April 21st, 2015. The Blue Jays are in the midst of destroying the Baltimore Orioles 11-4 in the seventh inning. Jason Garcia, a Rule 5 pick who would soon fade off into irrelevancy, is on the mound. With an 0-1 count, Garcia throws a fastball about a foot behind José Bautista’s back, prompting José to hit him with a death glare that could pierce your soul. The intent was obvious, tempers always seem to flare when José and the Orioles match up. Both benches were immediately warned, however the benches never cleared and the game resumed almost immediately.
Three pitches later, the King did this:
Though most will remember José for the day he made Sam Dyson his son by crushing a game winning home run in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALDS and flipping his bat into the stratosphere (and, to be honest, I can’t blame you), moments like these are what define José’s legacy for me. Whether it was a big home run or gunning down baserunners, José always seemed to find a way to exact revenge when the time called for it. It’s almost like he could will the ball to do whatever he wanted it to do whenever he wanted. After that Baltimore home run, as he rounded the bases at the milking-this-as-long-as-I-can pace he often used to remind whoever was pitching that he’s better than them, Pat Tabler actually said something intelligent that I wholeheartedly agree with. To paraphrase, he said that he’s “never seen a guy who rises to the occasion quite like José when he feels like he’s being thrown at.” Forget using fists, mess with José and he’ll let his bat do the talking, and that bat spoke louder than anyone’s fists ever could.
It all comes back to passion. If you had to describe José Bautista in one word, “passion” would without a doubt be the choice. It’s what made him stand out among the other superstars of his generation, it’s what made him almost undoubtedly the most polarising figure in the MLB throughout his prime years. But, most importantly, it’s what got people to watch. 2010-2014 were tough years in terms of team success, as José was consistently surrounded by guys who I’m quite certain were actually just MLB The Show randomly generated players (seriously, what the hell is a Fred Lewis?). Yet José made the games must-see TV, nobody wanted to miss what he was going to do next. There was a certain flair to everything he did that, in some inexplicable way, you could genuinely feel. He brought an energy to the game that even the soul-sucking reality of owning the longest playoff drought in major sports couldn’t stop. He was angry, he was confident and, obviously, he was extremely fun.
Then 2015 happened. I won’t even get into the fact that, at 34 years old, José put up a 40 HR, 114 RBI, 110 BB season and finishing 8th in MVP voting because, let’s be honest, when you mention 2015 and José Bautista in the same sentence, only one thing pops into your head: the bat flip. Usually I’m not the type to remember minute details of my day, yet October 14, 2015 is a day that I remember so vividly, it’s almost as if it happens every day all over again in my head. I’d missed the first inning because I was writing a test. I asked my professor if I could have the game on while I was writing but, for obvious reasons, she wasn’t having it. I finished it as fast as I could and, as soon as I finished writing, I rushed to the bus and got myself home as quickly as possible. I got back just in time to be heartbroken, as a replay of Shin-Soo Choo played on the TV in front of me, a home run that gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Of course, the boys fought back and tied it up at 2 in the 6th, when Edwin Encarnacion hit a bomb that, while fun at the time, would be absolutely forgotten in about an hour or so.
That’s because the infamous seventh inning happened. After a bamboozling top half that featured Rougned Odor scoring from third on a ball the Russ Martin accidentally threw off Shin-Soo Choo’s bat, followed by confusion, disbelief and a lot of beer cans, emotions were at an all time high. “The game can’t end like that” is what I and certainly a lot of baseball fans were thinking. “The game can’t be decided by a play like that.”
Narrator: It wasn’t
After a plethora of Elvis Andrus errors and an embarrassingly awful play by Odor, José Bautista stepped up to the plate with runners on 1st and 3rd , two outs and a tie game. With a 1-1 count, Baut….why am I telling you this, you all know what happened next.
The moment that ball hit the bat, it was like a wave of energy and emotion hit me that I couldn’t control even if I tried. For those of you that know me personally, you know that I’m a very low-key, calm person. But when that home run horn went off, I jumped, yelled, ran, bounced off walls, I celebrated like I’d just won the World Series. I felt like I had absolutely no control of what I was doing, the emotion had overtaken my brain and was controlling my body for me. The stadium, which had previously been tense with some lingering frustration from the top half, was now as loud as any stadium I had ever heard as 50,000 fans were in the same position as me. A rush of euphoria flowed through me in a way that I’d never felt before like I was suddenly on top of the world and nothing could bring me down.
Then, to cap it off, José Bautista unleashed the greatest bat flip I’ve ever seen. Though criticised by many for being “unsportsmanlike”, I couldn’t think of anything better to encapsulate the moment. It was like all the tension and emotion was being released and flipped away, to be replaced by happiness and excitement. It was the pain and suffering of 22 straight seasons with no playoffs being thrown into the background, as the entire country of Canada now had something to be proud of. For a franchise that had experienced nothing but pain for over two decades, we finally had our moment. And, as much as I love guys like Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki, it was so perfect that the moment was delivered to us by the guy that had struggled with us.
And I think that’s a big reason why José is so loved here. When there was really nothing else, José gave us something that we as fans could embrace and be happy to call our own. We embraced his charismatic, outgoing personality. We embraced his swagger and energy on the field. His personality became the attitude of the fanbase, and would become the attitude of the team. Throughout the entire José Bautista era, the Blue Jays were the exciting, bat-flipping, emotional team, loved by their fans and hated by everyone else. It has always been abundantly clear who the team leader is. Even in his later years, when he wasn’t the best player on the team, his was still the heart and soul of the franchise. And that’s what being a true franchise player is all about.
For this, I thank you José. Not only for being a superstar, but for being an icon. For being a guy that people could look up to and idolize. For bringing a flavour to the game that Major League Baseball desperately needs. People connected with you, and your dedication to the city of Toronto and the entire nation has been greatly appreciated. If this is indeed your last year as a Toronto Blue Jay, I just want you to know that your legacy will never be forgotten. I take pride in knowing that, in 20-30 years, I’ll be able to tell my kids about how blessed I was to be able to watch you on a daily basis. You are a King and will always be treated that way.
Number 19 will never be worn by another Blue Jay again.