TORONTO — The end is coming quickly for Jose Bautista, the greatest outfielder the Toronto Blue Jays have ever had, one of the most charismatic athletes Toronto has ever known, and a player synonymous with reviving baseball here and the Blue Jays brand across the country.
It’s been a great run.
In all likelihood, he’s got five days left wearing No. 19 in right and swinging for the left-field fences at Rogers Centre, but even with the writing on the wall in screaming neon, Bautista is not yet in a mood to reflect on his seven seasons of prime time playing in Toronto – 10 overall – a run with more ups, downs and lightning-rod moments than most players could pack into a career three times that long.
Feet up at his locker before Blue Jays took on the visiting Kansas City Royals Tuesday night, beginning the countdown clock on his final week, he politely yet firmly stuck to the present, ignoring – for public consumption anyway – discussion of his glorious past and uncertain future here or anywhere else.
“I don’t think that’s something I that I really want to talk about right now,” he said. “I want to continue to play well and play hard and finish the season strong. It’s a baseball game tonight. It’s a regular baseball game.
“I’m trying to go out there and play the game and help my team win.”
Which is the problem – Bautista has done precious little of that as the Blue Jays have crashed to earth after flying high the past two years, ending decades of frustration. His electric career has given every indication of fizzling out at age 36 as he heads into free agency. There is no chance the club will pick up the $18-million option on his contract, and given there wasn’t much of a market for him last season it’s hard to imagine suitors lining up for a slowing outfielder with a slash line of .205/.312/.685 to go with 159 strikeouts and counting – already tying a franchise record.
So logic suggests that this is goodbye.
But will Bautista pause to wave on his way out the door? Will he allow fans to give him the send-off he deserves? That would be the easy way to go, never Bautista’s style.
Farewells to icons rarely go smoothly. Either the players want out or the franchise wants them out, with fans baying in anger or agreement. The Roy Halladay story, where the breakup is largely mutual, rarely gets told. One way or the other feelings get bruised. Time heals – as previous local icons Vince Carter, Roberto Alomar or even Mats Sundin can relate – but it takes time.
Five days seems like a rush job for Bautista and the Blue Jays. It’s barely enough to explain what happened in the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers that magical October evening in 2015 when Bautista’s bat-flip homer lifted the Rogers Centre roof.
It would be convenient if he’d allow himself to be feted; if he would engage in some big-picture retrospective. Don’t count on it.
“I don’t know what the future holds, so I can’t make comments on stuff like that right now,” he told me. “I’ll wait to address the fans and the public when it’s proper, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself and try to talk about things when I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Even those who work with Bautista have no idea what the rest of the homestand will be like or what will take place on Sunday.
They don’t know if he’ll run out one last grounder to third base and jog back to the dugout without looking back (unlikely, but not inconceivable) or stand at home plate with his eyes welling as 50,000 fans rain their love down on him (also unlikely – the teary-eyed part – but not inconceivable).
A year ago Edwin Encarnacion was heading to free agency after a massive year and expecting to find more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. The popular slugger was an emotional wreck at the prospect of leaving, even though he was likely going to get fantastically rich for the trouble. His shy little wave to the fans at the end of the regular season couldn’t have been more endearing.
Bautista was heading into free agency last year too, but when he left Rogers Centre for what could easily have been the last time he didn’t pause to look up, or even tip his hat.
Bautista demands only respect. Endearment is entirely up to you.
“I don’t think he will [make a gesture],” predicted Kevin Pillar, who has patrolled the outfield alongside Bautista for four seasons. “Eddie’s a guy who wears his emotions pretty much on his sleeve and he would think about his future a little bit different than Jose would. … Jose is a little more reserved, a little more calculated in the way he goes about his thing and he’s not going to tip his hand either way, whether internally it’s something he’s thinking about or wants to do, he’s definitely not going to go out there and make any gestures and tip his hand about his future.”
Is Blue Jays manager John Gibbons expecting water works? Anything?
“I’d probably say no,” Gibbons said. “He’s probably feeling it inside, I don’t know if you’ll see it outwardly, but you might.
“Jose’s a very proud man, that’s for sure. He’s a perfectionist. He’s driven to be the best, he always has,” said Gibbons. “[But] no one knows for sure what’s going to happen to him.”
Gibbons said Bautista’s remained even-keeled, a pro’s pro, even as he’s fallen well short of his standards.
It can’t be easy frittering away his last chance to cash in on a career that lurched from journeyman to superstardom almost overnight. Bautista will admit that much.
“It’s not the season I wanted to have, you know, as an individual or as a team,” he said. ”I expected more out of myself and it was one of those seasons where you don’t execute as well as you would like.
“You try to make adjustments throughout the season, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But most of the assessing of anything you would like to change going forward, you do it in the off-season.”
So no clues about what happened to the guy with the 162-game average of 43 home runs, 112 RBI with an OPS of .929 since 2010?
“Lack of consistency, it happens,” Bautista said, as if discussing a lawn gone inexplicably brown. “You can’t really control your outcomes all the time. You can put in your effort, your hard work, your dedication but executing is the hardest part of this sport. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t for various reasons. There are so many things that go into that.
“And again, I haven’t thought about it from that type of perspective, where I can really get to the bottom of why I feel I wasn’t that consistent as I would like to be. I’ll do that in the off-season.”
It might be a long one. Things change so fast.
It’s only been 18 months since Bautista dragged his fingers across the blackboard on the first day of spring training when he chose to explain how his next contract should reflect the uptick in the Blue Jays’ parent company’s share price. How did $30-million a year sound? There was a credible case for it at the time. Arguably the best move Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro has made in his brief tenure was not taking up Bautista on his offer and thus being stuck owing another $120 million or so to a fading franchise icon.
As a result, this is the end. There won’t be another contract in Toronto for Bautista and conceivably not one for him in all of baseball outside of a “prove it” minor-league deal somewhere.
It’s the way things go, so often in sports.
Who gets to leave on their own terms?
“I’m a big Laker fan and I remember watching Kobe in his last season and go out the way he did, not at the top of his game,” said Pillar, born and raised in the Los Angeles area. “It’s sometimes hard to remember all the good things an individual has accomplished in his career when they’re going through a down year like this. [But] definitely a guy years down the road I’ll be coming back here and watching his name be put on [the Ring of Honour] with the Blue Jay greats.”
There’s no argument about that. There is no question Bautista will have his moment in the sun at Rogers Centre. He will be immortalized alongside Alomar and George Bell and Dave Stieb and the others on that short list.
But what happens this week? What happens Sunday and beyond?
Maybe Bautista knows, but he’s not telling if he does. For now those are the only terms he can dictate.