Jose Bautista is a pretty good right fielder who’s also pretty good at connecting with the ball. He can hit leadoff. You know what the Orioles need? A pretty good right fielder who’s also pretty good at connecting with the ball. And can hit leadoff. Sure, at 36, Joey Bats isn’t exactly in his prime, but the slugger has still been averaging 36 home runs over his past seven seasons. He also happens to be a free agent.
So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that when Bautista’s agent reached out to Orioles management to chat about striking up a deal last week, the Orioles might swipe right. Take him out to dinner. Maybe call him the next day if things went well.
But they didn’t. The swiped left, and general manager Dan Duquette threw some shade Bautista’s way when he said this to The Baltimore Sun:
“The agent called and I said, ‘Really?’” Duquette said. “Jose is a villain in Baltimore and I’m not going to go tell our fans that we’re courting Jose Bautista for the Orioles because they’re not going to be happy.'”
When I read that, I went, “Ooooooh!” the way you might’ve in third grade when the teacher sent someone to the principal’s office. When was the last time a GM turned down a good player because the team’s fans would revolt if he were to wear one of their beloved uniforms? That takes some guts. But it paid off: My cousin, an avid Orioles fan, g-chatted me immediately when the news broke. “I love Dan Duquette,” he said.
It shouldn’t have been surprising. Duquette’s a guy who calls it like he sees it: 20 years ago today, Duquette — then the Red Sox’s general manager — delivered his infamous line about Roger Clemens when he announced that the team would not be re-signing one of their all-time great pitchers who’d started to look, well, a little rusty in Duke’s eyes:
“The Red Sox and our fans were fortunate to see Roger Clemens play in his prime,” Duquette said, “and we had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”
The truly masterful thing about Duquette’s statements on both Clemens and Bautista is that you could make the argument he wasn’t throwing any shade at all. He said he hoped Clemens would stick around, after all, and during a time that focused heavily on pitcher wins and losses, it appeared that Clemens was nearing the end of the dominant phase of his career. As for Bautista, Duquette wasn’t saying he personally thought Bautista was a villain. It’s the fans, truly!
But Duquette’s Clemens comments were not taken as shadeless in Boston. The reception was less positive in ’96 than the one his words about Bautista got in Baltimore a week ago. Many Boston fans didn’t want to see Clemens go, and while Duquette said the Sox made Clemens a competitive offer, the Blue Jays (it’s always the Blue Jays!) eventually offered Clemens much more money. A public feud began between the two men, with Duquette claiming Clemens only cared about the cash, and Clemens claiming Duquette just wanted him out of there.
A Sports Illustrated story called Duquette “cold-blooded” a year after Clemens and the Sox split up. Fenway Park gave Clemens a standing ovation when he came back for the first time with Toronto. Duquette’s comments didn’t age well: The “twilight” of Clemens’ career ended up lasting 11 more years, during which he won three Cy Young Awards, two pitching Triple Crowns, and two World Series (Clemens was accused of doping but cleared of the charges, though in 2010 Duquette insinuated that he knew Clemens had indeed taken steroids).
When John Henry finalized the deal to buy the team in 2002, he fired Duquette 16 hours later, making assistant GM Mike Port the interim GM, then hired the then-28-year-old Theo Epstein to replace him just a year later.
Epstein was one of the best things that ever happened to Boston (and hey, Chicago), and Duquette wasn’t fired because of something he said five years before Henry bought the team. But Duquette certainly never captured the hearts and minds of the fans the way Epstein did, which is too bad, because Duquette actually was a gifted GM. The team that gave Sox fans the best month of their lives in October of 2004 was stacked with talent Duquette collected thanks to calculated wheeling and dealing that often involved short-term contracts and regularly sending players back to Triple-A.
“He was a very good general manager with the Red Sox," said Boston Globe Red Sox reporter Nick Cafardo of Duquette last spring. "He was just kind of aloof [in Boston], and he maybe just didn't communicate that well back then."
Duquette seems to have gotten better at communicating what fans want to hear in his Baltimore gig. Bautista is a villain in Baltimore — Orioles fans hate the guy. He’s public enemy No. 1, having taken the honors away from David Ortiz and Mark Teixeira. Fans’ vitriol isn’t hard to understand, given that Bautista does things like stare down Jason Garcia as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run off the Orioles pitcher. Or flip his bat, chirp at players as he runs by, and then pick a fight with the highly lovable Adam Jones.
On top of the individual Bautista beefs, the team-wide rivalry between the Blue Jays and the Orioles has reached new levels in the past few years. It spiked this October when the Blue Jays beat the Orioles in the 11th inning on a walk-off, three-run homer from Edwin Encarnacion during the Wild Card game. That one’s still a sore spot for fans months later: My cousins and my uncle still have trouble talking about it.
Duquette eventually conceded to the Sun last Wednesday that Bautista could be a good fit for the Orioles. He said that he was sure the players would probably learn to live with Joey Bats’ presence in the clubhouse, but he just wasn’t so sure about the fans.
A GM’s job is to provide a fanbase with wins. It’s almost unheard of for a GM to pass on a player the team could benefit from because he or she doesn’t think fans will be into that player. But that’s what Duquette did, and Orioles loyalists ate it up. There’s a fine line between delivering W’s and holding onto hearts. Duquette walked it. And he was probably trying to walk it 20 years ago, too: A year after losing Clemens, the Sox snagged Pedro Martinez. That deal worked out pretty well.
Twenty years later, Duquette hasn’t changed. He’s just learned how to read the room. And this time around, the crowd seems pretty into what he has to say.