Bautista, who's playing out his final days with the Blue Jays, has been doubted and vilified every step of the way but the polarizing star always stayed true to himself to become one of baseball's great characters.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jose Bautista is very quietly playing out his final days with the Toronto Blue Jays.
His contract with the team contains a mutual option for 2018, but there's no chance the Blue Jays choose to exercise their end of it, as it would require them to pay him $17 million next year.
Bautista, who in his heyday commanded the strike zone like few others in the game, is set to eclipse the club's single-season strikeout record held by Jose Canseco and Kelly Johnson. He could also post the worst batting average ever by a Blue Jays hitter who played enough games to qualify for a batting title—Aaron Hill's mark of .205 in 2010 is the lowest. By the time the next two weeks are up, and Bautista has received his last Rogers Centre serenade in a Blue Jays uniform, one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise may well hold two of its most ignominious records.
That such dubious feats are flying mostly under the radar speaks to a number of things about the Blue Jays' season and about Bautista's place in it. Fans are too exhausted from all the losing, and too resigned to their fate, to make much of a stink about the iconic right fielder slowly sinking into sub-mediocrity.
It's somewhat ironic that now, when his play actually warrants it, the knives aren't out for Bautista. Because if there is one defining characteristic of Jose Bautista's big league career, maybe even more than the leg kick or the home runs down the left field line, it's how often and how unnecessarily he's had to take shit. And how he's handled it all with such aplomb.
If few players over the last decade could match his prodigious home run-hitting skills, fewer still could match the litany of slights, questions, doubts, and straight-up dislike Bautista provoked—sometimes intentionally, but often not. And through it all, Jose Bautista defiantly remained Jose Bautista—a beast on the inner half of the plate, an All-Star, pitchman, and face of the franchise. Magnetic, unapologetic, the cannon-armed right fielder will one day have his name enshrined on the Blue Jays' ring of honour thanks to his incredible career with the club, but it's Bautista the character—or the caricature, a vengeance-fuelled Charles Bronson metaphorically stalking down and humiliating Darren O'Day for a perceived slight—that will hold a place in the hearts of so many Jays fans. (The ones who didn't only begrudgingly tolerate him, at least.)
Bautista's big league career began with the kind of indignity few players suffer. At age 19, in 2000, he was a 20th round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He didn't sign a contract until May of the following year, and so by the end of 2003 had completed three seasons of pro ball. Under the rules at that time, this meant that he would either need to be added to the Pirates' 40-man roster or left exposed to selection in the Rule Five draft.
Pittsburgh chose not to put him on their 40-man, and thus began Bautista's crude introduction to the cruelties of MLB's economic system. Despite having yet to reach Double-A, and with only 51 games at High-A, Bautista was taken in the Rule Five draft by the Baltimore Orioles.
Jays fans will remember from the cases of Joe Biagini in 2016 and Glenn Sparkman this season that Rule Five players must remain on the club that selected them for a full year in order to become "property" of that organization. If the team tries to remove the player from their big league roster, they must first offer him back to the team he was selected from.
Bautista's Orioles career lasted 16 games and just 12 plate appearances.
The Pirates didn't take him back, so Baltimore tried to assign him to the minors—but to do that they first had to put him on waivers. In June 2004, he was claimed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His Rays career lasted 12 games and 15 plate appearances, before he was dealt (for cash) at the end of June to the Royals, who needed a quick replacement for injured third baseman Joe Randa.
Bautista's Royals career lasted 13 games and 26 plate appearances.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, on July 30 Bautista was dealt to the Mets for first baseman Justin Huber. He was then immediately flipped back to Pittsburgh, along with Ty Wigginton and someone named Matt Pearson, in exchange for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger.
None of these organizations were interested in Bautista as a player. They weren't interested in his development—which they actively hindered by holding him hostage on their big league benches, too afraid to let him face pitching too advanced for a 23-year-old who had never faced anything close to a big leaguer before being thrown to the wolves. They were interested in him purely as a commodity. And if the seeds of the clear-eyed, all-business, self-determining Bautista we know and love hadn't yet been planted by then, it's safe to assume that those five transactions in seven months did the trick.
