Batista keeps faith, and quirks, with O's

Orioles: From donating thousands to churches on road trips to hitting popcorn kernels with his bat, Tony Batista is his own man.

Orioles Plus

May 26, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - He has the most unorthodox batting stance in baseball, and he's been known to drop by random churches in random cities to donate as much as $16,000 in cash.

He married a woman named after a continent, and he practices his swing by having teammates toss him popcorn kernels in the batting cage.

He spends the game repeating Bible verses to himself, and he usually goes to the plate with his back pocket hanging inside-out, the way Little Leaguers sometimes do, much to their coaches' chagrin.

Orioles third baseman Tony Batista is a man with many quirks, and this story hasn't even started explaining the little ritual he performs in the infield every game.

Batista, 28, seems to have as much fun playing baseball as anyone in the game. He doesn't mind discussing his idiosyncrasies, but he wants you to know about his serious side, too.

"All those are just little things," Batista said. "I think God is the one who gave me this opportunity and this power. You can see my body; it's not too strong, and I already have six years in the major leagues. I have 135 [career] home runs - that's a lot. I've been doing pretty good, and as long as I'm close to Jesus Christ, I'm going to be better."

The Orioles have noticed an improvement over last season, when Batista came over from the Toronto Blue Jays and hit 12 home runs in 84 games.

He is leading the team in home runs (11), RBIs (31), doubles (13) and runs scored (32). He also had cut down on his errors, committing none for the first 25 games and six for the season.

"He's such a laid-back guy, that I think you can make the mistake of thinking he doesn't care as much as he does," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo. "He knows when to have fun and when not to have fun, and that's pretty much what all professionals do."

Batista, who is from the Dominican Republic, keeps himself a bit reserved with the American media because of the language barriers. But he opened up last week about the things that make him tick.

His faith

It starts here because this is the most important thing in Batista's life. His mother raised him to go to church every Sunday, and now he sometimes goes three times a week.

When people ask for his autograph, they get his name, followed by an inscription in Spanish that means, "Jesus Christ is my guide, follow him."

Batista said he has four main Bible verses that he recites to himself during a game, depending on the situation, and he feels hitting boils down to a simple formula: "If I believe in Jesus Christ more than the pitcher, I'm going to have a base hit," he said. "If he believes more, he's going to strike me out."

His batting stance

Awaiting the pitcher's delivery, Batista looks something like a crane. He leans in with his right elbow sticking over home plate, both eyes facing the pitcher, and both feet near the back of the batter's box. Before the pitch is released, Batista cranks his front foot into position, using that motion as a timing device, before unleashing his swing.

Batista, whose wife's name is Australia, was playing winter ball in the 1998 Caribbean Series when he started using the stance.

"I was struggling with no hits in 25 at-bats," Batista said. "So the last game, I said, `I have to do something different.' As soon as I stepped to the plate, I got a base hit right away."

His stance has been the same ever since.

His donations

In the third year of a four-year, $16 million deal, Batista believes in giving 10 percent of his earnings to the church. Much of that goes home to churches in the Dominican, but he has made large donations in Baltimore, Toronto, Montreal, Tampa and Kansas City.

He has been known to ask taxi drivers to take him to churches in their city's most impoverished neighborhoods so he can share his wealth. One such gift in Kansas City totaled $16,000 in cash.

"I think it's more deep than throwing a no-hitter," Batista said of the feeling these donations give him. "I think it's more deep than hitting seven home runs in one game. I think it's more important than that. It's more important to me."

His back pocket

Batista, who is 2-for-6 in the Seattle series, lifting his average to .251, said there's a practical reason for leaving his back pocket inside-out when he hits. That's where he keeps his batting gloves, so the pocket is either in or out, depending on whether he is wearing the gloves.

But there's another reason.

"One day," Batista said, "I think I was in the minor leagues, and I heard some guy say he keeps his pocket like that to show the fans, `I don't use tobacco. I don't chew.' So I started doing that, too."

His popcorn exercise

Batista said he started taking practice swings at popcorn kernels when he first signed with the Oakland Athletics as a non-drafted free agent in 1991.

"It's exercise for my eyes," said Batista, who often has teammate Melvin Mora toss him the kernels. "I've been doing it more lately, before every game."

His infield ritual

Every game, after the Orioles' pitcher throws his first pitch, Batista looks heavenward like he's expecting a fly ball at third base. He stutter-steps a bit, then brings his hands down in two half-circles.

He started doing this little first-inning stretch in 2000, while playing winter ball in the Dominican.

"It's a little habit to prepare myself and pray a little bit to God," Batista said. "I pray for all the players, to give each one a good game. I also check out the sky, so if there's a fly ball, I know where the sun is."

The point is really the prayer. It's one thing to see Batista perform his ritual on a sun-splashed day at Camden Yards. It's another to see him do it underneath the dome at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field.

"I think we've been blessed just to see a new day, to have a new opportunity to learn what you want," Batista said. "I try to have some fun."

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