The Year in Sports: Take that, Blue Jays playoff drought

Hugh Burrill looks back at the season that was in Toronto baseball, where the Blue Jays took a step into the spotlight after a 22-year wait.

Bat flip? It looked more like a bat repulsion.

The act, following Jose Bautista’s seventh-inning blast, which broke a tie with Texas in the decisive game of the American League Division Series, has been described as disrespectful by some and downright unforgettable by most. To understand the genesis of such spontaneity, turn the calendar back to March.

The Blue Jays entered their 21st consecutive spring training without a post-season appearance. Before a Grapefruit League ticket had been scanned, the club lost its starting left-fielder when Michael Saunders stepped on a sprinkler head. Days later, the most promising arm in the rotation was sidelined for the season (or so we were led to believe) when Marcus Stroman blew out his ACL during a routine drill.

By the middle of May, the Blue Jays were floundering. Night after night, an explosive offence was undone by a malfunctioning pitching staff. Josh Donaldson was moved to suggest: "This isn’t the ‘try’ league, it’s the ‘get it done’ league."

By late July, it became clear that a major alteration to the roster was necessary. So the cupboard of prospects was emptied. Goodbye Jeff Hoffman and Daniel Norris, welcome Troy Tulowitzki and David Price.

From the first day of August until they secured the American League East title, the Blue Jays lost only 14 games. Sellouts at the Rogers Centre became commonplace; so did television audiences in the millions.

This was all very new to Jose Bautista. Unlike most of his teammates, he’d been part of a Blue Jays odyssey that began in the days of bleak crowds and black uniforms. His acquisition from Pittsburgh in 2008 went virtually unnoticed, and Toronto looked like his last chance. A small piece of advice from Vernon Wells got his leg-kick started early. That, coupled with regular playing time from Cito Gaston, turned Bautista into a legitimate star. But every year, the arrival of fall meant watching the post-season from afar.

No longer.

The Blue Jays lost the first two games of the ALDS in Toronto then evened up the series with two victories in Texas. With the deciding game entering the seventh inning tied, the Rangers took a 3–2 lead when Russell Martin’s throw back to the pitcher hit Shin-Soo Choo’s bat, allowing Rougned Odor to score.

After the Blue Jays pulled even in the bottom of the inning, Bautista stood in against Rangers pitcher Sam Dyson with two men on base.

Now, Jose Bautista has hit some home runs in fits of fury before. Most have come against Baltimore, and none has been as important as this. With almost a third of the country’s population watching on television, Bautista’s blast ensured the Blue Jays would advance to the American League Championship Series. But it was the toss of the bat that created a stir.

Long-time observers claimed the game had changed, refusing to admit that bat-tossing has been going on since the days of Reggie Jackson, and probably longer. Dyson told a reporter that Bautista needed to "respect the game a little more."

Jose Bautista wasn’t disrespecting the game. He was throwing aside years of mediocrity, expelling all the seasons lost to the rich Yankees, "idiot" Red Sox (as they dubbed themselves in 2004) and pitching-happy Rays. He reacted with the kind of emotion every Blue Jays fan must have felt. Jose flipped his bat, and millions in this country flipped with him. What’s wrong with that?

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