Yesterday, I went to what was probably Jose Bautista’s last home game in a Blue Jays uniform. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never been to a going-away party before, and you don’t always get the chance to give favourite players a proper sendoff before they move on. They might get traded in the middle of the year, or have their final season cut short by injury. They might be sent away in a surprise trade during the offseason when they still have a few years remaining on their contract. Bautista has a mutual option for 2018, but it’s incredibly unlikely the team will pick it up. To be perfectly honest, I’m glad we got this chance. To go in with that knowledge, and give him a proper goodbye.
I’ve been to a lot of baseball games. Not as many as some people, but enough for my schedule. A lot of them have been lousy. Some of them have been exciting and memorable. All of them have been fun. None of them, however, have ever been quite like this. That feeling of complete unity and whole-hearted support is something I’ve never experienced, and probably won’t again, unless I’m fortunate enough to go to a playoff game. Never before have I had the chance to cheer and cry with 45 thousand people who were feeling everything I was. People who understood the significance of how, even in this disappointing season, we were all here for one thing: Jose.
Pre-game, neither team took batting practice. A few players (Bautista among them, briefly) came out to stretch. About half an hour before game time, Marcus Stroman ran onto the field to warm up – in a black jersey, of the style the team wore from 2004 to 2011. It’s the jersey Bautista began his Blue Jays career in, and the one he was wearing when he led the league in home runs in back-to-back seasons. When Stroman came on the field wearing it, I remember saying to someone “Oh my god, I bet it’s Bautista’s”. And sure enough, when he turned around, there was the big number 19 on the back.
— Marcus Stroman (@MStrooo6) September 25, 2017
Usually, in the top of the 1st, the Jays burst out of the dugout and head to their respective positions at the same time. Yesterday, as Drake’s ‘Big Rings’ (his 2014 walkup song) played, Bautista was the first one out. He got to right field and stood, the only person on the diamond, for a good thirty seconds before his teammates joined him. The ‘Jose’ chants, the clapping and hollering reached a fever pitch, and he took off his glove and clapped along. Then he raised his hand in the air and waved, before bringing it back down and patting his chest, over his heart.
That little wave was almost more than I had expected from someone typically so stoic. He’d gone the first five games of the homestand without batting an eye. But as he strode to the plate before his first at-bat, when Usher’s ‘O.M.G.’ began playing (a throwback to his 54-home run season in 2010), I realized he was just as sappy as we were.
Every time he came to the plate he got a standing ovation. In that first at-bat, he laced a two-out line drive single to right field. His next appearance, in the 3rd, resulted in a four-pitch walk. He scored in that inning, the fourth run of the game, as Russell Martin cleared the bases with a double. In the 4th, Bautista came up again, this time with the bases loaded and nobody out. He had a chance to bring the drama like he’d done so many times before. Instead, he shot another line drive single to right, bringing in a run.
The drama ensued after that, as Kendrys Morales singled and two runs scored. Bautista tried to follow, but was tagged out on a close play. The Blue Jays challenged the call – saying Yankee catcher Austin Romine had blocked the plate. The dome was hollering during the replays, as to the audience it looked as though Bautista hadn’t been tagged. But the call was confirmed (everybody booed) and he became the first out of the inning. He led off the 6th, and hit a deep fly out to right.
My dad texted me partway through the game, saying “Jose’s putting on a show today.” I smiled. He sure was.
A Russell Martin double in the 7th ensured Bautista would bat third the next inning. On the second pitch of the at-bat, he hit a towering, nearly vertical pop-up. Everyone prayed it would go over the screen, or that Romine would miss it, or trip, or drop the ball… but Todd Frazier lunged in at the last moment and it settled into his glove for a foul pop-out. Just like that, it was over.
It felt deflating.
Despite all the cynicism caused by this season, we really thought he was going to do something special. This was a man with a flair for the dramatic, a bat finely-tuned to enhance every narrative. He’d come through for us time and time again. On any other day? 2-for-4 with a walk and a run driven in is fantastic. He easily could’ve gone 0-for-5. But we wanted fireworks, and we didn’t get them. He’s only human, after all.
With the Jays leading 9-5, there wouldn’t be need for a bottom of the 9th unless the Yankees scored four runs or more. So when Bautista took the field for the top half, there was speculation that John Gibbons would pull him in order to have a proper exit. Once again, Bautista arrived on the field before his teammates – he brought out a glove and hat to Justin Smoak, who’d been stranded on base – and then took his spot in right. The ‘Jose’ chants were probably the loudest and most in-sync they’d been all day at that point. He gave little a two-handed wave over his head, and looked down at the ground. The cheers were sustained for the duration of the first at-bat of the inning. Then out trotted Ezequiel Carrera, and we knew it was time.
Your right fielder, No. 19, José Bautista. pic.twitter.com/gzsNOdkW6G
— Blue Jays (@BlueJays) September 24, 2017
Bautista hugged Kevin Pillar, then left fielder Teoscar Hernandez, followed by Carrera and the infielders, one by one in a little cluster. He reached Josh Donaldson last. After that, something I missed in person but saw when I rewatched the game – he and Roberto Osuna gave one another a little salute. The “Jose” chant continued throughout, enhanced by a recorded version played over the PA system. I dug out my tissues. He went into the dugout, and hugged the coaches and bench players. And then he appeared at the other end, stepping out onto the field once more. He held his hat high, and his wave was heartfelt – passionate, even. I cried some more.
👑 King in the North. 👑 pic.twitter.com/0JLDLCH2Yd
— Blue Jays (@BlueJays) September 24, 2017
This experience was finite but cathartic, bittersweet but somehow perfect. Even among the tears, there were moments of levity. When Carrera had to run after a hard-hit foul ball, someone behind us called “Bautista would’ve caught that!” It was incredibly hot, and humid, and the right-field corner of the Flight Deck seemed to be the last part of the park to get covered in shade. But Bautista’s the one man I’d brave that weather for any day.
There were no videoboard tributes, no pre-game ceremony. To do so would be to acknowledge ahead of time that the team was letting him go. We all knew it anyways, but they couldn’t formally say so. In any event, I’m extremely grateful I got to be there. After all he’s meant to me over the years, it was nice to be able to shower him with love one last time.
Then came the post-game interview. He wasn’t full-out crying, but there were definitely signs – a dampness to his eyes, a hitch in his voice, a redness to his face. He discussed his emotions, his memories, his appreciation for the fans. Hazel Mae asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and he said, in typical cryptic Bautista fashion, that he’d tell us later. Then she gave him the chance to speak into the camera about what the fans meant to him. Even as he was saying “I don’t really want to say anything right now”, in the next breath he did exactly that. “It’s great to be a player in Toronto, I love the city and I love everybody… Hopefully it’s not the end.” Then he disappeared into the tunnel and was gone, even as the fans remained in the stands chanting his name, and ‘O.M.G.’ blasted on the speakers.
So, on that final Sunday in September, Jose Bautista played right field at the SkyDome for 8.1 innings. At the plate, he went 2-for-4 with a walk and an RBI. Because he loves us. He’d never let us down.
— Blue Jays (@BlueJays) September 24, 2017
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