Jose had been chewed up and spit out by the industry. It would be hard to blame him if it left him feeling somewhat jaded. The loss of development time alone might have ruined other, less determined players. He came to the plate just 96 times for the entire 2004 season, all of them in the big leagues, and then finally reached Double-A in 2005.
It wouldn't be the last time the industry tried to hold Jose Bautista back.
For the following unpopular question, blame Major League Baseball and all the nonsense it has spewed over the past decade.
Don't blame me.
When it comes to Jose Bautista, how is it exactly that at the age of 29 he's suddenly become the most dangerous power hitter in baseball?
Chance? Healthy living? Diet? New contact lenses? Comfortable batting gloves?
The date was August 10, 2010, late in Bautista's breakout 54 home run campaign, and the writer preemptively claiming innocence was Damien Cox of the Toronto Star.
The piece is no longer available on the Star's website, but you can see it via the Wayback Machine, still dripping with all the original sarcasm and condescension. It became infamous partly because of Cox's pompous insistence that "you've got to at least ask the question," but that was far from the worst part.
He brought up the story of Brady Anderson, who raised steroid-era eyebrows with an out-of-nowhere 50 home run season in 1996. He called the Blue Jays "a nest for alleged steroid abusers over the years." He suggested money as a motive. He tried to assert his authority as a truth-teller on the subject by talking about receiving "bushels of bitter emails from baseball fans when questioning Mark McGwire's open use of androstenedione back when he was smashing Roger Maris' record." And he scoffingly punctuated it throughout with comments like, "Really? Quite a story, huh?"
Innocently just "asking the question" it was not. But Cox was far from alone in ignoring the mechanical changes that unlocked Bautista's greatness and trying to obtusely shoehorn him into a lazy PED narrative. And it wasn't just the bloggers and the blowhards.
In 2011, ESPN published a piece by Amy K. Nelson and Peter Keating that introduced the world to "the man in white," a person who supposedly sat regularly in the outfield at Rogers Centre, allegedly signaling incoming pitches to Blue Jays hitters—including the newly prolific slugger, Bautista. The statistical heart of the piece was easily debunked—though there were many Blue Jays who had been better hitters at home (which is hardly uncommon), there were plenty of others who'd been better on the road (where they were not alleged to have been getting outside help)—but again it cast suspicion.
Even the league itself seemed to have its doubts, seemed to think it was actually possible that the lithe and quick-wristed slugger, who had made a clear mechanical adjustment (adding a noticeable leg kick and starting his swing earlier) before his breakout, had found some kind of magic home run pills that, for whatever reason, his supplier wasn't giving to anybody else in the world. The Globe and Mail reported in the spring of 2012 that at a gala that winter in the Dominican Republic, Bautista had said that he'd been drug tested 16 times in the previous two seasons, and that he'd only been tested three times in the two years before that—before his breakout.
Bautista's verbal response at the time? "I don't care. I don't care how many times they test me." He added, "but it is getting annoying that people keep asking me about it."
His response on the field would be just about as emphatic. He dealt with injuries in 2012 and 2013, but was as good as ever when healthy. Whatever shit was thrown his way, he turned on it.
After two years of passing tests and proving naysayers wrong, by 2013, Bautista had cemented himself as one of the game's truly elite hitters. He had finished fourth and third in American League MVP voting in 2010 and 2011, would that year play in his fourth straight All-Star Game, and start his third straight. Roy Halladay was long gone. Jose was the face of the Blue Jays.
But by then he had developed "a reputation." A master of the strike zone, with the eye of a watchmaker, Bautista didn't hide it well when umpires disagreed with what his instincts told him. In fact, he had no intention of hiding from his feelings—not on the field, and certainly not when confronted about incidents by media after the fact.
On Opening Day 2013, Bautista was as demonstrative as ever with umpire Jeff Nelson, causing a rush of hot takes from writers and talking heads who, with the season just underway, had nothing so juicy to yammer on about as the Blue Jays' star slugger and his supposedly unbefitting conduct. Absurd as it might be—insulting to umpires, whose job it is to be impartial, as it might be—it's not difficult to get fans riled up about the notion of a player undermining his club's success, and his own, by getting on the wrong side of the men in blue. Bautista, though, was always magnificently unapologetic about it.
"Sometimes I have trouble more than other players dealing with my production being affected by somebody else's mediocrity. It's just the way that I am as a person, it's a tougher pill to swallow for me sometimes," he said following the game.
Asked if he was paying for past reactions, Bautista said he's not a robot and cannot control his emotions all the time. He asked reporters to judge it case by case.
Comments about his own production, rather than team goals, didn't exactly endear Bautista to a certain segment of fans, either. But the thing is, over the six seasons from his breakout in 2010 to what now looks clearly to have been his last elite season in 2015, Bautista was worth 32.5 wins above replacement—the sixth-best total for a position player over that span, trailing only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, and Joey Votto. His wRC+ of 156 ranks fourth in all of baseball for that span. His walk rate ranks second behind only Votto. His 227 home runs were the best in baseball by 28. Of the 32 players with at least 130 home runs over that span, his strikeout rate was 7th lowest. If umpires were conspiring against him, it was being done so subtly as to be nonexistent.
This didn't stop Bautista from hearing about his conduct, though. The anti-Jose drumbeat from within his own fan base continued on through that miserable lost season—a season that had started with huge trades and huge promise, and fizzled so spectacularly.
By the end of it, even the grandfatherly voice of the Blue Jays, Jerry Howarth, typically so saccharine sweet, was full-on ready to run Bautista out of town.
In an October 2013 radio hit that I transcribed in a long-deleted post at Drunk Jays Fans (and quoted last summer at Blue Jays Nation), Howarth pulled no punches:
Here's what I saw: that, where the leadership went from being positive to being negative. And then that negative attitude—especially with umpires, and his continual complaining, and giving up at-bats. And one time, with a runner at first base and one out, hitting a fly ball to right field, and he turned and walked back to the third base dugout. What is going on here??
Here's what happened: Jose Reyes, a good kid, a four-time All-Star, he started to complain about the umpiring because of who? Jose Bautista. When Bautista wasn't there, the last month-and-a-half, that allowed Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion to emerge as leaders. That's what you want in 2014. And if Bautista can give you something—a piece that you don't have right now—do it, because the other leaders are in place, and all they need is that opening to take and run with it, and I can see them doing that.
The fact that Bautista wasn't with the club for the final month and a half should have maybe told Jerry something about why he may not have sprinted his hardest on every single fly out (Bautista suffered with back and achilles issues over the course of the year, before being shut down in mid-August with a hip problem), but such was the conversation at the time. And while I don't think it's at all unfair to wonder if there were sometimes other factors involved in all this, too—would he have taken as much shit had his name been Johnson or Smith?—Jose never could quite make it easy on himself.
Nor should he have had to. Nor should we be anything but thrilled that he didn't.
Jose Bautista stayed true to himself all the way through. Ultimately, I think that became the greatest gift he gave to Blue Jays fans. And it was all because of a singular, incredible, spine-tingling moment.
The Jays didn't trade Bautista after 2013, like Howarth had wanted, and Jose responded to that era of taking shit the way he responded to all the other shit he took in his career: by hitting dingers. Thirty-five of them in 2014, to be precise. And 40 more in 2015.
He still had his run-ins with umpires, and the occasional blow-up on the field. The Orioles were at the centre of a lot of it. He had his battles with O'Day, and won. Another O's reliever, Jason Garcia, threw behind him in April 2015, and Bautista promptly went yard two pitches later, getting flak from Baltimore players for admiring his home run. He jawed with Adam Jones, and then hurt his shoulder trying to throw out Delmon Young at first base, from right field. What was once a cannon of an arm would never look the same again, but Bautista was having none of the Orioles' trash.
"The only thing I heard was [Jones] saying that was bush league or something," Bautista told reporters at the time. "What was bush league was throwing behind me."
But, of course, the defining moment of Bautista's 2015—not to mention the Blue Jays' 2015, Bautista's career as a whole, the entire 2015 baseball season as a whole, and the last 20-odd years of Blue Jays baseball—came in the seventh inning of the winner-take-all contest against the Rangers in Game 5 of the ALDS. The Rangers had gone up 3-2 in the top half of the frame on a bizarre play. The jam-packed Rogers Centre filled with anger and menace. But after a comedy of Texas errors allowed the tying run to score in the bottom half of the inning, with two on and two out, Bautista hit the release valve. A monumental blast off Sam Dyson. An emphatic bat flip. Pandemonium.
It was instantly the signature moment in an incredible career, and even it couldn't quite be enjoyed without wading through shit. Hot takes. Goose Gossage. Full-diapered Rangers players. Suddenly Bautista's supposed lack of compunction, his "attitude," and his "respect for the game," became national issues.
After the Jays were knocked out of the playoffs and the Royals had inexplicably won the World Series, Jose responded to the critics and the haters in a piece for The Players' Tribune. It was as brilliant as it was thoroughly Bautista (albeit filtered through a ghostwriter).
He questions the backlash about his character and the "disrespect" he supposedly showed the game. He describes the Dominican baseball culture he grew up in. He declares that "to us, baseball isn't a country club game. It's our national pastime, and it comes packed with emotion." He derides the idea that everybody should think the same and act the same, and the dinosaurs who hide behind notions of "respect." He makes the case—both economically (because of course he does, he's Jose Bautista), and spiritually—that baseball should be fun.
He doesn't back down, either. Nor does he hide from the racial dynamics that seem to so frequently be in play when these issues arise.
I flipped my bat. I'm human. The emotion got to me. It's in my DNA. If you think that makes me a jerk, that's fine. But let's call it what it is. Let's not have these loaded conversations about "character" and the integrity of the game every time certain players show emotion in a big moment. That kind of thinking is not just old school. It's just ignorant.
The essay was just about as on-point and perfectly timed as the bat flip itself. And, also like that moment, is made more poignant by all the personal and cultural history that comes along with it. Bautista can be both cerebral and emotional, menacing and exuberant, incredibly disciplined and out of control. There is a genuine and complicated humanity to him in that way that we're not always fortunate enough to get to see in our favourite athletes, and in the essay it comes across—all of it.
This was, by no means, the end of Jose Bautista taking shit, nor the end of his handling it with grace and composure. The baseball world got giddy in 2016 after Rougned Odor's right cross to Bautista's jaw. Few batted an eye when Orioles GM Dan Duquette, just months after the Yankees handed Aroldis Chapman an $86 million contract, had the audacity to suggest that O's fans wouldn't like Bautista—then doubled down on those comments by saying they'd prefer a more "gritty," "working-class-type." Few seemed to find curious the lack of a market last winter for a slugger so recently valuable, as Jose lingered in free agency until the end of January.
Unfortunately, his on-field response this season hasn't been of the quality that we've grown accustomed to. The clock is ticking on Jose Bautista, and when the time comes for him to go, it will be a loss for the Blue Jays and baseball. Yes, he was a great player, a great talent, a great story, but he was also a unique player and a fascinating player. Always in his own way, he's been of the game's great characters—or, to some, one of its great villains. But he hasn't let that negativity define him, nor do I think we should. It is shameful and, frankly, uncomfortable to think that he took as much shit as he did for as long as he did, but to his eternal credit he's left us all better for it.
It's OK for baseball to be fun, frustrating, joyful, intense, and every emotion in between. Few players have shown us that so absolutely clearly while playing as spectacularly as Jose Bautista did. Few players have seemed to understand their craft, and themselves, so well, and fewer still have been able to use that to hold up a mirror to those of us in the crowd and the media. As he plays out his final days here in Toronto, don't be afraid to show the kind of emotion he deserves. Don't miss your chance to celebrate him with all the passion he insisted on playing with. Because what we've watched these last 10 seasons has been very, very special. Joey Bats is a badass and has consistently taken all the shit he's dealt with like a champion.