Jose Bautista the driving force behind Blue Jays renaissance

Before Tuesday's game against the New York Mets, the Toronto Blue Jays honored Jose Bautista with a touching tribute video.

Do not think for a second that Jose Bautista feels humbled or chastened as he slips into his dotage as a bargain-basement major leaguer. Joey Bats never really did ‘humble’ and God bless him for that. Rather, he has chosen the path of the pro. To, in his words, “cause a positive impact on the game,” even if it doesn’t show up in the box score.

And at a time when all seems possible in the world of Toronto sports — with John Tavares returning home to put up with the glare of being a Maple Leaf and LeBron James vacating the Eastern Conference — it pays to remember the impact Bautista has had on the Toronto Blue Jays.

Because, until Vladdier days arrive, memories are mostly all we’ll have. There’s a ‘Summer of ‘69’ feel to things at a no-longer full Rogers Centre but thanks to Bautista and his fellow travellers in 2015 and 2016, a new generation doesn’t have to look back two decades or ask their parents about a time when the Blue Jays were a big deal. Not all of this is on Bautista. But I’d dare say – what? – 80 per cent of it is? Maybe 90?

I know this: the fact that the Blue Jays are once again a national brand (and a robust one at that) is almost all down to Bautista. Indeed, I would argue that other than any of our national teams, it is the only national sports brand, with all due respect to the NBA’s Raptors. The renaissance has touchstones, such as Paul Beeston returning as president and bringing back the blue and white uniforms with the Maple Leaf figuring prominently; Montreal native Alex Anthopoulos ascending to the general manager’s job; and Langley, B.C.’s, Brett Lawrie pulling a Haley’s Comet thing.

But in 2011, Bautista smashed the record for all-star voting, drawing 7.5 million votes online and in-stadium as he was an elected starter for the first of five consecutive seasons. The organization helped push his cause, leveraging Sportsnet’s nation-wide reach and utilizing social media. Twice, Bautista was the cover athlete for the Canadian edition of The Show video game.

That was all in addition, of course, to the prodigious homers that became a staple of lazy summer nights on the farm or in the bar or at the cottage — to the post-season bat-flipping and the feuds with Darren O’Day and Adam Jones and Rougned Odor and just about anybody else. Especially umpires.

Then Edwin Encarnacion started hitting homers and Josh Donaldson started playing like an MVP and the Rogers Centre started rocking and worrying opponents. Before almost anyone knew what happened the Blue Jays were ours: pretty much hated around Major League Baseball but loved across the great, wide, swaths of this land; uniting Leafs and Senators and Oilers fans and Roughriders and Stampeders and Blue Bombers fans. Tavares is great, but I dare say he isn’t going to make the Leafs loved in rural Manitoba.

It was complicated. The 2010 Vancouver Olympics seemed to have awakened this country’s inner-sports jerk. We kicked the world’s ass, made no apologies, and damn it felt good! And here came the summer, with this guy hitting bomb after bomb and a story we could all buy into: off the minor league scrap-heap, transformed into a superstar, signing a big five-year contract. From blue collar to white collar to whatever coloured collar he wanted. Boom. Just like that.

Bautista turned the Blue Jays from an amorphous blob into a thing of substance.

And this is the damnedest thing: he was also present when it all stopped. Played a leading role, in fact. I’m not talking about last season. I’m talking about Game 5 of the 2016 American League Championship Series: the day the Blue Jays lost their mojo to a middling left-handed starter named Ryan Merritt and a series to the Cleveland Indians. You remember that, right? Bautista commented before the game about how the Blue Jays’ deep, experienced lineup must have left Merritt – and I quote – “shaking in his boots.”

Uh oh.

Merritt signalled his intent against the first batter he faced: Bautista. He threw his worst pitch of the game to him – a nervous, 83.6-m.p.h. fastball on the game’s first offering, which Bautista took for a strike. Oof. Merritt followed it up with his best pitch of the game: a knee-buckling, widow-making curveball. A good, old-fashioned yakker. Uncle Charlie. A pitch at which Bautista flailed and missed miserably. Bautista ended up grounding out to third and fared little better in his second at-bat against the southpaw, looking at a first-pitch curve, fouling off a 2-2 four-seamer and then flying to centre on an 87-m.p.h. four-seamer. Merritt, the second pitcher in baseball history to make his second career start as a post-season start, had three perfect innings in his 4 1/3-inning stint and the Indians bullpen kept the door shut.

And that was it. Over. The Indians players were merciless trolls, sending out social media pictures of champagne bottles in cowboy boots. Jason Kipnis was quoted as saying: “That’s why you don’t say dumb (crap).” Encarnacion exited in the off-season … and here we are now. Remembering the past, albeit a recent past. The Indians had figured out the Blue Jays: do whatever it takes to slow down their bats. Mess with ‘em. I walked down to manager John Gibbons’ office after the game and had a beer with him and bench coach DeMarlo Hale. “We’ve become too easy to pitch to,” Gibbons said. “We need something different. More athletic … I don’t know.”

Which brings us to Tuesday night and Bautista’s return with the New York Mets, managed by Mickey Callaway, who was the Indians pitching coach when they turned out the carnival lights in 2016. Merritt made four big-league starts in 2017 and is still with the Indians, on the DL with a sprained left knee and a shoulder injury.

We wait for someone else to excite us the way Joey Bats excited us. We wait for another Latino slugger – from the Dominican Republic, no less – whose father was a much-beloved Montreal Expo. We wait for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and hope that he, too, can “cause a positive impact” not just here but coast to coast.

If it’s half the fun? Man, that will be something.

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