But the best, and most obvious place to start a discussion of Bautista’s legacy, is with his rise to stardom in 2010. A year in which he hammered 54 home runs, drove in 124 RBI, and put up an elite 165 WRC+. Although Bautista’s overall numbers were excellent in 2010, the true greatness of this season requires more context to be fully understood.
Hitting 50 home runs is a tremendous accomplishment for any major leaguer. It’s a rarefied group that only 26 other players in the history of baseball can say of which they are a part. However, I believe the case could be made that Bautista’s 50 home run season was one of the most special, not because he had the most raw talents of anyone on this list, but because of what it signified to the Blue Jays organization, their fans, and the rest of Major League Baseball as a whole.
In 2009, the season before Bautista’s breakout, the Blue Jays weren’t a very good team. They finished a pedestrian 75–87 which was bad enough that both the GM and manager were to replaced the following season. In addition, the Jays also seemed destined for a long, painful rebuild, which was signified by the decision to trade their perennial Cy Young candidate and franchise player Roy Halladay for a handful of prospects.
This represented a change in the clubs direction, a shift from the mediocrity that had plagued this team for most of the 2000’s towards a slow, painstaking rebuild. Expectations were rightfully low for the 2010 Jays team, yet out of the ashes of this anticipated struggle came a relatively unknown right fielder from the Dominican Republic, who shocked everyone by smashing his way into record books, and leading the Jays to an unanticipated 85–77 finish.
José Bautista’s 2010 is not just great because of the numbers, but more because of what the numbers represent. He created hope for other Jays players and fans on a club where there was very little hope to be found. He led an uninspired, rebuilding team, to become a respectable club, which would go on to win an impressive 85 games, far exceeding their preseason expectations.
The sense of hope and excitement that came attached with Bautista’s name lasted throughout his tenure with Toronto. The feeling of anticipation that came with watching virtually every Bautista at bat is what makes him so special. That’s what separates him from other greats of this era, not because Bautista has more physical talent than other great players, but because of what he means to fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, and their organization as a whole.
Bautista’s initial breakout was miraculous in it’s own right, but the feelings of hope and anticipation that came with watching him play spread throughout most of his Blue Jays career. His feuds with Orioles reliever Darren O’Day in 2013, and again in 2015 have been interpreted as disrespectful by outsiders without context, but to Jays fans they represent the passion and desire to win, which the club had lacked since their last trip to the World Series in 1993.
Clashes with other players including Ivan Nova and Jason Garcia, which ended with massive Bautista revenge home runs gave him a reputation as “a hitter you don’t want to face when he’s angry”. Admittedly, this probably contributed massively in the dislike of Bautista by many players in MLB , but to Blue Jays fans, what Bautista did was simply astonishing. He inspired an entire generation of Jays fans to watch, cheer, and be hopeful and interested in what could have been nearly unwatchable baseball teams without him.
Of course, this isn’t even to mention the most notable, iconic, and exciting moment of his career: his now famous bat flip in game five of the 2015 ALDS. With this one swing of the bat, Bautista went from a great player on a mediocre team to one of the most polarizing players in all of baseball and possibly the greatest Blue Jay of all time.
Perhaps the greatest thing about what Bautista did in this game is the fact that it perfectly encapsulated what he’d done his entire Blue Jays career. The Jays had just surrendered the lead in the most unimaginable way possible in the top half of that same inning. Hope was lost as the Jays appeared destined to fall apart, just as the club had before 2010. But just as Bautista gave hope to Jays fans by coming out of nowhere five seasons earlier, he came out of nowhere to hit what was essentially a series clinching three-run homerun that excited and enticed Blue Jays fans everywhere. This moment was special, in a way that no singular moment has inspired me and other Blue Jays fans to love José Bautista, the Blue Jays, and baseball in general. In my lifetime, there has never been a singular moment that has propelled me into loving baseball more than that no-doubt bomb.
It’s easy to understand why so many people within Major League Baseball dislike Bautista. In his career, he’s rubbed a lot of opposing players and organizations the wrong way. But this is one of things Jays fans love about Bautista: how much the rest of league despises his greatness. He didn’t care about what other people thought of him, instead he went out and performed in a way that only make opposing teams jealous that he wasn’t on their team. It was the rest of baseball’s hatred of Bautista that made Blue Jays fans love him even more.
As he walked off the Rogers Centre turf for what was most likely the final time as a Blue Jay last Sunday, the realization that the end of the great story of José Bautista finally struck me. Even though he hasn’t been very good by any objective measure this season, the ways which he’s created hope, inspiration, anticipation, and excitement is something which is unmatched by any other baseball player I have ever seen.
Blue Jays fans everywhere will be forever grateful for what Bautista did for this franchise, both through on field performance, and the meaning of him off it. Thank you José. You’ve made a greater difference towards inspiring love of baseball to me and other young Blue Jays fans than any other player in your generation.
P.S. This is one of the my favourite moments of Bautista’s Blue Jays career.
.@simmonssteve who are you and why are you talking to me?
— Jose Bautista (@JoeyBats19) October 1, 2014
Featured Photo: Jose Bautista walking off the field in what is likely his final home game as a Blue Jay last Sunday (courtesy of the Toronto Star)