Brunt: Appreciate your star while you still can

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Toronto has a habit of not really embracing its biggest sports heroes. And that’s exactly what Jose Bautista is.

Toronto as a sports city has had trouble fully appreciating its best.

Plucky overachievers get plenty of adoration, but when truly sublime talents land in town, they often inspire a kind of strange ambivalence. And then when they leave and return wearing another uniform, they are cast as cheating lovers, the realities of the sports business be damned. A lack of championships has something to do with it—even a trip to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup semifinals was enough to bestow permanent hero status on all the ’93 Maple Leafs—but that’s not the whole story.

Consider Roberto Alomar, a fundamental piece of two World Series teams and the greatest Blue Jays player ever, who left Toronto with management whispering that he was a negative presence in the clubhouse and the fans largely buying it. (Years passed before the city was willing to re-embrace him as its own, the ambivalence lasting until Alomar’s Hall of Fame induction wearing a Jays cap.) And of the non-winners, consider Vince Carter, who provided so many peak basketball experiences but was punished for dancing to Nelly while injured and attending his college graduation; or Carlos Delgado, who was magnificent for Toronto on and off the field and then was allowed to walk without inspiring much protest; or Chris Bosh, admired though never completely embraced in Carter’s wake; or Mats Sundin, who wasn’t allowed to take the place of Wendel and Dougie in the hearts of Maple Leaf fans.

Watching Jose Bautista in his finest hour, you sense that pattern is about to be repeated.

Perhaps the Blue Jays will return to the playoffs and perhaps in the euphoria that would inevitably ensue, Bautista’s central role in holding the team together during this roller-coaster campaign will be acknowledged. But with one year left on his contract, the moment of parting is just beyond the horizon. It’s hard to see Bautista re-signing (or the Jays re-signing him) during what figures to be a youth movement for the franchise. Less hard to imagine, if things go pear-shaped between now and the end of next season, is Bautista being traded, either by his own request or simply to maximize his value as an asset. Then, once more, the awkward break-up dance…

You can argue that Bautista doesn’t make it easy for folks to warm to him, that in interviews he can seem aloof. He is a very bright guy, and very aware that he is a bright guy. He still carries a chip on his shoulder from when he was barely hanging on as the 25th man on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster, before Toronto (and especially then-manager Cito Gaston) offered him the chance to evolve into one of the premier power hitters in baseball.

Last season, after the big trades with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets transformed the Blue Jays, Bautista appeared a bit uneasy with the team’s new internal dynamics. He battled needlessly with umpires as though distracted, and then for the second straight year was felled by injury. But this past spring Bautista arrived in Dunedin in spectacular physical condition, hit a home run in his first Grapefruit League at-bat and reaffirmed once and for all that his locker (and no, not every Blue Jay loves him, but all respect him) was where the buck stopped.

From Opening Day, he took walks, hit the ball the other way, gave himself up when appropriate and sacrificed his own power numbers for the sake of the greater good. He played wherever he was needed in the field. And at what now seems like the season’s tipping point, after the all-star break, with the heart of the Toronto lineup injured, with Bautista stripped of all protection in the batting order, with all kinds of reasons to wave the white flag, he refused to waver.

Baseball isn’t a rah-rah sport. You don’t win for the Gipper over 162 games. Inspirational speech-making, in all games, is way overrated.

Guaranteed, though, is that when things looked dire, when surrender seemed a reasonable option, the other Jays looked to Bautista for a sign, a thumbs-up or -down. What they saw was a great baseball player going to work, playing unselfishly, doing everything possible to keep a depleted team in the pennant race.

(His comments as the trade deadline passed, expressing disappointment that the front office had failed to make a move to improve the team, might have seemed self-serving on first listen, before it became clear that they came with the quiet backing of his teammates. That’s what leaders do as well—saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said, and in the wake of the Ervin Santana salary-deferral fiasco in the spring, it’s hardly shocking that a little us-against-the-world-including-our-owners has crept into the clubhouse, which might not be a bad thing. A few minutes after expressing his feelings, Bautista stepped up to the plate and hit a home run in his first at-bat.)

However this turns out, Bautista’s leadership is worth remembering every bit as much as the 54-home-run season. And when he’s gone—and soon enough he will be—and comes back to town wearing enemy colours, let’s hope he’ll get a tip of the cap rather than the bum’s rush. Let’s hope we’ll all understand just how lucky we were to have had him at all.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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