Wherever there was a hello, surely, in time there has to be a goodbye. The greeting, the initial unfamiliar acknowledgement of a beginning is something clean. At one moment, you were unaware of the existence of someone at all. Then, suddenly, they have a name and a face and presence. Some people, some relationships are fleeting, momentary. The “hello” is hardly done passing one’s lips, and then they are gone. Other times though, when that awareness spreads, when time and circumstance cement a relationship as real and significant and meaningful, people do not simply ‘leave’. For those names and faces that appear in our lives year after year make us feel joy and pain, cause us to think about them even when they are not around. It is never just ‘goodbye’. It is long and blurry and messy and complicated.
There was a day in my life, my full grown adult life, that I did not know his name. And then I did.
It seemed simple. He could play third base. The Pittsburgh Pirates had no need of his services anymore. The Blue Jays did. He was a new face on a team desperately in need of new faces. He was clean shaven and ready to play. He wasn’t as good as Andy LaRoche.
It could have stayed simple. The name Jose Bautista could be on the same level of interest as Brad Wilkerson or Kevin Mench or David Delucci. It could have been a passing association, a name on the roster map and then a wave and a tip of the cap.
As you well know, it did not end so quickly and cleanly. With Jose Bautista, it became the affair that every Blue Jays fan would be involved in. Jose became something that nobody expected: one of the game’s most elite hitters. In a moment of great self awareness, Bautista decided that doing things the way he had always done them wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Between Dwayne Murphy, Cito Gaston, Vernon Wells, and (most critically) himself, Bautista was convinced he could try something crazy at the game’s most elite level. He was already failing to live up to his potential, so it could only get better, right?
In September of 2009 Jose Bautista started his leg kick so early and got his foot down so soon in the pitcher’s delivery that he felt silly. And he started to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He was finally ready on time. Blue Jays fans were ready for him to be born.
Suddenly, there was a giant among us, a hitter who would be King. His plate appearances were must-see TV. He hit bombs with alarming regularity. He won player of the month awards. Far away, in the Great White North, he garnered All-Star votes. Like, all the All-Star votes. Jose Bautista was a phenomenon.
We began to see a man who was confident in his abilities. Many would call him cocky. On August 23rd, 2010, Jose hit a homer off of rookie Ivan Nova. In his next at-bat, Nova threw wild and inside, making Bautista bail out of the box and lose his footing. Bautista came up with ‘the stare’. This is the first time that I had seen that expression on Jose’s face, but I would come to know it very well. As Bautista eyes locked on Nova, it looked like laser beams were about to shoot out and cut the pitcher down. Bautista would fly out then, but got his revenge against the Yankees later that night, breaking the tie and winning the game with a homer off of David Robertson. Jose Bautista didn’t just want to beat you, he knew he would. All he asked for was the opportunity.
We, Blue Jays fans, were thrust into the tornado of a record breaking season from a player who was anything but meek or mild. It wasn’t very Canadian, you know, but wow, did it get results.
Jose just seemed to make games come alive. For his 50th home run, he would do just that. Not only would he homer off of Felix Hernandez, the AL strikeout and ERA leader and eventual Cy Young Award, but it would prove to be the only run in a 1-0 Jays victory. Joey Bats was unstoppable.
He would also develop a reputation for freaking out at umpires when they blew strike calls – and his 100 or more walks that year made it seem like he might have a legitimate gripe. His attitude came through with reporters, too. “Sometimes I have trouble more than other players dealing with my production being affected by somebody else’s mediocrity,” he was quoted as saying. This was more fuel for both his fans and his critics. Could Jose Bautista be for real?
In 2011 he proved that he was. Somehow, after a breakout season in which he hit 54 home runs, he got better. His average and OBP jumped and he led the league in home runs again, with 43. He was, frankly, amazing. His arm was still a cannon in right field, too, making up for his limited range in the outfield. Jose Bautista could carry himself like the King of Toronto because he was the King of Toronto.
You couldn’t have a conversation about the Blue Jays without talking about Joey Bats. Some would adore him, some would respect him, some would appreciate him. Others would complain about him, be irritated by him, and question him. Certainly the Jays couldn’t do without him.
Of course, after all the personal goals are met, a player tends to start making louder noises about wanting to make the playoffs. After a season in 2012 in which injuries limited him to 92 games, we were happy to have Jose back on the field for a lineup and rotation invigorated by a blockbuster trade. As history teaches us, the arrival of Reyes, Johnson, Buehrle, Dickey, and Bonifacio would do nothing to improve a team’s playoff aspirations. Jose’s injuries that year were hardly the make-or-break moment in the season, though they did cast a shadow over his image as a healthy and reliable player. His OPS was sliding too, from ‘elite’ level to ‘pretty good’. Some fans and talk radio personalities began to beat the ‘trade Bautista’ drum again, as they would every time things took a turn south in Blue Jays Nation.
By this point, Jose was a fixture in Toronto. And as he climbed Blue Jays career leaderboards in home runs, RBI and walks, it became clear that we had a franchise player on our hands. He was never going to change into the cliché spouting ‘good kid,’ thankful for every opportunity given to him by the good Lord above. He would not invoke days of stickball in the dirty streets of a Caribbean Island (his parents were middle class and got him into a good school). Instead he would be what a lot of fans and media can’t handle. Articulate, intelligent, and an independent thinker. He was also interested in his own well being, aware of the bigger picture of the teams’ success and its place in Canada’s sports consciousness. Frankly, he was someone who you couldn’t push around.
