Mike Harrington: A fond farewell for Bautista in Toronto? - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington: A fond farewell for Bautista in Toronto?

TORONTO -- There was one out in the top of the ninth inning Sunday and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons showed he understood how to make great theater.

With two outs left in the home finale of a disappointing Blue Jays season, Gibbons had Ezequiel Carerra trot out of the third-base dugout toward right field. It was time for Jose Bautista to head off the Rogers Centre turf for what would likely be his final bow.

The sun-splashed crowd of 47,394 rose and roared as it had several times during the 9-5 Toronto victory over the New York Yankees. Center fielder Kevin Pillar immediately went to Bautista and hugged him. So did left fielder Teoscar Hernandez, who has been enamored with talking to Bautista since his callup from the Bisons three weeks ago.

Hernandez, whose leadoff homer in the first inning made him the first Toronto rookie to go deep three straight games, took off his cap in deference to the 36-year-old Bautista before their embrace.

Bautista headed to the infield, where he was greeted by Justin Smoak, Darwin Barney, Ryan Goins, Josh Donaldson. He waved to the crowd and disappeared down the dugout steps -- but quickly came out for a curtain call, doffing his cap as the fans erupted one final time.

What was going through his mind during what very well could have been his good-bye to Toronto?

"A lot of feelings. It's hard to narrow down one or the one that stuck out the most," Bautista said. "There's a lot of things that go through your head quickly at that moment. ... It's kind of a blur to me but I enjoyed it."

"He taught me how to be a big leaguer from the moment I stepped in here," said Pillar, who first came to Toronto from the Bisons in 2013. "I went up to him and it was an emotional moment out there."

A banner of Jose Bautista is outside on the facade of Rogers Centre (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News).

It was a day filled with emotions. Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman got one of the first big ovations when the fans realized he was wearing a 2010 black Blue Jays jersey with Bautista's No. 19 on the back. It was a real one and not a replica. Stroman jogged out to the bullpen and warmed up in it as a tribute.

"It’s authenticated. They took it out of the showcase & let me wear it," said Stroman, who went 5 2/3 innings to extend his career high in wins to 13. "Guess they’ll probably wash it & put it back."

Turning serious, however, Stroman gave it up to the friend he called  "Bau".

"He's been extremely instrumental for my career on and off the field," Stroman said. "I'm extremely thankful for him and I'm just glad he got a proper celebration of the career he's had here. It's special just to see how much the fans of the entire country of Canada appreciate him and they should because he's had a remarkable career."

Only Carlos Delgado has more home runs as a Blue Jay than Bautista, who is a Toronto sports legend for the ages to millennials and kids more than any of the great Maple Leafs of the past. And with the way the Blue Jays reignited fans' passion for baseball the last two years with their playoff runs, he's become one of the most popular athletes in all of Canada.

But outside Toronto, Bautista is also one of the most polarizing figures in the game. Players in places like Baltimore and Texas hate him. The Yankees aren't overly fond of him either. Bautista even got roundly booed last summer in Buffalo for not running at all on a double-play ball during the last game of his injury rehab stint with the Bisons.

He's often churlish with the media, but can also be one of the most insightful interviews in the game. That's, of course, if you catch him on a good day and are willing to wait the hour it inevitably takes after a game for him to make himself available.

It's easy to forget that Bautista's career was going nowhere before he reached stardom here. Bautista was in five different organizations before the Blue Jays, needing help at third base with Scott Rolen injured, got him in 2008 in a nondescript trade with the Pirates for catcher Robinzon Diaz.

Trivia note: As a rising 24-year-old Pittsburgh prospect in 2005, Bautista slugged a threee-run homer in Buffalo to help Indianapolis beat the Bisons, 6-4, in Game 5 of the International League semifinals. The Herd hasn't been in a playoff game since. Bautista, of course, went on to bigger and better things once he got here.

He exploded onto the national scene in 2010 with a franchise-record 54 home runs and added 43 the next year. He also hit 40 in 2015 and entered postseason baseball lore forever with the "Bat Flip Home Run" that won the riveting decisive game of the division series against Texas.

The front page of the Toronto Star the day after Bautista's home run won Game Five of the 2015 American League Division Series.

 

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Bautista admitted he was having career flashbacks the entire game. He snapped an 0-for-18 slump with a 2-for-4 day as the Blue Jays scored all their runs in the first four innings.

"They kind of crept in and out of my mind today," he said. "It's fitting given the environment that was in the stadium today."

The fans cheered, hoping for one final home run that didn't come (the only home run Bautista has hit here the last six weeks was Sept. 8 against Detroit). They sang the "Jose-Jose-Jose-Jose" song that's become such a part of the experience at Blue Jays games.

"Jose is a focused guy," Gibbons said. "He knows his job was to go out there today and try to produce for these guys but he's a human being too. He had to know what was going on. I'm sure he's a little bit emotional. You're probably not going to see it but I bet he is."

In fact, reporters did see it. Bautista was misty-eyed during his brief chat long after the game ended. The end of his career in Toronto is clearly weighing on him.

Bautista says he wants to come back but that's a longshot. The Blue Jays certainly aren't exercising his $17 million option for next year and it seems unlikely they would even go for a one-year deal at $2-$3 million.

Frankly, Bautista looks shot.

He went 2 for 4 Sunday to push his average to .203, the second-lowest among American League regulars. He's dead last in the AL in WAR at -1.8. His slugging percentage is down nearly 200 points from last year alone.

Bautista hit .317 in May with nine of his 22 home runs. The rest of the year has been a disaster: A .178 April, .200 in June and September, .162 in July and .158 in August.

The rumor in 2016 was that Bautista wanted five years and $150 million but that was a pipe dream. Still, it's believed the Blue Jays offered three years and $50 million. Just imagine if he had taken that. As it is, the Blue Jays botched the Edwin Encarnacion market, made a panic signing of Kendrys Morales and Encarnacion went to Cleveland. They re-signed Bautista for one year at $18 million and it simply didn't work out.

"I know that I want to come back. I've always been clear about that and that's never going to change," Bautista said. "I've said it before and I'd be stupid not to. I can't really control anything else. Time will tell and we'll see what happens."

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