In August of 2015, Félix Bautista was supposed to be pursuing his major league dreams. Instead, he was at home in the Dominican Republic, watching a beauty pageant with his mom.
Bautista, a couple of months removed from turning 20, had been released earlier in the year by the Miami Marlins, who signed the right-handed pitcher as a 17-year-old. Having not latched on to another team, he spent that summer day not at a baseball field, but lying down next to Polonia Bautista de la Cruz watching as Clarissa Molina claimed the title of Miss República Dominicana. Soon, though, Molina gave Polonia cause to inspire her son.
“When she won, she basically during her speech said, ‘Anyone who wants to achieve their dreams, they should fight for it, and you can accomplish it,’” recalled Polonia, speaking through Orioles interpreter Brandon Quinones. “After hearing that, I told Félix, ‘Hey, look, listen to what she said. This is the perfect thing that you need to listen to right now.’”
The conversation was one of many in which Polonia motivated Bautista to push forward through his decadelong journey between when he first signed with the Marlins in 2012 and when he finally became a major leaguer last month with the Orioles. As Bautista nears his first Mother’s Day in the majors, he credits his mom with getting him here.
“She’s always motivated me to be the best version of myself, to keep doing better,” Bautista said through Quinones. “She’s given me a lot of energy to keep going.”
After streaking up three minor league levels in 2021, Bautista — an imposing presence at 6-foot-7 — made Baltimore’s opening day roster and has quickly become a fixture in their bullpen, posting a 2.38 ERA with a unique fastball and wicked splitter. When she can, Polonia watches games on her phone from her home in the Manoguayabo neighborhood in Santo Domingo. But she understandably was missing Baltimore’s April 10 contest, celebrating her 59th birthday with a small gathering of family.
But after they ate, her daughter, Jenniffer, stormed in.
“Mami, Mami, Mami,” she said, “Félix is pitching.”
Facing the reigning American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays in his long-awaited major league debut, Bautista pitched 1 ⅓ scoreless innings, striking out AL Rookie of the Year finalists Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena. Afterward, he said he was saving the ball from his first strikeout for Polonia. Her best birthday gift is still waiting for her in his locker at Camden Yards.
Soon, Polonia’s party became as much a celebration of Bautista as her, with neighbors and others joining in.
“It’s something that I will remember even after I die,” Polonia said. “I was just overwhelmed seeing him finally achieve his dreams, make it to the big leagues, and to do it on that day was extremely special. I just love him so much, and I know he loves me very much as well, and he’s just been an incredible son.”
Polonia has never watched Bautista pitch in the United States. She was, though, able to attend one of his games during winter ball in the Dominican Republic this past offseason. There, as he eventually did with his debut, he dedicated a strikeout to her.
They communicate regularly over WhatsApp, with Bautista sending her messages in the morning, after he returns to the clubhouse from pregame work and before he goes to bed at night.
“She’s always focused on educating me really well, just overall,” he said. “She’s always tried to maintain me on the right path, the best path possible.”
That was the case early in his professional career. When Bautista first signed with Miami, he was still a minor, so Polonia managed his money. It became a running joke in the family how often he would ask her for a handful of pesos — “Ma, dame cinco” — for snacks and meals.
In 2014, his second year with the Marlins’ Dominican Summer League affiliate, Bautista walked more than a quarter of the batters he faced. When he called Polonia to say he had been released, she was at church.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘OK, that’s fine,’” Polonia said. “‘Don’t give up. God’s gonna open the right door and the right opportunity for you.’”
Bautista continued to train, undergoing what he said was his largest growth spurt during that period; Polonia, nearly a foot shorter than her son, laughs thinking about how often people in the Dominican Republic want to take photos with him because of his height. Having grown up close to them, Bautista’s work included time spent with Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martínez and his brother, Ramón, also a former major leaguer. A cousin, Manuel da la Cruz, was Bautista’s first trainer as a boy after he was introduced to baseball using bottlecaps in playground games with other neighborhood children.
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Even with Polonia’s push, it took Bautista nearly another year after Molina’s victory speech to receive another opportunity, signing with the Orioles in August 2016. In each of his first four seasons in the organization, he was at least two years older than the average player at his level. Even as he started to find success in 2019, he was doing so as a 24-year-old at the Single-A level.
But after a canceled 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bautista established himself as a potential piece for the Orioles with his 2021 season. He dominated at three of Baltimore’s minor league affiliates, reaching Triple-A as he finished the year with a 1.54 ERA while striking out nearly 40% of opposing batters.
“The main thing is just learning from your mistakes,” Bautista said. “I was just focused on working hard, fixing those mistakes that I’ve made before, and just staying positive and always looking ahead to finally get here.”
In the offseason, the Orioles added Bautista to their 40-man roster, positioning him for a debut sometime during 2022. He ended up breaking camp as part of Baltimore’s bullpen, and he’s kept the highlights going since Polonia’s birthday. His fastball has reached 100 mph three times, already the most by an Oriole in a single season in the past seven years. The pitch is made more difficult to hit by giving the impression it rises; it drops an average of only 7.5 inches on its way to the plate, the least in the league by 2 inches. His splitter, meanwhile, has induced misses on more than half of the swings taken against it.
Bautista has finally established himself as a major league weapon. Polonia always saw it coming.
“After 10 long years in the minors, every now and then, it kind of felt like he was close to giving up,” Polonia said. “But I kept motivating him to keep going and to keep fighting hard and working hard for this because he did want it.
“I always felt that God had chosen him to be here, to be doing this, and sure enough, it’s been a blessing being able to watch him now in the major leagues.”