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Home run king Bautista ready to be a big hit

Jul 8, 2011, 12:05 a.m.

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - After spending much of his career as an anonymous member of the supporting cast, Jose Bautista steps into the spotlight next week as the unlikely headliner of Major League Baseball's (MLB)glitziest show - the Mid-Summer Classic.

Never heard of Bautista? Until recently few had, but the wider baseball world is sure to know more about the Toronto Blue Jays slugger after Tuesday's All-Star game in Phoenix where the smooth-swinging Dominican will be the main attraction.

Opposing pitchers are all too aware of Bautista, who came from nowhere last season to lead the Major Leagues in home runs with 54 and is on pace to better that mark this season having already slammed a league-best 28 going into Thursday's game in Cleveland.

In the last season-and-a-half, the prodigious 30-year-old slugger has hit 82 homers yet has somehow managed to fly under the fan radar.

In May, Time magazine published an article headlined: 'Jose Bautista: The Best Baseball Player You've Never Heard Of'.

While the top players in North America's three other major professional sports leagues -- the NBA's LeBron James, NFL's Tom Brady and NHL's Sidney Crosby -- are instantly recognizable celebrity endorsers, the Time article suggested most sports fans would not know Bautista from Batman.

In any sport, Bautista's story would be a compelling feel-good tale worthy of the Hollywood treatment.

An unwanted journeyman, who late in his career discovers the sweetest of home-run swings to become baseball's home-run king, is pure gold for a sport that has seen its popularity eroded and image tarnished by a string of seedy steroid scandals.

Until last year, Bautista was more plugger than slugger, better known for his cannon arm than a booming bat, having never hit more than 16 homers in any of his six previous seasons.

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"It's a remarkable story," former Blue Jays catcher and team mate Gregg Zaun told Reuters. "It's not like he's gone from hitting 15 to 30. He's gone from hitting 15 to 50 and he's on pace to do it again.

"He's matured into a complete hitter, able to maintain a consistent level of performance that, other than Barry Bonds, I have never seen before.

"He'll wait all series for one pitch to hit then he'll get it and destroy it."

This season Bautista leads the major in homers but in 2004 he led the league in a far less flattering category - most teams played for in a single season.

He began the year with Baltimore then was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays who later sold him to the Kansas City Royals.

Kansas City traded him to the New York Mets who shipped him to Pittsburgh.

Bautista spent three seasons with the Pirates but it was not until he was traded to Toronto in 2008 that he found a home and the groove that hitters search for night after night.

Bautista's power at the plate has brought him fortune in the form of a new, five-year, $64-million contract extension but not necessarily fame, as the well-spoken Dominican remains without a single major endorsement.

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