Baseball lends itself so naturally to storytelling, and its narratives are often so compelling and affecting, because it is a sport centered around the journeys of heroes. From the passing and return of each season down to the play structure of the game itself, baseball is a circular journey, a tale of there and back again – like the voyages of Aeneas or Odysseus, a baseball player sets out in order to come back home. He must leave the plate to be successful, but as soon as he crosses that threshold, stepping outside the lines of the batter’s box, he enters a strange, dangerous space, not belonging to either the opposing team or to his. We watch him from afar and hope that he can complete his journey: circling the bases, returning to us.
No current Blue Jay has completed that journey home more than Jose Bautista.
In Greg Wisniewski’s September 2016 piece for BPT, “Jose Bautista: Comic Book Hero,” he describes how thrilling it is to watch this hero of ours make his successful return journeys over and over again, with flourish and emotion, and seemingly always right when we need him to. A week in September forms the basis of the piece. I remember that week. I was there in Seattle on the 21st when Jose hit that home run off Edwin Diaz in the 9th. It was the first and only Jays game I’ve ever been to. With that crack of the bat, Jose did his, “backwards-moonwalk-pimp-trot,” (as Greg so evocatively called it), as he ran around the bases. I screamed and sang and high-fived with the random strangers around me—I felt a sense of home that I’d never quite felt anything like.
Heroes of the epic variety are not isolated individuals, separate from the world: they bind their home community together. They embody their values and are central to their mythology. Jose Bautista has been the face of the Blue Jays for the past half-decade, not only because of his on-field success, but because of what he represents to the Blue Jays and their fans. A star who finally achieved success in Toronto after years of grinding, a passionate and intense competitor, a showman who makes baseball endlessly more exciting. For years, he was one of the only reasons the Jays were worth watching, and with him around, the Jays finally made their way back to the postseason. Jose is the spirit of these winning Blue Jays teams we’ve taken such joy in watching the past two years.
For a narrative cycle to be satisfying, for it to be complete, the hero must ultimately come home. In 2016, Jose Bautista set out on a journey far different from those he completes with such passion and frequency on the bases. It was a journey that was far less familiar, far less clear-cut. And it was a journey that, despite all the struggle and controversy and uncertainty, ended with him returning home.
He is the hero, after all.
The hero begins the story in a zone of comfort. However, they are not at ease. They have a desire that needs to be fulfilled.
Let’s roll this story all the way back to almost exactly a year ago. Spring Training 2016. Jose Bautista was coming off another monster season for the Jays. 40 HR, .913 OPS, .316 tAV. There was also this, which was most certainly not normal, and never will be.
Anyway. Jose was eligible to become a free agent after the 2016 season, something which he had never had the opportunity to do before—he had signed a five-year, $65 million extension with a sixth-year option after the 2010 season. At a press conference in Dunedin, he made no bones about the fact that he felt he deserved a hefty sum of money if the Jays were to extend him once again—and that, if the Jays couldn’t or wouldn’t meet his price, he would find it elsewhere on the free market. He’d been playing with a hometown discount, he said; he wouldn’t continue to do so. He knew what he meant to the team, to the Blue Jays community.
Since his first full season with the Jays in 2009, Jose had been paid $68.8 million by the Blue Jays. Over the same time period he was worth 37.7 rWAR. The going dollar rate per free-agent WAR was about $7 million. So was 5/120 or 5/150—the reports couldn’t agree on what the number actually was—really all that outlandish a request for someone as good as he was and who had overperformed his previous contracts to an absolutely outlandish degree?
It was a matter of furious debate. Perhaps it was just due to the lack of baseball at that time of year – writers needed something to write about, and fans needed something to talk about. Or maybe it was the the sense of betrayal felt by Jays fans. “Is Jose Bautista worth it?” became the words on a hundred thousand internet tongues. Some thought not. Some also thought not. As a matter of fact, almost everyone thought not—and, business-wise, rightly so. Jay Jaffe’s excellent Sports Illustrated piece demonstrates the risk inherent in signing a 36-year-old to such a massive deal, even if he were to continue defying aging curves. The spectacular failure of the Albert Pujols contract was still fresh in everyone’s minds. We love our heroes, but we love our home more. If our hero’s desires run contrary to the desires of the community, what is there to be done but let him leave?
