Blast From the Past – Tony Batista

In celebration of Jose Bautista’s 50th HR, this week’s Blast From the Past is dedicated to the 10-year anniversary of another unlikely home run hitter.

A 40 HR season has occured nine times in Toronto’s franchise history.  The usual suspects have accounted for most of them – Carlos Delgado (3 times), Jesse Barfield (twice), George Bell, and Shawn Green.  Bautista’s appearance on that list was unexpected entering the season.  But to me, he isn’t the most surprising.  That honour belongs to a man with almost the same last name – Tony Batista.

Looking at his career stats, Batista did validate his 2001 outbreak with four more 25+ HR seasons, including two 30+ campaigns.  But for some reason – maybe the fact that he had a terrible swing, maybe the fact that he only played one full season with the Jays, or maybe the fact that he will always be tainted in my eyes because he was a horrible fielder – Batista doesn’t really belong.

Along with having one of the strangest batting stances ever, where he would stand fully facing the pitcher during the wind-up before getting into a crouch, Batista has a strange real name.  He was born Leocadio Francisco Batista in the Dominican Republic in 1973.  Though not confirmed, I would assume he changed his name to Tony around the time he was signed as an amateur free agent by Oakland in 1991.  After hitting .256 with 10 HR over parts of two seasons with the A’s, Tony was picked up by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 1997 expansion draft.

In 1999, the Jays had Alex Gonzalez as the starting shortstop.  But in June, Gonzalez went down for the season leaving a gaping hole at short – one Gord Ash promptly filled by acquiring Batista and John Frascatore for Dan Plesac.  Subbing at SS for the remainder of the season, he promptly took off.  In 98 games, Batista hit 26 HR and 79 RBI with a .285 average, definitely earning a spot on the club for 2000 and beyond.

Despite being shifted over to third base after the return of Gonzalez, Batista didn’t stop hitting.  A .263 average, .827 OPS, 41 HR, and 114 RBI to go along with his first career All-Star appearance.

I remember a lot of talk about Batista’s season being a fluke.  After all he had hit a combined 33 HR in 292 games with Oakland and Arizona, before exploding for 67 HR in only 252 games with the Jays.  2001 was going to be a season of validation – a season to prove that he was a legtimate power threat for a contending team.  Unfortunately it didn’t work that way.  Tony was terrible.  He played 72 games, hit .207 with a .649 OPS and only 13 HR.  To make matters worse, he made 10 errors for a woeful .953 fielding percentage.  The Jays sent him down to the minors, where he was claimed by Baltimore on waivers.

In Baltimore he rebounded a bit, made his second All-Star team, then signed with the Expos.  After a good season with Montreal, he hit paydirt – a two-year, $14 million contract with Fukuoka in the Japanese league.  However – he was released after only one season, as the team said they “wanted to promote younger players from within.”  He did forever immortalize himself while in Japan by faking a mound charge after being hit by a pitch.

A couple of failed comeback attempts ended his career in 2007.

While he did hit well for a few more seasons after his out-of-nowhere 41 bomb campaign of 2000, to me Tony Batista is still the biggest fluke in Blue Jay history.  He was one-dimensional, slow, and didn’t look like a HR hitter.

So no matter what J-Bau does next year, his 2010 season will always be above Leocadio 2000.

Tony Batista: Career Major League Statistics

11 seasons (1996 – 2004, 2006 – 2007)

7 teams (OAK, ARI, TOR, BAL, MON, MIN, WAS)

.251 average, 221 HR, 718 RBI, 625 R, 47 SB, .752 OPS

*Blast From the Past is a feature dedicated to bringing back the memory of classic Jays from days past – the lesser known the better.  If you have any suggestions please contact 500 Level Fan.

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