, forming what they thought would be an offense to compete with the high-spending Angels, Red Sox, and Yankees in the American League. The team disappointed though under second-year skipper Ron Washington, finishing 79-83 and missing the postseason. All of the offensive in the world could not overcome one of the worst starting rotations in baseball. As the calendar flipped to 2009, Davis was firmly in the Rangers plans. Unfortunately, major league pitchers found the huge holes in the 6-foot-3 sluggers swing, and Davis slipped to a disappointing .238 season with 150 strikeouts in just 419 plate appearances. He did manage to hit 21 home runs, but for a team that had planned on making their first postseason appearance since 1999, Davis was not up to par. In 2010, he spent only 45 games in the majors and hit a paltry .192 with just one long ball. He was sent to AAA-Oklahoma City for what amounted to be the full season. At AAA, Davis once again flashed his potential – hitting .327 with 14 homerun and cutting down on his strikeouts while increasing his OBP by walking 37 times, a career-high number for him at the time.
The 2011 campaign started out with more of the same struggles Davis had experienced in 2010. In his first 76 at-bats for the Rangers, he struck out 24 times. His walk total fell off the map once again, and his power all but disappeared. The Rangers sent the 25-year-old back to the minors, all the way down to AA-Bowie. Davis was crushed, and not in the good way we would see a few years later. Once at AAA-Round Rock, Davis began to flash the potential that so many scouts had seen all of those years ago. He hit .368/24/66 in just 210 plate appearances. He stroked 14 doubles, and began increasing his versatility by playing more third base and left field. As the Rangers began shopping for players to help them through vicious pennant race with the Los Angeles Angels in July, the team set its sights on starting pitching help.
At the same time, the Baltimore Orioles were trotting through another last place finish in the ultra-competitive A.L. East. New manager Buck Showalter had been the Rangers manager in 204 when the team was scouting Davis, and he had spent the past few years as an analyst on television. When the Rangers came calling for a shut-down relief pitcher, Showalter knew which player he wanted to ask for in return. The Orioles were building a team that had the potential to compete within a few years, and one major need was a left-handed power bat at first base to take advantage of the short porch at Camden Yards. The Orioles had veteran Derrek Lee holding down the fort to finish 2011, but Lee was not the long term answer for a team that was building with young superstars OF Adam Jones and super-prospect 3B Manny Machado. The Orioles needed a power hitter and after spending the past five years building their young pitching depth, trading a major league reliever was in the cards. The Rangers would acquire a quality major league bullpen arm in Koji Uehara, and in turn the Orioles would scoop up SP Tommy Hunter – a potential major league starter – and a player the Rangers considered expendable with prospects Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar knocking down the door to Arlington. The Rangers had no position for Chris Davis, and frankly they were tired of waiting for Davis to figure out how to hit major league left-handed pitching. The deal was made just before the trade deadline on July 30, 2011.
The Orioles immediately inserted Chris Davis as their starting first baseman. They would give him as many plate appearances as the second half would allow, and they would essentially force him to hit both righties and lefties. Showalter was throwing Davis into the deep end of the Camden Yards pool, and he would either swim or sink. This time, with the guarantee of every day at-bats, Chris Davis was ready to swim.
The Orioles traded incumbent starter Lee to the Pirates to open up the spot for Davis. For the final 31 games of 2011, Chris Davis acquainted himself with the Baltimore Orioles and their long suffering fans. He hit .276 with two home runs and 13 RBI to finish the season and the spent the entire offseason getting in the best shape of his career. He came into Spring Training 2012 knowing full well that he had the starting job at first base for the Orioles. Both he and the Baltimore baseball team would grow up together in 2012, and renew a love affair between the Orioles organization and its fans.
Davis would start 139 games in 2012 and set career highs in hits (139), home runs (33), RBI (85), walks (37), and utilize the versatility he acquired while playing in the Rangers farm system by playing 1B, RF, LF, and DH. He would also make an appearance pitching, firing a scoreless 2.0 IP and picking up a WIN (!!). Orioles fans fell in love with their new hero, nicknaming him “Crush” Davis and giving a baseball home to a player who was never fully accepted by the Texas fans due to his inconsistency He finished his 2012 campaign with a .270/33/85 line, stroked 20 doubles, and a .501 SLG. It was a breakout season for the player who many experts had pegged as a massive failure and many journalists had condemned to a life of being the new Jack Cust (no offense to Mr. Cust). Davis was a major contributor to the Baltimore Orioles first postseason appearance since 1997. Chris Davis had become a cultural phenomenon.
The “Crush” Davis odyssey has lit full boar in 2013. Davis is off the charts, competing with Miguel Cabrera in all three Triple Crown categories and once again leading the Orioles in their quest to reach the postseason. His statistics jump off the sheet at you – 37 home runs, 88 RBI, 26 doubles, 105 hits, a .313 batting average, a .390 OBP, and a league-leading .702 SLG. All of this equates to a 1.092 OPS. He will make his first All Star appearance on Tuesday and compete in the Home Run Derby the night before. He will arrive in New York as royalty, THE individual story of the 2013 MLB season.
He will be the most requested player for media inquiries. He will spend time with numerous charities he contributes to. “Crush” Davis will be the name that rings out next week, and he deserves every single bit of the attention he receives. In a game that can be as romantic as any in the world, baseball creates heroes. Chris Davis is a hero, a guy who overcame every article that called him a bust, a guy who at 27 years old had ridden the buses at AA and AAA just a few years ago.
Jose Bautista and Chris Davis are just two examples of players who have defied the odds handed to them. They were both universally called busts and wasted talents; they were given horrible ratings by the experts who think they can simply utilize numbers to declare the value of every single professional baseball player. These are two men who worked 24/7/365 to improve their talent and fix the mechanical flaws that every player dreads.
When the All Star teams line up and get introduced on Tuesday night at Citi Field, both Chris Davis and Jose Bautista will raise their hats and accept the deserving cheers and adulation of the fans in attendance. I won’t be in the stands that night, but when both of these players are introduced as the representatives for their respective teams, I will be standing in front of my television clapping and cheering them on. They are examples of why there are no certainties in baseball, why you can sit and plow through WAR and BABIP and all of the other new-age statistics that have popped up in recent years. They are the reason why we love this game.
“Joey Bats” and “Crush” Davis – unlikely heroes of Our National Pastime.