So people got ready to let him go. We’d lost heroes in the past – like the sport itself, a baseball team’s roster composition is cyclical. Heroes come, go, and are replaced by others. Rival teams with more cash to spare began rubbing their hands together; Jays ownership remained diplomatically non-committal; and this comment on a Global News article about Jose’s contract pretty much sums up the feeling among Jays fans:
Jose was still at home. Yet this home was no longer comfortable. Jose felt he needed something that the home community was reluctant to give. When the hero needs something, he sets out to find that thing he needs – even if he might harbor another conflicting desire – to remain where it’s safe. To stay home, forever. But he can’t. Of course he can’t.
What kind of story would that be?
The hero sets out on their journey and enters an unfamiliar realm, where they are tested by a series of hardships. They eventually adapt, becoming stronger.
As the 2016 season began, Jose was entering an unfamiliar situation. His 2015 postseason performance had cemented him as not only a league-wide villain, but a “f—ing disgrace” to baseball itself on a level tantamount to statheads, who are, as we all know, the game’s greatest enemies. Now, surrounded by this external vitriol, he was playing for the first time in a walk season, his own future up for grabs, with many of his home fans pretty much resigned to him very soon ceasing to be Toronto’s hero. He had taken the first step away from the comfort of home when he had held that press conference in Dunedin. Now his journey was beginning in earnest. The pressure was on.
Could it have gone worse? Yes. Did it go well? Absolutely not.
The Jays’ first loss of 2016 is indicative of the kind of cosmic futility that plagued the first part of Jose’s season. On April 5th, the Jays were leading 2-1 against the Rays going into the bottom of the 8th. Brett Cecil hit Kevin Kiermaier with a pitch, and then gave up a home run to Logan Forsythe, giving the Rays a 3-2 lead. Blown 8th-inning leads are frustrating, but the Jays got something of a rally cooking in the top of the 9th. After singles by Ryan Goins and Josh Donaldson sandwiched around a Kevin Pillar flyout, Jose walked to load the bases. Edwin Encarnacion came up to the plate.
This is what happened.
And just like that, three days into this new season, the media was flooded with headlines about Jose Bautista costing the Jays the game. Whether or not the blame was placed more on the slide rule or not, it was his slide that was the subject of scrutiny. His slide was the play on which the game ended in ignominy. Yes, it was a fluky, random, hand-of-god type of play – but it was his play.
So much for the hero, people grumbled.
Over his next 273 plate appearances, Jose batted .225 with a .797 OPS, which, by the standards he’d set over his previous seasons in Toronto, was almost unthinkable. He struck out 17.2% of the time. His infield fly ball rate rose, and his home run/fly ball rate sank. People talked, with an air of both vindication and disappointment, about how much he was tanking his free agent value.
Epic heroes, like baseball players trying to make their way around the bases, are often subject to the vagaries of an uncaring or even antagonistic universe. A player can absolutely barrel a ball and have it robbed by a spectacular defensive play; Odysseus and Aeneas had their journeys home prolonged and filled with suffering on the whims of gods with arbitrary agendas. Jose was no stranger to bad luck and freak occurrences in the first half of 2016. His BABIP over this time period was a paltry .229, well below his career average of .266. This was despite the fact that he was hitting the ball perhaps harder than usual (a 39% hard contact rate compared to his career average of 34.7%—here’s a nice contact graphic from Tom Tango). There was the above-mentioned game-ending and questionably illegal slide. There was the incident that shall not be discussed further. On June 16th, Jose ran into the wall tracking a fly ball in Philadelphia, got his toe jammed in a wall crevice (why was there a wall crevice?), and was put on the DL with turf toe.
When he returned to the field after a lengthy absence, the Jays were 56-44 with the division lead in sight – a great opportunity for him to redeem himself with a well-timed hot streak. Instead, his performance at the plate was even worse. He struck out 14 times in 15 games, and then the baseball gods came in with another K of their own when he got his cleat caught in the Rogers Centre turf on August 9th, tweaking something in his knee. Back to the DL he went.
