Baseball fans love statistics. We’re obsessed with them, so let me give you a statistic; 5. 5 is how many teams Jose Bautista was with in 2004.
That’s a record, and it’s not one anyone would want to hold. In fact, he was employed by 5 teams that year, but one literally traded him away the same day they traded for him. To sum up;
- Bautista was employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates let the Baltimore Orioles take him in the “Rule V” draft, which is basically a mechanism whereby you can take players from other teams the other teams don’t really care about keeping.
- After playing for a couple of weeks in Baltimore, the Orioles decided they didn’t want him anymore and let Tampa Bay take him for nothing.
- After playing two weeks for Tampa Bay, they didn’t want him anymore either, and sold him to the Royals for a nominal amount of cash.
- The Royals let him play two weeks and then threw him in to a trade with the Mets as a spare part.
- The same day they got him, the Mets threw him in as a spare part in another trade, with the Pirates, where he had started. It’s entirely likely Bautista was not aware he was employed by the Mets until after he no longer was.
All five teams Jose Bautista was employed by in 2004 were terrible. Every one of them was a dumpster fire of a team, and none of them thought they had any use for a man who would one day lead the major leagues in home runs. Twice.
I’m sure most baseball fans and many people who aren’t remember this.
To understand this moment, which happened eleven years after he was thrown from team to team like the last kid picked for a gym class game, you need to know what happened before.
After that weird 2004 season he stuck with Pittsburgh, a team mired in the midst of the longest stretch of losing seasons in the history of major North American professional sports. He was a decent player, who got some hits and could play any position, and on that disaster of a team was one of the better players they had, but in 2008 they gave him to Toronto for – this is true – a “player to be named later.” They literally just handed him over and said “give us someone else, I dunno.” A few days later they got Robinson Diaz, who was swiftly forgotten.
Jose Bautista is a very proud man, and very intelligent. I am sure all these slights bothered him, but he was still in the majors and he kept trying. Cito Gaston, who briefly managed him, called him “unusually coachable,” which is high praise. Most players in their late 20s are set; they cannot change how they play baseball. By late 2009 he was slowing down – he was 28, old for a baseball player – and needed to get better. So he changed. He “wanted to be great,” it was said of him, and he was willing to change how he swung a bat to be great. That’s a high risk move; if you change the way you swing, and it exposes any weakness, if you are slower or less precise in some tiny way as a result, you can go from being an okay player to being out of professional baseball in six weeks. But he wanted to be better and he was smart enough to do it. The coaching staff helped him adjust his swing, and in September of that year he hit ten home runs. That’s a hell of a month.
The next year he hit 54 home runs. That led the league by 15, the largest margin by which a person had won a home run title since the 60s. It was, and still is, a Blue Jays record.
He kept hitting. He led the majors in homers again in 2011, and would have in 2012 had he not gotten injured. But people didn’t like him. Opponents thought he was too demonstrative. He argued with umpires too much. Damien Cox, a Toronto sportswriter, who like a lot of Toronto sportswriters is really just a hockey writer who grudgingly writes about other sports when July rolls around, accused him of using steroids solely because he was hitting well. The Jays’ play by play man on the radio, Jerry Howarth, mused that Bautista should be traded because he wasn’t enough of a “leader.” He had no evidence for this, but by this point the team had been losing for 20 seasons, and a sure sign of a culture of losing is blaming your best player for the other players not being good enough. Steve Simmons, another Toronto sportswriter whose baseball writing proves he knows a lot about hockey, ripped Bautista for years for reasons no one could explain. The fact Bautista is Latino probably had a lot to do with it too. If he had lighter skin and was named Joe Baker you’d have heard a lot less of that crap.
Up until 1993, the Toronto Blue Jays mattered. They mattered to baseball, anyway. Created in 1977, they rapidly became a good team. They were a model organization, as professional and successful as any. Their shiny new stadium was the first in the new wave of baseball stadia, and set unheard-of records for attendance. They developed a countless array of fine players. They contended every year for a decade, and they topped it off with back to back World Series wins in 1992-1993. The Blue Jays were the biggest ticket in entertainment in Canada; people started saying, in complete seriousness, that Toronto was becoming a baseball town instead of a hockey town. Bill James, the greatest baseball writer of my lifetime, called Toronto “the third great and powerful city” of baseball, meaning New York and L.A. to be the first two.
And then suddenly the bottom dropped out. After winning it all in 1993, the team was bad in 1994, and terrible in 1995, and then for a very long time they were just… there. They noodled around, never being really bad but never really being good. They didn’t go to the playoffs and never really got close. They stopped being a team that anyone thought about. They had some awfully good players, but never enough at the same time. They just… existed, and baseball as a whole stopped caring, and soon Torontonians, and Canadians, stopped caring. The players quite often appeared not to care. The team’s owners never really cared; they were happy to make what money they could off the sheer size of the market. I always cared, but it was kind of lonely.
Jose Bautista started to change that. He REALLY cared. He played baseball angry; it’s often said the reason he ended up a Blue Jay is that he showed up the Jays in a game when playing against them, and the Blue Jay brass said “Man, we could use a guy who plays like that.” He became a huge star, a home run champion, and suddenly the Jays started to matter again, a little. People watched. They wanted to know who the hell this amazing player was. The owners, seeing that interest come back, started trying to win. And then the magical 2015 run and the Jays mattered a lot, and the fans filled the seats, and the eyes of baseball were on Toronto on that night in October that he hit that home run.
Jose Bautista is not a huge, muscular guy. He is not, and has never been, particularly fast. Obviously, he’s a professional athlete, so he is strong and fast, but at any time there were hundreds of guys in professional baseball who were stronger and faster. Bautista hit 54 home runs in one season because he studied the game. He practiced incessantly. He adjusted. He thought and planned and had a scheme for every at-bat. He got everything out of himself he could.
After his home run titles in 2010 and 2011, Bautista was hurt in 2012; he played well when he was in there, but people started questioning his dedication, as if athletes don’t get hurt. He was hurt against in 2013 and that’s when people said he “wasn’t a leader” even though he played hurt, and played better hurt than most guys could play healthy. So he played all of 2014 and was amazing, and all of 2015 and was amazing, and of course the Jays finally, after so long, won something, and when the most important at bat by any Blue Jay player in 22 years came up, it was Jose Bautista at the plate, and he hit a titanic home run and won a playoff series. Years and years and years of people telling him he wasn’t good, and then that he was cheating, and then that he was good but not a leader, and then that he was the leader of a mediocre team. When it finally came time to show them all wrong he hit a 420-foot home run. And then people complained that after all of that frustration, after being the face of a team that had won nothing at all for 22 years and being its only star for several years and finally getting to a playoffs, With 50,000 fans literally singing his name, he hits a series-winning home run, and all those fans went utterly crazy, that he had the nerve to flip his bat in celebration.
Well, screw them if they don’t like Jose Bautista. I like him just fine.
Jose Bautista is done in a week; today was his last day in Toronto as a Blue Jay. He had two hits. It may be his last week as a major leaguer. He was the best outfielder the Toronto Blue Jays ever had. He certainly brought me a lot of happiness, in the silly way baseball does to me. Thanks, Mr. Bautista. Flip one today for us.