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Blue Jays and Bautista ready to turn the page as spring training begins

Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista takes batting practice at the team's MLB baseball spring training facility in Dunedin Florida February 12, 2013.

Fred Thornhill/REUTERS

The question was asked often as the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays season lurched to a conclusion fraught with waywardness and confusion and innuendo.

Would it have made any difference had Jose Bautista been healthy enough to be with the team and exercise his normal clubhouse presence? Would he have been able to limit the damage of a team managed by a guy – John Farrell - who must surely have been distracted by his planned his exit for Boston?

This much is certain, according to Bautista: Yunel Escobar's apology would have been handled differently.

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For the same reason that Bautista volunteered on Friday to stand with Melky Cabrera when he attempted to address his involvement in an investigation into the connection between a Miami clinic known to supply performance enhancing drugs to Major League players, the Blue Jays right-fielder suggested on Saturday that had he would have provided different counsel had he been with the team when Escobar was handed a three-game suspension for a homophobic message written on his eye black during a game.

This was a significant statement on the reporting date for Blue Jays players, given that Bautista is by force of personality and talent the player who will be the bridge-builder between returning  Blue Jays and the 10 or so newcomers expected to be on the 25-man roster.

Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston have done their bit to turn the page off the field and in the perception of the public; Bautista is the person charged largely with the task of making sure the clubhouse does likewise.

"I watched the whole Escobar thing from afar, (and) there were a lot of things lost in translation and cultural differences," said Bautista, who was rehabilitating from a tendon sheath injury in his left wrist when Escobar held a muddled news conference before a game at Yankee Stadium, flanked by a ham-handed Farrell, a translator from the Major League Baseball Players Association named Robbie Guerra whose work received mixed reviews from Latinos on the Blue Jays, and a general manager, Anthopoulos, who could barely hold his distaste at the whole matter. "There's the personality of the player … when you're put under the microscope in the public eye, everything is under scrutiny and the people and personalities were not taken into consideration.

"People are very judgmental when you're put in that situation. It could have been handled better by having a good liaison person translating and kind of just letting the public know exactly what the player was thinking at time. And I think I could have brought it to the table with Melky. They [the Blue Jays] did it a different way, though, and I don't have a problem with it."

As it turned out, Cabrera – who was suspended for 50 games and was left off the post-season roster as the San Francisco Giants went on to win the World Series – issued a press release through the Blue Jays saying he was cooperating with the investigation into Biogenesis, the Miami clinic, and reiterating that he had already been suspended and that, well, he wasn't going to talk about it anymore. He repeated his message to a press gathering, staying on message even when it was asked whether he could promise Blue Jays fans that there was, in essence, no smoking gun.

The Blue Jays did their due diligence on Cabrera before signing him to a two-year, $16-million (U.S. currency) free agent contract this winter. But as baseball's multi-layered steroid scandal has shown, nobody really knows who does what and when they do it.

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The cheaters will forever be ahead of the chasers and Bautista knows the implications of this better than anybody: despite being subjected to testing (we'll leave aside his assertion last winter that he had been tested 16 times in two seasons) his late-career power surge made him the subject of considerable speculation. That is to be expected, because he was the first post-steroid testing 'wow' player.

The Blue Jays are erring on the side of caution by not having one of the faces of the franchise vouching for a newcomer with a checkered past; likewise, Cabrera is on solid ground by not giving in to the media's demand for a pound of flesh, because other than Andy Pettitte, when it comes to PEDS nobody has gained much public or media sympathy by falling on their sword. It is not a time for introspection. It is time for self-preservation.

And now it is time to turn the page. Sunday is the first full day of workouts, and if there is anything unknown about Cabrera coming down the path it is, frankly, too late to worry about it.

Indications from Major League Baseball immediately after a Miami weekly broke the story of his connection to Biogenesis were that Cabrera would not likely face supplementary discipline, the suggestion being that baseball believed the substances reported by the weekly were in fact the ones for which he had been suspended.

Besides, it is no secret that the commissioner's office is most interested in the reported connection between Biogenesis and Ryan Braun, who escaped suspension last season for what amounted to a technicality. That pursuit has become personal.

Cabrera's switch-hitting bat and contact hitting are two of the reasons this Blue Jays lineup has more length than in previous seasons. He doesn't need to flirt with a batting title, as he was while on the juice, to be a contributor. The way Bautista sees it, the new-look Blue Jays don't need to over-achieve in order to win.

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And so on the 20 anniversary of their last World Series, the Blue Jays on Sunday begin in earnest their pursuit of a playoff spot.

There are two position battles of note – second base, where few people seem to be buying the assertion that Maicer Izturis will beat out Emilio Bonifacio even though he is considered the front-runner; and closer, where there's some question whether Casey Janssen can really hold off Sergio Santos if Santos is healthy, and where the name Steve Delabar is already frequently mentioned. Jose Reyes' ability to stay healthy on the artificial surface of the Rogers Centre will be the daily worry in 2013 for manager John Gibbons, who had the flu on Saturday, and – yes – Bautista's wrist is something to monitor after last season.

Bautista is optimistic, admitting that there were times after he'd signed his contract with the Blue Jays that "it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you can't see any hints. But they (Beeston and Anthopoulos) had a plan and they executed it when they thought the moves were needed and the timing was right to do it.

"It was one of the promises they made to me," Bautista said. "And they definitely came through."

As the Blue Jays players and pitchers wound up their last day of unofficial workouts, there was the noticeable sense of a team coming together.

As Bautista showered, Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion all sat huddled around his locker, Bonifacio slouched up against the wall like some care-free kid, flexing a new glove and positively glowing. We'll know in September and October whether the Blue Jays are really, truly back. For now, though, it's enough just knowing that baseball is back, including a fully-engaged Jose Bautista. Back in the centre of things. Back where the Blue Jays need him.

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