Jose was certainly underperforming. But it’s hard to deny the extent to which the circumstances seemed to be working against him. Odysseus spent over 10 futile years tossed around the Mediterranean by the petty wrath of Poseidon; Jose Bautista spent over 30 futile days in 2016 sidelined by strange, random injuries. He sat on the DL until August 25th, exactly a month after his return from the ravages of turf toe. At this point, many of the fans at home in Toronto didn’t even want him back. (“Texiera (sic), Fielder, Rodriguez retiring. Bautista is older than all of them. It’s time,” says commenter dave houston on this Sportsnet article.) His chances of completing his journey and getting what he wanted were at rock bottom.
And then, all of a sudden – they weren’t. All of a sudden, Jose was going full speed ahead. That first day back from the knee injury, August 25th, Jose went 1 for 4 for a walk and a 2-RBI double, and he never really slowed down after that. From that day until the end of the season, Jose hit .262/.401/.469. His BABIP luck turned around, jumping to .341. Something had changed.
Through what was on the whole an extremely unpleasant September for the Jays – going from first place in the AL East at the beginning of the month to just barely clinging to a wild card spot at the end – Jose was one of the few bright spots. Greg wrote of Jose in September, “This is the player who we turn on the TV to see, whether we love him or hate him.” Over the course of that month, with Jose performing more like the Jose of yesteryear, with the triumphant journeys around the bases occurring more and more frequently, Jays fans remembered how much they loved him, to sometimes bizarre extents. And with this remembrance came the realization, heavier and heavier with every passing game, that our hero might not be our hero much longer. We counted down the days. 22 games left. Now 21.
Going into the bottom of the 9th in the Jays’ last 2016 regular season home game, they were losing to the Orioles, their closest wild card rivals. It was another one of those games that seemed to happen all September long for the Jays: they just couldn’t hit at all, even in a crucial game, even off Ubaldo Jimenez. Even so, the players that the fans wanted to see were coming up in the 9th – Donaldson, Encarnacion, Bautista. For all anyone knew, it could be the last time the latter two would ever stand in the Rogers Centre batter’s box as Blue Jays. If not a stunning comeback, one could at least hope for the chance to say a fond goodbye. Donaldson struck out; Encarnacion doubled and advanced on a balk; Jose struck out. Russell Martin sealed the deal with a groundout. Final score: Orioles 4, Jays 0.
A heavy pall fell over the Rogers Centre crowd.
Of course, this wasn’t actually the end, not yet. The Jays somehow, somehow managed to win the Fenway series. Then they managed to win the Wild Card game, and then they managed to sweep the Rangers. You all know how those went down. I don’t need to elaborate. It was amazing.
Sadly, though, there did have to be a last game at Rogers Centre in 2016. It was a 3-0 loss to Cleveland in Game 5 of the ALCS, and it was not without some final heroics. Jose hit a double off Cody Allen to lead off the bottom of the 9th, and a jolt of energy passed through the sold-out home crowd. The hero had come through right when we needed him, right when we thought all hope was lost.
But the hero never made it home safe. Donaldson struck out. Encarnacion struck out. Tulowitzki popped it up. This time, it really was the end.
More than half an hour after the game had finished, there were still some fans crowded into the seats around the empty Blue Jays dugout. They chanted “Eddie! Eddie!” or burst into the familiar “Joseeee, Jose Jose Joseeeee” song. They waited patiently for the heroes to return. None ever did.
The fans slowly dispersed, returning to their own homes, their own lives, outside the narrative cycles of baseball.
The hero gets what they wanted, but pay a heavy price. They return home, changed.
Jose finally made it to the end goal of this journey: free agency, and the financial compensation that he hoped it would entail. The journey wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pleasant, but he made it through, and somehow came out still an above-average hitter. He had finished the season strong, which was probably better for his contract prospects than a Saunders-like midseason cliff, and on November 14th, he turned down the Jays’ $17.2 million qualifying offer. It was time for him to get what he’d been seeking.
And then… radio silence. Whispers. Cleveland has been “in touch”; the Orioles don’t want him. Hope sprung up from the winter meetings before fading away. Toward the end of December, it was hinted that Jose would take a one-year deal and wanted to return to Toronto, which seemingly piqued the Jays’ interest. After that, once again, nothing.
When it finally happened, it happened swiftly. On the 15th of January, the Jays and Jose were nearing an agreement; three days later, the deal was done. One year, $18.5 million guaranteed, with incentives and mutual and vesting options. Jose got his free agent contract, and he got to stay in Toronto. It was a fulfillment of both of the desires he’d expressed going into the season. Obviously, the contract was not as large as he’d initially hoped. The general assumption, though, was that Jose must have taken the best deal on the market. It was as much of a win as he could get after enduring the 2016 season. He got what he wanted to the full extent that he could. Right?
