TORONTO – You can trace the moment the Toronto Blue Jays truly became Jose Bautista’s team, symbolically if not officially, to July 2, 2011, when Roy Halladay returned to Rogers Centre and the slugger took the iconic ace deep off what was then Windows restaurant in centre field.
Doc’s shadow will forever be a long one, but it never felt more so than in the aftermath of his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. For nearly a decade the Blue Jays had failed to reach the post-season with the best pitcher of his generation, and then he was gone, and his desertion to go make the playoffs elsewhere lingered over the franchise.
The mammoth Bautista homer off Doc that sunny Saturday – No. 139 in his career, No. 96 with the Blue Jays – put an end to that. Out of the wasteland Halladay left behind emerged Bautista, a new beacon of hope, and it took a few years but eventually he led the Blue Jays back to the post-season, and then he flipped his bat, and he made lasting memories for a new generation.
Now, the circumstances behind Bautista’s off-season departure and return visit with the New York Mets on Tuesday are different – this was a split the team, not the player wanted – but the Blue Jays’ situation is similar to the post-Halladay days in that there’s a void.
Edwin Encarnacion left before Bautista and Josh Donaldson — who remains on the team injured, but will soon leave, too — and right now there’s no torchbearer ready to deliver another such a changing-of-the-guard moment. In Tuesday’s 8-6 victory over the Mets, trade-chip starter Marco Estrada left the game after 12 pitches with left hip soreness and the Blue Jays fell behind by five runs before rallying late, a three-run shot in the seventh by Yangervis Solarte tying things up before a two-run drive by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., sealed the win.
It was a remarkable win, even if there wasn’t a future face of the franchise to be found.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., may very well eventually become that guy, but what if he was surrounded by the Big 3 as he developed into the future titan everyone projects? What might have been had the three giants had more than two seasons together, and, even if in diminished states, finished out their careers as the supporting cast for the next generation of Blue Jays?
“That’s the nature of the sport, I guess,” Bautista said in an interview. “I know for myself and Edwin and Josh, as well, all three of us wanted to win here and it’s a shame that it didn’t happen while we were all together. It could still happen for Josh, you never know what the future holds for him, but understanding the business, it’s just part of it. Is it hard to deal with as a fan of the team, as the same time as being a player? It’s a little disappointing that we weren’t able to get the results we were looking for. But that’s nobody else’s fault other than the players. That’s the way I look at it.”
Bautista held out hope for a return over the winter, even after the Blue Jays told him with two weeks left last season that they wouldn’t exercise their end of a $17 million mutual option for 2018, and feted him out the door. GM Ross Atkins said at the time that “we feel it’s unlikely that he’s a part of the solution moving forward,” and though he maintained contact with Jay Alou, Bautista’s agent, throughout the winter, there was never any real possibility of a reunion.
“Nobody called me personally with any offers or anything,” Bautista said of his contact with the Blue Jays. “I kind of knew what their stance was given the last conversation we had before the end of the regular season. I guess they chose to go in a different direction and I don’t blame them. They have their own way of thinking and they make the decisions they need to make.”
Did that hurt, given all he’s meant to the franchise?
“I didn’t go down that path,” said Bautista. “As a player you always want to get opportunities, be valued and be wanted, especially if you played somewhere for a long time. But it didn’t make me feel bad – at least I didn’t look at it that way and allow it to make me feel bad.”
The crowd of 24,010 certainly made him feel good, cheering him during batting practice, again as the lineups were announced and then giving him a standing ovation throughout a 90-second tribute video played before the game.
Bautista, nearly overcome with emotion, looked to have said, “Wow,” to himself as he put his hands above his head and applauded back to the fans who still appreciate him. Prior to his first plate appearance, one of three walks on the night to go along with a single, he tapped Russell Martin on the shins with his bat, turned to the Blue Jays dugout and tipped his cap before once again acknowledging the crowd.
The love went both ways.
“It was a great moment,” he said after the game. “I had to hold back a little bit. I managed to get through it without shedding any tears so that was fun.”
In the second Bautista made a sliding catch to steal extra bases from Martin while in the seventh, with the Mets up 6-1, Randal Grichuk’s line-drive single skipped off the turf past Bautista’s glove, allowing the batter to reach third with one out.
Gurriel Jr., brought him in with an RBI groundout and then with two out, Devon Travis walked, advanced to third on Curtis Granderson’s double and scored on a wild pitch. Teoscar Hernandez followed with a walk before Solarte tied things up off Robert Gsellman.
In the eighth, Grichuk was hit by a pitch before Gurriel took Tim Peterson over the wall in left.
Comebacks like that weren’t all that unusual during Bautista’s heyday with the Blue Jays, but there he was in right field, at the stadium where he became a force, on the other end of things.
“I don’t think you ever do that once you’ve played in one place for that long,” Bautista said of seeing himself in a different uniform. “It was tough, just because it’s not what you’re used to. You even feel like the other uniforms look strange on you, even the colours. It’s an adjustment and I’m still going through it.”
He fought to the very end Tuesday, just like he always, ripping a single with two out in the ninth before Asdrubal Cabrera walked and Michael Conforto grounded out to end it. The horn went, the Blue Jays celebrated, fans cheered and Bautista quietly headed to the other clubhouse.