This led to one of the greatest Twitter exchanges of all time when writer Steve Simmons decided to bash Jose for using a PR person to run his account. It was an account that followed an amazingly large number of people, into the hundreds of thousands. His attempt to de-legitimize Jose’s involvement in his own twitter account went like this.
.@simmonssteve who are you and why are you talking to me?
— Jose Bautista (@JoeyBats19) October 1, 2014
Lesson learned: Thou shalt not mess around with Joey Bats. He’s always watching.
Now we get to 2015. At this point, I feel like I should stop, write a complete thesis on 2015, and come back. In the context of the franchise, 2015 was the Year They Got Their Mojo Back. In a stunning twist, they didn’t even look like they would get it back until the first few days of August. This piece isn’t about the team in 2015 though, it’s about Jose Bautista. Healthy and deadly for all of 2015, he formed one third of a trio (with Donaldson and Encarnacion) that dropped bombs on American League pitching for six months straight. Jose hit 40 home runs at the side of his MVP teammate, but if you’re reading this, you know that none of those 40 home runs are what a Jays fan pictures when you say “Bautista in 2015”.
The only home run that comes to mind in 2015 is one off of Sam Dyson in the 7th inning of Game 5 of the ALDS. A game – no, a single inning – that also could have a series of essays devoted to it. And there, at the pivotal moment, was Jose, flipping his bat like a knight in shining armour would have tossed his lance at the end of a tournament. The bat is forever frozen in time, still rising, after Jose watched the baseball land in the left field seats and launched that piece of lumber into the air. That one image, that frozen moment, wiped away 22 years of wondering what it might be like for the Blue Jays to matter again. His face was calm and stoic, a moment of perfect serenity, in a building literally shaking from the pent up emotions he just unleashed.
That moment will live forever, right alongside Roberto Alomar reaching skyward after Eckersley gave him one he could handle. Right beside Joe Carter springing around the bases like a kid with a brand new rocket powered pogo stick. Players often attain immortality in sport by being in the right place at the right time and doing exactly the right thing. The home run was only half of it. Without the bat flip it is a moment that’s great, but not quite epic. The bat flip was like the signature in the corner of a Renoir; if it isn’t there, anyone could have done it.
Lost in the long shadow of the game five bat flip is the fact that 2015 was the year that Bautista did everything he could to drag his team into the World Series. Facing elimination in ALCS Game 6, Bautista homered in the 4th off of Yordano Ventura, then again in the 8th off of Ryan Madson. And except for the fan grabbing at a ‘home run’ in that grey area between the top of the wall and the front row of seats in Knsas City, Jose may have brought the team into the 9th inning in a tie game all by himself. And where did his 2015 end? Standing on deck, helpless as Josh Donaldson grounded out.
By the time 2016 rolled around, you would have thought that his place in Blue Jays history was assured and that it would be a drive to the World Series unhampered by distractions and gossip. Instead, early in the spring the spectre of Jose’s free agency demands (reported at more than five years and around 30 million in AAV) lurked around every interview with him. Some around the fair city of Toronto wanted to see ‘greedy Bautista’ left to wade out into the seas of free agency on his own. Bautista, for his part, felt he had given the team more than what they had paid for over the last six years (he was never paid as much as the best hitters in the game, even when he was one) and wanted to finally be rewarded for what he was really worth.
Again, Jose spoke his mind, was eloquent, and pulled no punches. He was reminding his detractors about all the reasons they didn’t like who he was, but also finding that they had to acknowledge what great things he had done for the franchise. The Blue Jays, however, didn’t see the point of paying for a player through five or six years of decline; just as Jose wasn’t giving a ‘hometown discount,’ they were not going to give him a ‘family premium’ salary. And it looked like the great stalemate would only result in an awkward goodbye after another deep run into playoff baseball.
That would have been sad, but also kind of poetic; like some rogue member of the Magnificent Seven, riding off on his own to try and save another town before he reached the end of the line. Somehow, though, much like the rest of his career, something unexpected came where there seemed to be no hope at all.
Jose had looked over his options and was returning to Toronto. The Franchise would return on a ‘three year’ deal. Of course, the structure of the three years was such that it was nearly impossible for both the team and the player to see the option in year two as a good deal at the same time. Effectively, it was a one year contract with a ‘we do love you though’ clause. So it would be, at the very least, a year to make another run at the playoffs in comfortable surroundings.
And then none of that happened. The team stumbled out of the gate and fell below .500, never even for a single day being able to call itself a ‘winning team’. Bautista himself stumbled through April at .179/.309/.244. He stayed healthy the whole season though, making his clear struggles at the plate all the more depressing. He passed the single season batter strikeout record (goodbye Messrs. K. Johnson and J. Canseco) and stood to have the lowest batting average of any qualified Blue Jays hitter ever.
It is anything but poetic. It is, however, very much like Jose himself: Unanticipated and undeniably interesting. He came out of nowhere, forced us to watch, glued our eyes to his every move, and made us believers. He was never a poet. He was a King.
In a few days he will lay down his crown, but Toronto will still be his kingdom. Whether you were a loyal subject or rebellious detractor, you had to look up. Sometimes to the man, often to the player, but always, always, to the bat.
Goodbye Jose, even though there will always be a part of you here, waiting at home plate for a hard one middle-in.
Lead Photo © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports