Long before he flipped his bat, Jose Bautista was known around baseball as a demonstrative player. Major-league umpires had exchanged enough words and glances with him to form their opinions, and Darren O’Day already knew from experience that Bautista wouldn’t hesitate to enjoy a well-timed homer.
With two home-run titles and six all-star appearances before he got his first taste of the playoffs, Bautista was a bona fide superstar. But his style of play rankled some observers and the volume of overt criticism surged when, in the decisive Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series, Bautista punctuated a go-ahead three-run home run with a bat flip so formidable it’s widely known as the Bat Flip.
“Jose needs to calm that down, respect the game more,” Rangers reliever Sam Dyson said after allowing the home run. “He’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”
Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage later took the criticism up a notch: “Bautista is a f—ing disgrace to the game.”
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The following season, the Rangers plunked and punched Bautista in apparent retaliation. Rougned Odor enjoyed his newfound celebrity, and entrepreneurs capitalized on Texans’ distaste for Bautista by selling t-shirts commemorating the punch. The chirps continued that fall. After his team eliminated the Blue Jays from the 2016 postseason, Jason Kipnis called out Bautista for a comment the Toronto slugger had made earlier in the series suggesting Cleveland rookie Ryan Merritt would be shaking in his boots. “That’s why you don’t say dumb shit,” Kipnis declared.
Of course, there’s more. With Bautista mulling his options as a free agent a couple of months later, Orioles executive Dan Duquette jumped on the pile, delivering a cutting line of his own to explain why homer-happy Baltimore would not be pursuing the slugger: “Our fans do not like Jose Bautista.” The next month another Oriole, Chris Davis, echoed Duquette’s comments, calling Bautista “easy to dislike.”
Strong words, especially compared to the clichés typically proffered by baseball players and executives. But after the Bat Flip, it was clear that Bautista was under the microscope and dumping on him was not only safe, it was commonplace. In the minds of some vocal fans, players and officials, Bautista’s actions fell somewhere between unadvisable and disgraceful — no wonder people were upset. Nearly two years later, it’s indisputable: Jose Bautista attracts more criticism than just about any active player.
To those who fuel that heat, Bautista is still a bat-flipping caricature who lacks respect for the game. But across baseball those opinions aren’t necessarily as widely held as they are memorable. Those who know him personally are — unsurprisingly — inclined to see Bautista’s perspective, to forgive him his apparent trespasses against the code of the game. But is there actually anything to forgive or is baseball still figuring out how to understand its more demonstrative players?
“Around the league he’s kind of viewed as a villain,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of his star earlier this season. “But I think that’s partly because he’s such a good player. He’s burned so many teams. He’s got that edge about him.”
That edge has been a feature of Bautista’s game for years. It’s not just that he cares about the strike zone enough to question a call, or that he enjoys a well-timed home run. What hitter doesn’t? It’s that when Bautista argues a call, it’s more than some choice words out the side of his mouth; fans all the way up in the cheap seats can read his body language and sense his displeasure. That approach feeds the perception that he’s a complainer and a showboat. And once established, a reputation like that is hard to shake.
In baseball, after all, the path of least resistance — the quiet path that involves keeping your mouth shut — has long been preferred by the guardians of the game. Superstars are safer when they’re bland. Take Mike Trout: He’s an all-time talent, but just as importantly there’s nothing to dislike in his behaviour. For all of his ability, he’s not even a threat to other teams until the Angels surround him with a stronger roster.
By way of contrast, Bautista shows plenty of emotion, along with a willingness to speak his mind. Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper shares some of those same traits. “Neither [Bautista nor Harper] has subscribed to the old dictum, ‘Act as if you’ve done it before and will do it again,’” says John Thorn, MLB’s official historian. “Each shows his emotion in the moment, which is unsettling to those who still, unconsciously, view baseball as the modern extension of medieval chivalry: winners of jousting trials didn’t gloat — unless they were villains, of course.”
In short, the intensity Bautista and Harper bring to the diamond can be exciting and inspiring. But as we’ve seen in recent seasons, it can just as easily turn them into lightning rods.
Bat flips are nothing new in baseball. The sport has a long history of showboating and trash talking. Still, until recently there’s been consistent distaste for any kind of perceived showmanship — not only from grumbling old timers but from current players, too. When four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart pitched for the Blue Jays, he was prepared to take action against anyone who showed him up. “Next at bat, he’s on his back,” Stewart says. But more recently, as GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Stewart realized that he’d be hurting his team if he didn’t pursue players who display emotion on the field. “It’s a different game today,” he says. “It’s not just Jose Bautista. It’s every player in the game that’s got their different style — the way they go about their business. If you’re going to worry about that guy, you’re going to worry about the majority of the league.”
Maybe that not-so-silent majority is why, despite Bautista’s vocal critics, many current players appreciate his style of play — if not in the immediate aftermath of a tough loss, then at least with the benefit of hindsight. For all of the discussion sparked by the Bat Flip, given the context of the home run — sellout crowd, emotionally charged inning, must-win game — players understand the reaction. “He would never say this, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to flip it that high,” says one former teammate. “You have to have some swagger in this league. You have to believe that you can beat these guys.”
That’s certainly a mentality Marcus Stroman can relate to. Both Stroman and Bautista argue with umpires, express emotion on the field and face some of the same criticisms as a result. “He’s one of my mentors,” Stroman said last spring. “He’s taken me under his wing from Day 1 … he works harder than anyone in the league. I’m a huge fan of Joey Bats. I think you have to adapt to the times.”
That may be so, but baseball’s never been all that quick to embrace change, which makes adaptation a slow and painful process. Even now, a subset of players still bristles at outward displays of emotion on the field. “Major League Baseball, it’s a fraternity,” one player says. “The game should be played a certain way. If you flip your bat, you’ve got to expect they’ll come at you.”
That’s the old-school way of looking at Bautista, and it’s seemingly less prevalent in today’s game. Teammates point to his competitive edge as a highly desirable trait, one that manifests on the field as an intensity carried from play to play. In the dugout, there are ongoing conversations about baseball. The goal — winning baseball games — remains the focus.
Where his on-field mannerisms might once have infuriated opposing managers, there’s now an understanding among many baseball people that pleading your case with an umpire or showing emotion in a big moment stems from competitiveness rather than disrespect. “Interpretation. That’s all. We interpret situations differently,” says Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who sometimes crosses paths with Bautista in Tampa during the off-season. “A lot of times when there’s misconceptions, [it’s because] people don’t really take the time to get to know somebody. Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to get to know him. I have a lot of respect for him.”
It’s funny, though, how players react to Bautista in the context of the baseball code. And sometimes, it’s not so funny. Clearly a hard slide to second base doesn’t always result in a punch to the face. Odor reacted violently because Bautista was involved. Even the clean-cut New York Yankees started flipping their bats in a game in Toronto last fall. Chase Headley, of all people, told the Blue Jays: “You’ve got to take some of your medicine.” Turns out the baseball code’s not so easy to pin down after all.
Late one afternoon in May, an SUV pulls up in front of Camden Yards about four and a half hours before first pitch. A handful of local autograph-seekers brace themselves, hopeful that Adam Jones or Manny Machado might step out. Instead, Bautista and Darwin Barney emerge, creating a dilemma for the fans. Do they ignore their team’s biggest rival or ask for a moment of his time? After the briefest hesitation, a few run over, phones in hand.
Bautista obliges, posing for a couple of photos before entering the park. “That’s the way it goes,” Barney says. “They act like they don’t like him until they see him, and then right away they want a photo.”
The exchange calls to mind one of the less-publicized comments Duquette made about Bautista this off-season, a comparison to the theatre: “He’s the villain in the play whenever we play the Blue Jays.” Fans and players aren’t consciously looking for a villain, but they need one in order for their team to be heroes. Do they truly hate Bautista? Surely it’s that simple for some. For others, there’s just pleasure to be derived from booing one of the best players on a rival team, whether they hate him or not. “Baseball operates in the realm of mythology,” says Thorn. “[It provides] clever lads, noble warriors, despised knaves, sly jesters, wounded heroes and, of course, heroes and villains. All are necessary to a full embrace of the sport.”
In Toronto, Bautista’s accomplishments are celebrated: 10 seasons and more home runs than anyone in franchise history not named Carlos Delgado. The Bat Flip home run cemented his status as a hero in Blue Jays mythology, one who will eventually have a place on the Level of Excellence at Rogers Centre. But elsewhere, he plays a different role, one that’s made it easier for players, fans and executives to detail their Bautista-related frustrations in recent seasons.
In a sense, though, all of that contempt can ultimately be viewed as a testament to Bautista’s ability. As one rival player puts it, “If you don’t like it, get him out.”
If they could have, Bautista never would have been a villain in the first place.
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