BODY OF WORK: JOSE BAUTISTA IS AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME
Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS
The veteran outfielder enters the final season of his contract as the Blue Jays open spring training next week
When it comes to the maintenance of his most important asset as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays – his body – Jose Bautista is covering all the bases.
To make sure he is eating properly, Bautista consults a nutritionist. A personal trainer is available to guide him with his overall fitness program, while a massage therapist, a physical therapist and a doctor, who is trained in acupuncture, are also key components of his wellness team.
"I feel better now than I did five years ago, body-wise and performance-wise," Bautista, 35, said in a recent interview. "I have no reason to believe I'm getting older other than more people keep asking me my age. I certainly don't feel like I'm getting older. And I'm performing at the highest level that I've ever performed."
At an age when many high-performance athletes are having to come to grips with diminishing returns on the playing field, the Toronto rightfielder is displaying little, if any, signs that rust is starting to set in. The impeccably toned Bautista credits a fastidious adherence to an ever-evolving fitness regime with slowing the inevitable ravages of time on a body that is gearing up for a 13th major-league season.
"At least for me, my 35 is the new 30," Bautista said.
Spring training in Florida officially begins next week for the Blue Jays, who will be looking to build on the immense success they enjoyed in 2015, when they won the American League East to advance to the postseason for the first time in 22 years. After surviving a rollicking opening-round divisional playoff series against the Texas Rangers, the Blue Jays were ultimately derailed by the Kansas City Royals, the eventual World Series winners, in six games in the league championship.
Toronto's starting pitching remains somewhat suspect heading into 2016, especially after the loss of free agent David Price to the divisional rival Boston Red Sox. But the Blue Jays remain bullish on their chances to take the next step and advance to the World Series this year, secure in their belief that an offence that routinely clubbed opponents into submission in 2015 can stage an encore.
"Our offence is what gets me excited, no question," said Mark Shapiro, Toronto's new president and chief executive officer.
Bautista has another pressing reason to convince the Blue Jays and the rest of baseball that he will remain an offensive force as his playing career winds into its twilight years. His five-year contract, which will pay him a club-friendly $14-million (U.S.) this season, is up for renewal and Bautista is eligible to hit the open market in 2017.
He will be seeking what in all likelihood will be a final fat contract to cap a distinguished playing career, and he has stated that his preference is to remain a Blue Jay.
So far the club's new executive team, headed by Shapiro and rookie general manager Ross Atkins, have indicated they would like to negotiate new deals with both Bautista and fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion, 33, who is also up for contract renewal. It is unclear, however, whether management can afford to tie up a sizable portion of its budget in two aging players.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
But as the team gathers at the club's spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., to begin preparations for this season – the first official workout for pitchers and catchers is on Monday – both men remain unsigned and uncertain about their futures.
Shapiro certainly seems convinced that Bautista can pick up where he left off in 2015, remarking to Rogers Sportsnet earlier this month that the athlete treats his body like a Fortune 500 company.
"I've enjoyed learning about his [Bautista's] passion in that area and his expertise, quite frankly," added Atkins, who is supplanting Alex Anthopoulos as Toronto's GM. "He's a true student of what it means to maximize your physical ability."
Over the past six seasons, Bautista has been baseball's biggest banger, totalling 227 home runs. Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers is his nearest rival, with 199.
Last year, helping to anchor baseball's most potent offence, Bautista swatted 40 home runs and drove in 114 runs, while batting .250. Based on those offensive metrics, he became just the 11th player in the history of the game, dating to 1901 when the American League was first classified as a major league, to enjoy that kind of production at the age of 34 or older.
That list of heavyweights features Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, the last player to enjoy that sort of production. That's when Bonds – as a member of the San Francisco Giants in 2001, when he was 36 – set baseball's single-season home-run mark with 73 while driving in 137 and hitting .328. While Bonds' bulging numbers will be forever linked with suspicions of steroid use, he would go on to play for six more seasons, until he was 42, totalling another 195 home runs.
