One morning in late May, the baseball world, and the mainstream sports world in general, finally woke up to an unfamiliar but unavoidable fact: the best hitter in baseball doesn't live in St. Louis. Or anywhere in America for that matter.
No, the diamond's latest superstar slugger calls the Rogers Centre home, and his mind-boggling home run totals since opening day 2010 can't be written off as a byproduct of the Canada/U.S. exchange rate. His name is Jose Bautista, and he can no longer be ignored.
The Toronto Blue Jays right fielder and new face of the franchise officially broke out last year after mashing a league-leading 54 home runs, 12 more than his nearest competition, perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols.
But despite being the only player in the majors to break the 50 home run mark in 2010, Bautista was largely written off by pundits, stat-heads, casual fans, and even some Jays die-hards as a one-year wonder, a Brady Anderson-like fluke who'd soon regress back to his career numbers.
But Joey Bats, as he's known, has defied the skeptics -- and all logic -- to continue putting up video game-like numbers in 2011. And the rest of the baseball world is finally starting to give the man his due.
Bautista's legend has grown all year, as he continued to crush home runs at a Ruthian pace while upping his offensive numbers across the board. But after Bautista arrived in New York City for a three-game set against the Yankees on Victoria Day, the hype machine finally seems to have caught up with Bautista's bat.
As the talking heads on Sportscenter and Baseball Tonight debated the slugger's dominance, one glowing write-up in Sports Illustrated proclaimed Jose "the most dangerous hitter in baseball," another, the clear-cut frontrunner in the AL MVP race, while a front page story in USA Today traced Bautista's amazing ascent from part-time player to home-run-hitting machine. And, of course, he delivered immediately, launching his league-leading 19th home run into the visitor's bullpen Monday night.
This week we've seen Bautista's official confirmation as a superstar, the current center (or centre, as it were) of the baseball universe. It helps that his numbers so far this season have become impossible to overlook. Not only is he hitting home runs at an astounding clip (one every 7.68 at-bats), Bautista's also leading the American League in walks, runs scored, slugging and on-base percentage, and ranks second in batting average.
But what's even more impressive is that he's doing all this with little to no protection in the Blue Jays lineup with a revolving door of clean-up hitters behind him, and in an era when offensive numbers have sank as pitchers are reestablishing their dominance.
Like the best players, Bautista makes the game look easy. And in the post-steroid testing days, when 40 home runs is once again an impressive feat, Bautista is simply playing at a different level. Former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who traded for Bautista in 2008, told ESPN's SweetSpot Blog, "If he was playing in New York or Boston, forget it. They'd be erecting statues of him."
The last -- and only -- Blue Jay to win an MVP award was George Bell in 1987, and the last time a Jay commanded this much mainstream sports coverage, teams were jockeying for their chance to pry away Roy Halladay for cents on the dollar. So there's a fitting element of karma in Toronto losing the best pitcher in baseball, only to have the best hitter step up to take his place.
But unlike Halladay, who offered a ray of hope once every five days, Bautista offers a chance at redemption four times a game, and for all the team's question marks, he's got Toronto within three and a half games of first (even if that's only good for fourth place in the ultra-competitive division).
And given the Sisyphean nature of Toronto's attempts to climb up the AL East standings since the glory days of '92 and '93, it's hard to begrudge Jays fans their time in the spotlight. Toronto fans have become accustomed to being regulated to also-rans by mid-summer. But if Bautista can keep producing at this high level, that's a feeling the rest of the AL MVP candidates will have to start getting used to as well.
It may be optimistic to expect Bautista to keep up his torrid start (he's currently on pace for 63 home runs), but for the rest of the season, Toronto fans can enjoy knowing that the best hitter in the world wears a Blue Jay uniform. And that now everyone else knows it too.