Jose Bautista is marching. You might see him stretching in the on-deck circle, diving in the outfield, or jogging to first on a pop up, but he is marching. Each time he trots around the bases after a home run, or pops up from a slide into second base, or strolls back to the dugout after a strikeout, he is marching. He is marching to a finish line that even he can’t see yet. There is still a hill to climb, and when he reaches the top of it at the end of this season, he might be able to see it, the invisible ribbon that is the end of his Blue Jays career.
I started thinking about the long march of the professional athlete this week. This happened because Jose got mentioned a couple of times for eclipsing the marks of two other Blue Jays legends. First, he passed Jesse Barfield for the most starts all time in right field for the Jays. He has answered the call 857 times (and counting) when his name has been penned into that position and whether you think he should still be out there or not, it’s an admirable achievement. Then on June 25th, he tied Joe Carter for fourth most RBI in franchise history with 736. And whether you think RBIs mean anything in the statistical sense, it’s an admirable achievement. It is also evidence that Jose is coming to the end of the long march.
When he arrived, with little fanfare, Bautista joined the Blue Jays as a potentially good hitter on a team that had none. His 12 home runs when he was traded to Toronto on August 21st, 2008 immediately made him the team leader. Vernon Wells would eventually return from injury and get to… 20 total, with a team leading .496 slugging percentage. That wasn’t even the Jose Bautista we really know now. It would be another year before he embraced “getting it ready early.” It would take a leap, no – a leg kick of faith for Jose to start his real march into Blue Jays history. In that moment, a baseball soldier was born.
This first leg of his march was like a Roman column crashing over barbarian hordes. In 2010, Jose trampled American League pitching from any angle it came after him. That season he would cast his shadow over his first Blue Jay legend: George Bell. Bell’s 47 home runs in 1987 had stood as the high water mark for over 20 years. Bautista came along and swept that right off the map his 54 home runs but him up at the top of the post-steroid era leaderboard. These moments, the single-handed rewriting of the single season records, would make us remember Jose fondly. Walks: 132. OPS over 1.000. Leading the league with 24 IBB. In his prime, Bautista was so violent with his swing and so disciplined with his eye, he was a pitcher’s worst enemy. He was the King in word and deed.
That was the young man marching with determination. As Bautista entered the middle phase of his career, he found it difficult to avoid injury, stumbling a little in the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He was still a threat when healthy, but he couldn’t keep up the same relentless pounding as in his youth. Bautista seemingly came to terms with how his body was aging and, rejuvenated (perhaps) by his relentless stretching regimen, he rebounded in 2014 and 2015 to nearly his 2010-2011 level of effectiveness. Of course, there was a new third baseman in Toronto by that time. Like Bautista before him the whole league was in fear of Josh Donaldson, so there wouldn’t be a league leading IBB total on the stat sheet anymore. Jose Bautista was an offensive star on a team full of them, not a lonely superstar in the wilderness. With JD and Edwin Encarnacion, he was a King among kings.
And then, of course, came the playoffs. These are the moments that cement Bautista in our collective memories. One bat flip, frozen forever in time. Without the playoffs, the accomplishments of Bautista’s tenure in Toronto are lost somewhere in the long desert that Wells and Delgado and Halladay had to trudge through. Not for Jose. He made the steep climb, so close to the mountaintop that he could see all the flags planted before him, forever flapping in the October breeze. He was nearly King of the World.
And still, in 2017, Bautista marches. Every day closer to the other names that are always linked with the Blue Jays logo. Moseby, Whitt, Carter, Bell. When Bautista marches past them now, they are like statues on the roadside, passed with a tip of the cap but not with a herculean effort. Games Played and Runs Scored and Plate Appearances aren’t why Jose is still going, though. He signed a contract in Toronto last year because he wanted to win, and he thought he could do it here, and he thought he could help. The march is tougher than ever before. His BA, OBP and SLG are all the lowest since his ‘birth’ in 2009. He was the slowest outfielder in baseball 2016, and it wasn’t even close. In 2017, after healing up from knee and toe injuries it hasn’t gotten any better. He is still the King, trying to defend his name.
This is the pace at which Jose will take his final lap around the bases. Barring a major reversal of fortune, or a trade, it won’t be a victory lap. In the movies, there are clear narratives and loose ends are tied up just as the story is coming to a close. The King returns to claim the crown in triumph. Sports, however many dramatic stories it might contain within, does not accommodate with the tidiness of a movie script. Jose’s signature moment of triumph, the one that literally shook the walls of a building, did not come in the final act. The messy nature of the way athletes race, and are eventually defeated by Father Time ensures that this is almost never the case.
So why am I talking about the long march of Jose Bautista? It’s because, without stopping to consider it, the significance of his time here in Toronto might not be appreciated until years later. To focus on the Jose Bautista of the present day, to consider his relatively average contributions in 2017, is to do a disservice to both yourself and the player. Soon, perhaps very soon, you won’t be able to see Jose, or to cheer him, or to cross your fingers and pray for him to hit a home run. He will have moved from “plays for” to “played for,” and an era will have ended. Again, this is the Jose Bautista Era, whether you like it or not. Before that era ends and the curtain closes, do yourself and Jose a favour: Sit and watch him. Notice his influence on this team. You’ll be able to tell the next generation of fans what it was like to watch the Blue Jays in the Bautista Years. Not just the numbers in the stat sheet, but his presence in the game; how he stretched in the batter’s box, how he stared and scowled at the pitcher’s mound, and how he pimped his home runs halfway down the first base line.
This might not be the very end of the long march. Nobody really knows. You can’t expect him to go on forever, though. Father Time marches too, without pause. Take a really good look at Joey Bats now as he marches past the legends who have come before to become one that the Bo Bichettes and Vlad Juniors will try to catch up to one day.
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