TORONTO – As the Toronto Blue Jays returned to prominence in recent seasons, their popularity has soared across the country—yet not necessarily throughout the league.
For starters, there’s no love lost between Texas and Toronto. Don’t forget that the Blue Jays have also had public spats with Baltimore, Kansas City and Cleveland at various points in the past couple of years. When Yankees third baseman Chase Headley called the Blue Jays the “king of fun” late in 2016, it wasn’t intended as a compliment.
Front and centre throughout it all was Jose Bautista, the face of the franchise in many respects after nine seasons, 265 home runs and a playoff moment for the ages.
When the time came for Bautista to test free agency, other teams reached out to discuss potential deals—including some that would have been more lucrative than the $18.5 million contract he obtained in Toronto, according to agent Jay Alou.
For a long while, the Blue Jays seemed likely to part ways with their most identifiable player.
Ultimately, though, Bautista decided to return to the Blue Jays, in no small part because of the teammates who helped the team reach the ALCS two years in a row.
“It’s something you can’t replace,” he said. “It’s one of those things about the sport that transcend long after your playing days are over. My relationship with all of those guys is extremely important. I’m happy to share the locker room with those guys.”
One of those players, Marcus Stroman, watched Bautista’s introductory press conference in support of his teammate.
Like Bautista, Stroman is an emotional player whose on-field actions have drawn criticism from the likes of Headley. Having faced those critics together, Blue Jays players such as Stroman share something with Bautista that most players outside of Toronto haven’t experienced.
“I feel like Bautista is Blue Jays baseball,” Stroman said. “He’s an unbelievable clubhouse guy. I can’t begin to put into words how much he’s taught me about pitching, about the game of baseball.”
Stroman calls Bautista a “huge role model,” who’s been instrumental in his career. For example, Stroman asks Bautista about pitch selection since a hitter’s perspective helps keep opponents guessing.
“He’s the first guy I go to because I feel like he has the best strike zone judgment out of anyone in the big leagues,” Stroman said.
“I go to (Bautista) for on- and off-field questions, because he’s been through it all,” Stroman added. “I love his headspace and his mentality.”
Most importantly, Bautista has a long track record of producing against big-league pitching.
“Getting one of the best hitters in the big leagues is always significant,” infielder Ryan Goins said. “He’s one of those guys who can take the game over by himself. The more guys you have like that, the better. Not only (Joey) Bats, but JD, Tulo.”
Still, the Blue Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion and his 42 home runs. They now need a left-handed reliever, a backup catcher and, potentially, a left-handed hitting left fielder.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox clearly project as the best team in the division after adding Chris Sale to an already-deep rotation.
“The division’s strong,” Bautista acknowledged. “Some of our opponents have gotten much better. I feel like we’ve made some moves that make us a strong contender as well. We did lose out on Edwin, who’s one of the best hitters in the game, and I wish him the best. He was a great teammate while I played with him and now I’m playing against him.
“As a unit we can always play better baseball,” Bautista continued. “Our pitching’s strong and our defence is great. We’re still up there.”
Like them or not, the Blue Jays have out-performed the vast majority of teams over the course of the last two seasons. With Bautista back on the roster for another one, they’re now closer to assembling another contender.
“I’m a soldier,” Bautista said. “One of 25 soldiers that’s out to win battles every day and to hopefully win the war at the end of the season.”