TORONTO (Reuters) - After spending much of his career as an anonymous member of the supporting cast, Jose Bautista steps into the spotlight next week as the unlikely headliner of Major League Baseball’s (MLB)glitziest show - the Mid-Summer Classic.
Never heard of Bautista? Until recently few had, but the wider baseball world is sure to know more about the Toronto Blue Jays slugger after Tuesday’s All-Star game in Phoenix where the smooth-swinging Dominican will be the main attraction.
Opposing pitchers are all too aware of Bautista, who came from nowhere last season to lead the Major Leagues in home runs with 54 and is on pace to better that mark this season having already slammed a league-best 28 going into Thursday’s game in Cleveland.
In the last season-and-a-half, the prodigious 30-year-old slugger has hit 82 homers yet has somehow managed to fly under the fan radar.
In May, Time magazine published an article headlined: ‘Jose Bautista: The Best Baseball Player You’ve Never Heard Of’.
While the top players in North America’s three other major professional sports leagues -- the NBA’s LeBron James, NFL’s Tom Brady and NHL’s Sidney Crosby -- are instantly recognizable celebrity endorsers, the Time article suggested most sports fans would not know Bautista from Batman.
In any sport, Bautista’s story would be a compelling feel-good tale worthy of the Hollywood treatment.
An unwanted journeyman, who late in his career discovers the sweetest of home-run swings to become baseball’s home-run king, is pure gold for a sport that has seen its popularity eroded and image tarnished by a string of seedy steroid scandals.
Until last year, Bautista was more plugger than slugger, better known for his cannon arm than a booming bat, having never hit more than 16 homers in any of his six previous seasons.
”It’s a remarkable story,“ former Blue Jays catcher and team mate Gregg Zaun told Reuters. ”It’s not like he’s gone from hitting 15 to 30. He’s gone from hitting 15 to 50 and he’s on pace to do it again.
”He’s matured into a complete hitter, able to maintain a consistent level of performance that, other than Barry Bonds, I have never seen before.
“He’ll wait all series for one pitch to hit then he’ll get it and destroy it.”
This season Bautista leads the major in homers but in 2004 he led the league in a far less flattering category - most teams played for in a single season.
He began the year with Baltimore then was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays who later sold him to the Kansas City Royals.
Kansas City traded him to the New York Mets who shipped him to Pittsburgh.
Bautista spent three seasons with the Pirates but it was not until he was traded to Toronto in 2008 that he found a home and the groove that hitters search for night after night.
Bautista’s power at the plate has brought him fortune in the form of a new, five-year, $64-million contract extension but not necessarily fame, as the well-spoken Dominican remains without a single major endorsement.
Search the Marketing Arm’s Celebrity Davie Brown Index, which quantifies consumer perceptions of more than 2,800 celebrities and athletes, and you will not find Bautista’s name.
Baseball is the great American pastime and the home run and the men who hit have always held immense fascination for U.S. sports fans but the baseball steroid era has made many skeptical.
Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens in on trial in Washington charged with lying to a U.S. congressional committee investigating steroid use in the sport, an accusation he denies.
In April, a jury convicted retired San Francisco Giants slugger Bonds on an obstruction charge but was unable to decide whether he had lied about steroid use. In 2009, infielder Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about doping in baseball.
Bautista’s spectacular transformation from hard-working utility player to home-run king raised eyebrows and the inevitable questions about steroids which he has fielded with the same grace he displays patrolling right field.
The steroid stain remains on the sport, however, making Bautista and his fellow sluggers toxic to advertisers.
“Sadly, there’s no doubt Bautista’s endorsement potential is negatively affected by the steroid issues in baseball,” Matt Delzell, a director in The Marketing Arm’s celebrity endorsement division told Reuters.
”Perception is reality and when people see a journeyman player they’ve never heard of all of a sudden lead the majors in home runs for almost two years in a row, they perceive that steroids played a role in that “immediate” success.
“It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t be marketable, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Though he plays in Major League Baseball’s northern outpost, word of the slugger known as “Joey Bats” to Toronto baseball fans has slowly started to spread.
Bautista will head to Tuesday’s All-Star Game carried by a wave of unprecedented support after collecting a record 7,454,753 votes in fan balloting, smashing the previous mark of 6,069,688 cast in 1994 for Seattle Mariners Ken Griffey Jr.
“It’s something I always appreciate that the fans give me their time and their votes,” said Bautista. “I just try to compete and do as good a job as I can and look at the results at the end of the year.”
One of baseball’s most studious players, Bautista pays meticulous attention to detail and spends as much time watching tapes analyzing pitchers as he does in the batting cage.
Before leaving on a recent road trip, Bautista reached into his locker and pulled out two binders packed with notes and research on the pitchers he might face.
“He’s a freak,” Blue Jays rookie outfielder Eric Thames said. “He’s just such a smart guy...he’s always trying to get better.”
Editing by Clare Fallon