Power Shortage

5 minute read
Sean Gregory

When Baseball’s best player sits smack in the middle of a crowded P.F. Chang’s restaurant one June afternoon, you’d expect someone to badger him for an autograph. At the very least, a few curious stares would be warranted. But here is Jose Bautista, the extraordinary slugger for the Toronto Blue Jays, eating his spicy chicken without interruption. He gets through a leisurely lunch in Kansas City, Mo., where his team will face the Royals in a few hours, drawing barely a glance.

Derek Jeter, with all of three home runs this season — but 3,000-plus hits and five World Series titles for his career — would get mobbed at that table. There are sports stars, and then there’s Bautista, who hit 54 home runs last season and led the majors with 31 as of July 18. He’s a power hitter without star power, a symbol — or victim — of the home run’s diminished status in baseball’s poststeroid era.

(Last Out At Yankee Stadium.)

Bautista, 30, says he’s rarely recognized in public outside Toronto. After lunch he saunters over to a Starbucks incognito. I ask a patron if he’s ever heard of Jose Bautista, the baseball player. “Yes,” he replies. I point out that Bautista is sitting nearby, in the flesh. “Really? Huh.”

Sure, he isn’t a household name, in part because he plays in Canada and for a mediocre team. He doesn’t court controversy, and he’s still a fresh face. He’s not built like a slugger; he is 6 ft., 195 lb., and as one teammate points out, he kind of looks like Borat (actor Sacha Baron Cohen). Before last year’s breakout season, Bautista’s career home-run high was 16. He was a spare part who hasn’t enjoyed the lasting, big-market success that has made Jeter and Alex Rodriguez tabloid fodder.

But stronger forces may explain Bautista’s lack of cultural standing. America might not be ready to fall hard for him because the last time the nation was all giddy over home runs, everyone got burned. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds either admitted to using steroids or are strongly suspected of having done so. To many, Bautista’s achievements seem like a stretch. A journeyman is suddenly a 50-home-run hitter?

This cloud of doubt is the ultimate price of the steroid era. The home run, sign of power and might, the subject of so many backyard dreams and memorable moments — the Giants win the pennant! — has lost a bit of its aura. And when the home run loses clout, so does baseball. The game changed from a small-ball sport into epic entertainment once Babe Ruth started smacking homers at, well, a Ruthian pace. (“Babe Ruth has hit another home run,” crowed the Literary Digest in 1926. “Wow! The sun shines brighter, ‘God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.'”) In the late 1960s, when the balance of power tilted toward pitchers, officials lowered the mound to give sluggers a fighting chance. And when the McGwire-Sosa home-run chase captivated the country in 1998, we ignored the possibility that the inflated statistics suggested something more sinister — steroids, it turns out — was at play. We all craved the long ball.

(Memorable World Series’ Moments.)

Those homer-happy days are history. Though drug testing in baseball is imperfect, it’s still a deterrent. Home runs per game are at their lowest level in 18 years, according to Stats Inc., which makes Bautista’s power surge even more impressive or questionable, depending on where you stand. If a Jose Bautista can’t compel Americans to adore a home-run hitter, who can? Will the homer ever regain its luster?

Bautista, who grew up in a middle-class Dominican Republic home and learned English through schooling and sitcoms like Saved by the Bell, denies that he has ever cheated. He credits a technical change — starting his swing earlier in the pitcher’s motion — for his big numbers. “I think it’s definitely time to turn the page on the whole steroid-era thing,” he says. “People have to! Why would they want to live stuck in the past? … It’s sad.”

(A Look At Joe Torre’s Career.)

While Bautista says he enjoys uninterrupted dining out, you get the feeling he’d appreciate a little more love and attention. He insists he is not trying to knock Major League Baseball but offers a pointed observation. “It’s always felt to me that baseball more markets their former stars than their current stars,” he says. “In order to make the game grow, you’ve got to make kids and fans of now be identified with the players of now. Glorifying the old days and kind of putting today at a second level — I just don’t think that’s very smart.”

MLB executive Tim Brosnan disputes Bautista’s premise, pointing to the 40 commercials baseball has produced over the past three years featuring current players. MLB has also featured Bautista in two videos on its new interactive site, MLBFanCave.com He is gaining momentum: he was the top All-Star vote getter. And if he keeps producing, he is bound to go more mainstream. “You’re going to see him a lot going forward,” says Brosnan. We should. If Bautista returns to that P.F. Chang’s after another 50-home-run season, he deserves the hero-worship kind of harassment.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com