Bautista, who carts a lean 205 pounds on a 6-foot frame, has never been linked to steroid use. He credits his year-round approach to fitness and nutrition as the primary reason behind his continued success – though he has missed some time with hip, shoulder and wrist issues.
"I'm fortunate to play at this time because in the history of traditional sports we have a lot more available to us than guys in the past did," Bautista said. "And I'm taking full advantage. And I don't think most guys are there yet. But they will be. It's just like anything, any other new offering in the marketplace, it takes time.
"I've read and researched it carefully and I think I'm smart enough to understand what works for me and feels good for me. And managing my body is the most important thing that I do every single day because it's my No. 1 work tool."
Bautista said a strict adherence to personal fitness wasn't always a trait associated with baseball players.
"In the past, way back in the day, guys used to throw some medicine balls around and smoke cigars and then play," he said. "Then it went to more specific weight training and smoking cigarettes and playing. Then it went to very, very heavy weightlifting and hitting home runs. Now working out is much more functional, at least for me, to try to lessen the stress that you put on your body."
Bautista still hits the weight room, but his focus is geared more toward strengthening specific body areas that help him function as a baseball player instead of just trying to bench-press as much as possible.
One-legged deadlifts with a barbell and lateral jumps while wearing a weighted vest have been part of his routine, which also includes a bevy of other exercises using rubber resistance bands aimed at strengthening his core and increasing his range of motion.
"I do a lot of stuff that has to do with diaphragmatic breathing and how to control that while you're working out to manipulate your beats per minute in your heart so you get more out of the workout and the whole body working in unison," Bautista said. "I do a lot of pattern development, corrections – utilizing different techniques."
And stretching – a lot of stretching. Yoga is also a part of his routine.
In fact, Bautista rarely seems to be at rest. Before games in the clubhouse he is often found on the floor watching sports on television with a group of his teammates while manipulating his body through a series of moves on a foam bar.
In the on-deck circle awaiting his turn to hit during a game, Bautista will routinely wedge his bat behind his back and lock his arms around each end before endeavouring to twist himself into a pretzel. In the outfield, hamstrings are continually being tested up until the moment the pitch is delivered, when Bautista readies himself to burst into action if the ball comes in his direction.
"Ideally you want to be relaxed," Bautista said. "So by stretching and moving around I can keep tension out. If I sit there and just allow myself to tighten up, I'm not going to be able to move as good, I'm not going to be able to rotate as well and I'm not going to be able to perform my baseball movements as well. That all just increases my risk of injury."
Jana Webb is a Toronto-based fitness instructor an innovator of Joga, a brand of yoga for jocks that she developed. Joga is designed to be sport-specific and to help high-performance athletes find the right balance between strength and flexibility, depending on their type of activity.
Webb has worked with a number of professional athletes, most recently with Robinson Cano, the 33-year-old second baseman of the Seattle Mariners.
"Baseball players have to go from a static position [standing] to an explosive position [running] all of the time," Webb said. "That's kind of what they do, they're sitting there waiting and then they need to move.
"I encourage all my baseball clients that you need to keep your neural patterns firing all the time. If the ball's hit in the air and you're sitting there sedentary or static, those couple seconds that you lose before your nervous system kicks in to what's going on, you're either getting the ball or you're not."
Bautista said when it comes to his workout regime, he sticks to old-fashioned Yoga "as a relaxation and meditation technique, to improve blood flow to different parts of my body."
And when it comes to the upkeep of his body in general, Bautista said he owes it both to himself and his legion of fans to do what he can to keep him performing at the highest level as long as he can.
"I think it's warranted for somebody that's expected to perform at my level, to do everything that's in my power that I need to or can do in order to show up everyday and do what I'm paid to do," he said. "It would be irresponsible of me not to do that."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Jose Bautista practices Joga, a specialized yoga for jocks.