TORONTO – They all know it will soon be over between Jose Bautista and the Toronto Blue Jays, so on home game No. 81 of this troubled season, everyone stopped pretending this was anything other than goodbye. Marcus Stroman walked out to the bullpen for his warm up in an authenticated, game-used No. 19 black jersey from the franchise icon’s early days with the club, pulled from a clubhouse showcase. Drake’s Trophies, a longtime Bautista walkup song, blared at Rogers Centre when it was time to take the field. The Blue Jays then stayed back in the dugout so Bautista could run out to right on his own, and fans could fete him.
They did, and he clapped his hands and waved.
Add in the array of videoboard shots of fan signs celebrating the 36-year-old destined for a place on the team’s Level of Excellence, and close ups of Bautista at the plate during the many standing ovations he’s received this weekend, and there was no mistaking it.
His five plate appearances and 8.1 innings out in right field during Sunday’s 9-5 win over the New York Yankees were a goodbye.
"A lot of good emotions," Bautista said afterwards, seeming at times to fight back his feelings. "It’s good to be recognized and it’s good to feel the love. So I appreciate everything that happened today."
Six road games remain before the Blue Jays decline their end of a mutual $17-million option on Bautista for 2018, so there’s still a chance for a few more memories to be made. But in terms of a send-off for a player who is at the heart of the club’s resurgence over the past decade, a crowd of 47,394 made the most of what is surely his final home game as a Blue Jays player.
"It’s special just to see how much the fans and how much the entire country of Canada appreciate him, and they should because he’s had a remarkable career and he’s done some things here that are extremely special," said Stroman. "I hope he’s back. I hope this is not the last home game I have with Bau."
There’s always the possibility the sides renegotiate a new deal with an adjustment of role, but the Blue Jays plan to make changes over the winter, and right field sure seems like a place for them to start.
"I know that I want to come back – I’ve always been clear about that. That’s not going to change. I’ve said it before – I’d be stupid not to," said Bautista. "But other than that I can’t really control anything else. Time will tell and we’ll see what happens."
Fans didn’t take any chances, serenading him with the "Jose, Jose, Jose" song before each trip to the plate and during each inning out in right field.
After Brett Gardner struck out to open the ninth, manager John Gibbons sent Ezequiel Carrera out to right field to replace Bautista, who hugged his teammates on his way off the field, waving to fans.
"Everything that happened today was out of love," said centre-fielder Kevin Pillar, "because he’s meant a lot to a lot of us in here."
After exchanging hugs in the dugout, Bautista took a curtain call, too.
"I think the fans were expecting it," he said, his eyes softening. "And you’ve got to give them what they want."
That Bautista made sure to leave a mark on the game only fits the narrative of a player who delivered moment after moment after moment, especially when the stakes were high.
On Sunday, he singled in the first off Jaime Garcia, walked on four don’t-make-a-mistake pitches in the third, lashed an RBI single in the fourth off Bryan Mitchell, flied out in the sixth off Giovanny Gallegos and popped out foul in the eighth against Dellin Betances.
Still, as a reminder of how time spares no one, all the balls he hit were to right field and not to his pull side, only the single in the fourth with anything resembling his trademark authority. But as he so often did, he found a way to make something happen.
"He helped rebuild the team," said Gibbons. "He was the face of the franchise for a number of years. And he did it the right way, threw a couple of knocks out there, got a walk, too. …
"The fans took care of him all day long, as they should have."
Of that there’s no doubt and as the Blue Jays finished out their home schedule with a total attendance of 3,203,886, a good portion of the credit traces back to Bautista’s emergence in 2010.
The tipping point came after a miserable 2012 season, when the Blue Jays had to decide whether to wait on their young players to emerge or push forward with Bautista, an elite all-star slugger, and a complementary basher in Edwin Encarnacion. The franchise-changing trades with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets followed, leading eventually to the post-season runs of 2015 and ’16.
"You were going to go in one of two directions – just being in the middle is the wrong way to go," former GM Alex Anthopoulos told me at the end of 2013. "Are we going to trade everybody away and continue on the completely young path? (Adeiny) Hechavarria, (Jake) Marisnick, (Anthony) Gose, (Noah) Syndergaard, (Justin) Nicolino, (Aaron) Sanchez – just wait on all those guys, and it might be two years, three years, four years before they all emerge? Or are we going to take the guys we have and try to move forward. Ultimately if you were going to try and move forward, there was a lot of work to do."
The Blue Jays are at a similar crossroads now, intent on taking another shot with their core next year, riding out the competitive window Anthopoulos opened because Bautista was in place. If you’re prone to look for meaning in symbolism, Teoscar Hernandez homering in each of the three weekend games against the Yankees certainly had a changing-of-the-guard feel to it.
Hernandez, 24 and full of promise, is precisely the type of young, athletic, multi-dimensional player the Blue Jays are desperate to inject into their mix. Bautista, meanwhile, will be 37 on Oct. 19, as durable and competitive as ever, but struggling to be what he once was.
So Sunday was likely the end, at least in Toronto. Six games to go, but what a run it was.