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José Bautista awaits his turn at batting practice after trading for a fan’s Lionel Messi jersey before a game in August. / MLB.COM

The Toronto Blue Jays and Futbol Club Barcelona come from unique worlds. They play different games on different shaped fields on different continents, and they don’t have much of anything in common, really, except for the fact that the sports they participate in both involve the use of a ball. That and avowed Barça supporter and Blue Jay right fielder, José Bautista.

Back in August the 34-year-old Dominican-born slugger made headlines when he took a break from pre-game batting practice after spotting a fan sporting a Lionel Messi jersey. A professed FC Barcelona supporter, Bautista just couldn’t resist, trading his shirt for the fan’s — and throwing in a pair of signed baseballs to sweeten the deal.

So, just how did Bautista become such a die-hard Barça supporter?

Recent discovery

Bautista has been fan of the beautiful game ever since he was a child. But it wasn’t until several years ago, after learning that his family had roots in Catalonia, that he began following FC Barcelona. “I got lucky,” he admits.

It wasn’t just his family’s provenance and his love of the sport that brought him on board as a supporter of the Catalan club. His Blue Jays teammate, catcher Dioner Navarro, is also a huge Barça fan and had a fair amount of influence, something Bautista emphasizes. “I have to thank him for sparking that interest again.”

With FC Barcelona’s unprecedented haul of titles in the last several years, there’s no doubt the team has made a deep impression on Bautista. “It’s been an amazing run, they have some of the best players in the world, and I’m a proud fan,” he declares.

Baseball v Soccer

The unique skills required in different sports are ripe for comparison, something especially common in the United States, where the act of merely making contact with a pitched baseball, not to mention hitting home runs, is generally regarded as the Mount Everest of sports-related challenges, at least as far as hand-to-eye coordination is concerned.

Bautista is quick to point out, though, that “being a soccer player isn’t easy. I try to play with my teammates as a warm-up, and it’s one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done,“ he concedes. “I take my hat off to all the guys that play, like Messi.”

But can Messi hit the curveball?

Bautista knows what it’s like to get into the batter’s box, to be stared down by a pitcher throwing over 90 miles per hour, and to have just a fraction a second to decide whether to even swing, much less make contact. He’s seen his share of breaking balls too, those nasty pitches that can drop, slide or sink at the last instant for added difficulty.

Does he think Messi — the four-time winner of the Ballon d’Or — can hit the curveball? “I don’t know…” doubts the two-time major league home run leader, well aware of Messi’s propensity for executing surreal on-field moves that often times make it look like he’s being controlled by a joystick. Without hesitation, Bautista reconsiders: “…but he does some things that I would categorize as more difficult than hitting home runs.”

The slugger continues: “Messi’s an amazing athlete. He’s been a great ambassador for the game, so my hat’s off to him. I really admire him a lot for everything he’s accomplished...”

Following Barça from afar

There’s no question the daily grind of Major League Baseball’s marathon 162-game regular season leaves little opportunity for the players to enjoy life’s other pursuits. Bautista, however, makes a point of finding time to follow his favorite team. The six-time all-star tries “to catch as many games as possible,” despite the inconveniences of the sizeable time difference, which can be six to nine hours depending on where the Blue Jays are playing.

It's even more difficult on Saturdays and Sundays, he says, when Major League Baseball tends to schedule more games at midday, right around the same time that Barça’s matches are kicking off in the evenings in Europe. But that’s no burden for Bautista. “I try to watch replays, and whenever they’re not playing at the same time [as us] we’re definitely sitting down and watching,” he affirms.

Camp Nou on the horizon

Although visiting Camp Nou is a lifelong dream for Barça supporters worldwide, for Bautista there’s no shame in acknowledging that he’s never been to a game there. Nevertheless, the right-handed power hitter is determined to check that box. “I think I’m going to break that streak this season,” he vows.

The Blue Jays currently lead the American League East with just a handful of games remaining. After clinching a postseason berth on Saturday night, it seems that a few more weeks of baseball will only delay the inevitable. “Hopefully me and my family and a few teammates are going to go to Barcelona this year when the season’s over,” he theorises, while hinting that the wheels are already in motion. Bautista even ventures so far as to say that if the Blue Jays win the World Series it would be the icing on the cake, just one more reason “to celebrate and go see a few games.”

“Hopefully I get to meet a lot of the fans face to face and have that experience at Camp Nou that I know is going to be unbelievable,” Bautista humbly envisions. “I have my fingers crossed.”

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