He is everything for this baseball team. He’s its best player, its most reliable producer, its motivational and emotional centre. He’s a generational talent, a late bloomer, and a combative, misunderstood introvert — all at once. He’s a leader, the one who says something when something is in need of being said. He’s a tutor, a constant source of guidance and advice for those just beginning their time in the game. He’s a presence. He’s the one.
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He has been all of these things for some time, a fact that easily gets lost when you watch him play every day, whether out of passion or obligation. During Blue Jays games, he’s everywhere — and that ubiquity can spur inadvertence. You don’t appreciate him because he is so constant. So prolific.
It’s as if he’ll always be there, patiently working walks in high leverage situations. Always slyly taking extra bases, whether he’s tagging at first on deep fly ball outs or stealing second late in games when pitchers forget about him. Always raising the hair on the back of your neck as the horns from Drake’s “Trophies” bellow throughout the park when his team is down and needs a hit and, look, there he is, walking to the plate.
He came to Toronto just six years ago, yet he’s already fifth in franchise history in home runs, fourth in walks and second in OPS, just 26 points off the pace set by Carlos Delgado. You need just one hand to count the number of Blue Jays in the history of the franchise who have five consecutive seasons of 20 homers or more, and he’s one of them. Since 2010 only one man — Joey Votto — has drawn more walks than him.
And he’s elevated his game even further of late, as his team tries to keep pace with a playoff push that’s slowly distancing away from them, batting .333/.441/.640 with five doubles and six homers in his last 20 games.
Sunday evening he hit a bases loaded single to the opposite field in the 19th inning, a mere six and a half hours after the game started, to give his team a second consecutive walkoff victory over one of the best outfits in the American League.
Monday night, after back-to-back extra inning games and a five-hour cross-continent flight sucked the energy out of most of his teammates, he scored the Blue Jays’ lone run in an embarrassing blowout, swatting a deep home run with two strikes and two outs against Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Tuesday night he tried to spark his team yet again, coming to the plate with one out in the eighth inning during an unusual 0-for-3 game that had seen him held off the bases (In his 114 starts this season, he’s failed to reach base safely just nine times). He fought hard to get to a full count, fouling off a pair of 97-mph pitches, before hammering a hard slider that ran in on his hands out to the left field corner to score a runner, put two others in scoring position, and lift his team off the mat.
These are the performances we have come to expect from him. We are accustomed to his greatness. And his peculiarities, too.
Sometimes when he’s at work, he’s terrifyingly serious — slamming his equipment after missing a pitch he thinks he could’ve crushed, screaming at umpires or staring down pitchers who dare brush him back with an ice cold death glare, like he’s Liam Neeson delivering threats to his daughter’s kidnappers.
And other times when he’s at work, he’s charmingly playful — palling around with opposition mascots, pranking his teammates and trading barbs with hecklers in the outfield bleachers.
What’s constant is that he’s always shown up for work. During a season when several of his teammates have succumbed to injury, and coming off two straight campaigns that ended with him taking trips to the disabled list in August, he’s been reliably healthy, playing in all but six of Toronto’s games.
He remains a terrific defensive outfielder, covering every patch of that right field turf with speed and grace. He makes difficult, subtle decisions on how to play the balls hit to him — when to ease up, when to slide, when to lay out completely. And he has a bazooka of an arm, one that even the fleetest runners are wary to test.
He’s also selfless and inherently talented at defensive baseball no matter where he plays, which has resulted in him being used in several different, unnatural positions this season, including centre field and first base.
Yet, in a year when many of his teammates have suffered through maddening slumps — Remember Edwin Encarnacion’s April? — or underperformed altogether, he’s steadily chugged along, putting up the elite numbers we have come to expect from him. He’s leading the AL in on-base percentage; he’s walked more times than he’s struck out; he’s an all-star for the fifth consecutive year and although his numbers are down somewhat from the otherworldly levels they were at a few years ago, he’s undoubtedly been the team’s most dependable, consistent producer.
He turns 34 in October and he desperately hopes his team still has scheduled games when he’s blowing out the candles. But if Toronto doesn’t, it will mark yet another year, 11 in all since he reached the majors at 23, that he’s missed out on post-season baseball. It will be the fifth consecutive year since his incredible breakout in 2010 that one of the game’s best players has not played on its greatest stage.
That 34th birthday will mark another turn of the calendar; another year of the cursed Rogers Centre turf eating away at his ankles, his knees, his back; another stride through time which is surely beginning to erode his abilities as he settles into the back half of his career; another season of his prime that has been wasted.
Jose Bautista is everything for this baseball team. He has been for some time. You have to wonder if it will be enough.