We don’t really know what was happening with Jose over the long dark of this offseason. On his Instagram he posted pictures of various products he promotes, himself golfing with Big Papi, his workout regimen, his family, but there was no word on his free agency from his end.
Two weeks ago, Jeff Passan wrote a profile of Jose looking ahead 2017 season. In it, Jose reiterates his frustration at his slow-developing market and talks about his motivation for the coming season – nothing new. But Passan has a piece of information that we haven’t seen before. He writes that, according to his sources, Jose had been offered a three-year deal. That he had been offered more than $50 million in guaranteed value by a team that wasn’t the Blue Jays. Jose and his agent, as might be expected, neither confirmed nor denied.
The two stated desires Jose had entering 2016 were to get paid and to remain a Blue Jay. We—the fans, the media—always thought that the former must have been the primary goal, and the latter mostly fanservice. Because isn’t it always? In this narrative, his $18.5 million contract with the Jays was the best he could do, value-wise. The Jays got a one year contract, of which it is said that none are bad, a right fielder, and a bat; Jose got somewhat of a payday, a good platform for a bounce-back year to up his value, and a return to Toronto as the icing on the cake. A win-win if there ever was one, a deal that both teams needed.
What becomes of this tidy resolution if what Passan’s sources say is true? What does it mean if Jose Bautista turned down a chance to make more than half the money he’s made in his entire career over the next three years and instead chose to sign a diminished contract with the Blue Jays? If this is the case, it means that we vastly misread the weights of his priorities. Perhaps in spring 2016 Jose was out mostly to get his one big payday. The same can’t be true of someone who turned down $50+ million of multi-year security somewhere else for $18.5 million and a single season with the Jays.
That Jose Bautista must be a person willing to be bet on himself – someone with such a strong belief in his own ability that he knows this season will be better, that when the mutual option is inevitably declined he’ll be able to get the money he’s deserved for so long. He believes this even though he’s coming off his worst season in seven years, even though he’s soon going to be 37, and age doesn’t treat baseball players kindly, and he spent a huge number of days last year injured and in pain. It means he is willing to give up guaranteed money and security not only because he knows he can be better, but because he’ll be home again. He understands what he means to this community. He understands what the community means to him.
In 2017. Jose Bautista will be back in Toronto, the place where he says he feels safe and comfortable, where he feels people understand him. We needed him, and he needed us; the circle closes, his journey is complete.
It only cost him thirty million dollars.
The thing about the hero’s journey is that even when the cycle of departure, descent and return is completed, when the hero has returned home achieved their goal, the story’s not really over. Epics like the Odyssey and the Aeneid don’t begin at The Beginning and end at The End – that would be too easy, too pat. These stories aren’t fairy tales. They’re snapshots, individual shapes in a larger picture. A cycle completes, and another one begins. Winter passes over to spring, and it’s time for baseball again. A player hits a home run, rounds the bases, and comes up to bat two innings later. He strikes out on three pitches. Life goes on.
We don’t know what’s going to happen with the Jays this season. We don’t know what will happen with Jose (although he’s totally killing it as of right now). Perhaps the risk he took this offseason, betting on himself and returning home, will end up being worth nothing – and regardless, this season is very likely his last with Blue Jays, as Matt and Josh here note. While the hero lives, their story continues, and no one can know for sure exactly what kinds of mishap and misadventure they might encounter. The universe can be chaotic, even cruel; baseball itself has shown us this time and time again. There is, however, at least a little bit of certainty to be had.
Here is what I know: In 2017, Jose Bautista is a Blue Jay. In 2017, Jose will stand at home plate. He will be waiting for his pitch, and we will wait anxiously to see if he’ll get that pitch, if he’ll be able to advance around the bases. We will forget for a moment about that chaotic, cruel universe, and when Jose crushes one – right when we needed him to – we will jump up and celebrate. In that moment it won’t matter that the run might end up meaning nothing, that Jose or the Jays might be having a bad season, that we might be having bad months, years, lives. All we’ll see is #19, white crested on blue, rounding third, headed for the plate.
In 2017, Jose Bautista is coming home.
Lead Photo: © Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports