Baseball is a game of moments. That is one of the main reasons I love it and have been addicted to it since childhood.
Unlike hockey or football or soccer or basketball – sports with more flow, traffic, and general chaos – baseball can be divided into short segments, each of which can be analyzed in a myriad of ways. These smaller fragments allow for fans of the game to more easily compare players, teams, or, more importantly, moments.
The history of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise can be divided into four eras: the early years, the glory years, the dark years, and the resurgent years. Each era indelibly has moments that stand out. Think of George Bell sinking to his knees in 1985 in celebration of the first AL East title. Think of the huge playoff home runs by Roberto Alomar, Ed Sprague, and Joe Carter. Or consider huge individual games for Carlos Delgado, or award winning seasons by Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens, or Roy Halladay. All have a fond place in our memories.
But the history of a baseball team is linear: so much of how each moment is interpreted depends on what came before it.
Think: would Alomar’s iconic home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS have meant so much had the 1985 team finished what they started? I don’t think so. That group of players was supposed to kick off a baseball dynasty in Toronto, but kept faltering at the worst possible moments. The Alomar homer needed the blown 3-1 lead to Kansas City in ’85, the slow starts that doomed the ’86 and ’88 teams, the late season collapses in ’87 and ’90, and the playoff failures of ’89 and ’91 in order to feel so special. That darkness led to the greatness.
All of which leads me to Jose Bautista.
There is a lot being written about Joey Bats right now as he plays what is more than likely his final homestand as a Toronto Blue Jay. I have seen tribute videos. I have seen countdown lists. I have read articles praising him for his decade of service north of the border. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say what I’m about to say here: Jose Bautista very well might be the most important player in franchise history.
Importance is a very subjective term that doesn’t lend itself to measurement. Each and every person can interpret it differently, create their own criteria, and draw their own conclusions.
By all objective accounts, Bautista is not the greatest player the Jays have ever seen. He will not be joining Alomar in the Hall of Fame. In terms of WAR, he ranks third behind Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado. His .881 OPS ( as of today) trails Delgado, Donaldson, and McGriff. He ranks third in runs scored, sixth in hits, second in home runs, third in RBI, and second in walks. He wasn’t here the longest (6th in games played), didn’t make the most All-Star teams (6 to Dave Stieb‘s 7), and never won an individual award (despite four top-10 MVP finishes). So you can’t call him the best.
But it is the moments he created – more importantly, the meaning behind those moments – that make him the most important.
Bautista was responsible for many classic moments over the years. There were his epic one-on-one battles with Ivan Nova and Darren O’Day, his 50th home run in 2010 off King Felix, his many huge outfield assists where he gunned runners down, or his legendary 9th inning home run in Seattle last year in front of thousands of traveling Canadian fans.
But the bat flip….the bat flip was something else entirely.
Let’s be honest: between May of 1994 (where it became pretty clear that there would be no three-peat) and July of 2015, Toronto was baseball’s no-man’s land. It was a team – and to some extent, a city – without an identity. The Jays sometimes made big splashes (Roger Clemens, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, the Jose Reyes trade), and sometimes had some great individual accomplishments (Rookie of the Year and Cy Young seasons, All-Star campaigns), but more often than not appeared lost in the wilderness. They were a team in a big market that operated with a small market mentality. They had no swagger, no confidence. They were always an afterthought.
Bautista’s emergence in 2010 started to change all of that, but it was the bat flip that once and for all demolished it.
With one swing of the bat both the Toronto Blue Jays and the city of Toronto were back on the landscape. The blast, the sneer, and the accompanying emotional reaction announced to the world that this team and this market would no longer be pushed around or bullied. Not by the Red Sox, not by the Yankees, not by anybody. The home run let baseball know that the Blue Jays were confident and cocky, and showed just how loved and embraced they were by not only the city but the entire country. It was the singular most important moment in decades and it was all because of one man.
People started following the Blue Jays again because of Bautista. MLB.com began featuring stories on the Blue Jays again because of Bautista. Blue Jay caps, shirts, and jerseys began popping up all over Canada again because of Bautista. Pop culture and other sporting celebrities began flocking to the Rogers Centre because of Bautista.
It’s no secret that Jose is struggling this year, and if this is indeed his final few days as a Jay, going out with sub-par numbers on a last place team is far from how we’d like to see him go.
But even if this is the end, his legacy will endure. His attitude, his preparation, the ferocity with which he played the game will live on within guys like Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, Josh Donaldson, and Devon Travis, and from them to players like Guerrero, Bichette, and Alford. In a few years from now his name will be enshrined on the Level of Excellence, and (hopefully) a statue of the bat flip will be erected outside the stadium.
But until then there are still four games left, four opportunities for fans to serenade him with all the love and pomp and adulation he deserves.
Though the concept of importance might indeed be subjective, and thought there still may be doubt in the minds of many where Jose fits in, consider one final argument. The Blue Jays have eclipsed the 3-million mark in attendance for the second straight year. Attendance has more than doubled since the year Bautista became a star. There is no denying those numbers and there is no denying that most of those people came to see Jose Bautista.
And at least in my mind there is no denying Jose Bautista’s place as the most important player in Blue Jays history.
Godspeed Jose. You will be missed.