Return of a King

 

I love going to baseball games. It’s my favourite thing to do in the summer, always the first item on my bucket list, and something I’ll arrange my entire social calendar around. I’m extremely lucky to live so close to my favourite team and be able to get to as many games as I do. However, as someone with no car living ~100 km from the Dome, weeknight games aren’t great for me.

 

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Between rushing to catch a bus from work, navigating a labyrinth of transfers to make sure I get home (or running up a 30$ Uber bill just to get from the train station to my house), and the late night making me sleepy at work/school the next morning, logic usually wins and I decide the risk isn’t worth the reward.

 

But Jose Bautista’s return to Toronto is no ordinary ballgame.

 

Like many of you, I came so close to buying tickets to the Atlanta series. I mean, returning on the 19th? Of a month that starts with J?? The symbolism practically slaps you in the face. But then the Braves released him. When he signed with the Mets, I waited. He started putting up good numbers, so I went ahead and bought the tickets. At my summer job, we have five mandatory ‘vacation’ days, so I planned it out – I took game day off to extend my long weekend, then the morning of the next day to sleep off my baseball hangover. There was no way I was missing this.

 

I’m incredibly grateful to the photographers and camera operators who followed his every move pre-game, documenting dozens of hugs with his former teammates and coaches. Those photos are the sort that wrap you up in a moment and that feeling, even long after he’s left again, will return and fill you with the warmth and joy of that day.

 

https://twitter.com/BlueJays/status/1014270357358837760

 

Because of those photos, and the game broadcast, and the umpteen articles about his return, you probably know all those details. At the risk of oversaturation, there are a few things you might have missed if you weren’t there in person.

 

I got to the Dome pretty early on Tuesday, finding my spot on the Flight Deck with some Twitter friends while the Mets were still taking batting practice. When players went out to stretch along the foul lines, Bautista wasn’t among them at first. He came out at the very end, to a roar of applause, and briefly greeted Teoscar Hernandez in center field before rejoining his teammates.

 

Bautista was the only player on the Mets to wear bright orange wrist-guards – which was considerate, because even in an unfamiliar uniform, they made him easy to spot. Looking for the 11 on his back instead of 19 took some getting used to, and apparently, it was the same way for him. In his pregame scrum, he said that he felt he looked strange in other jerseys. It reminded me of something Roy Halladay said after being traded – that he felt like a Blue Jay in a Phillies uniform. Bautista’s already worn two different uniforms this year, and played 50 games (as well as some time in the minors), but he still hasn’t quite made that adjustment. Besides, I don’t care what colour he’s wearing today, or next year, or when he hangs up his jersey for good. He’s a Blue Jay for life.

 

In that interview, and in others during and after the series, Jose referred to Toronto again and again as his “home away from home”, at one point adding that it’s the place he holds “closest to his heart”.  I found it interesting when he noted that his first “home” referred to the Dominican, his home country, rather than Florida, where his family lives, and where he spends the offseason. Apparently Toronto still takes second billing.

 

You already know that, once all the usual ceremonies were over, with the game about to start, Tim Langton asked the crowd to turn their eyes to the video board as they played a tribute video, set to one of Jose’s old walkup songs. (Here’s the link if you missed it). Everything was there, from his 50th home run off King Felix in 2010, to his hop-skip homer against the Orioles after being thrown at in April 2015. Obviously, the Bat Flip was prominently featured.

 

What you might not know is that, although he was crouched in a warmup stretch the whole time, his eyes were glued to the screen every time I glanced at him. When it was done, he applauded the fans, spinning in a circle with his clapping hands raised above his head. The applause lasted at least a minute, and he kept his hands raised the whole time.

 

There were only 24,010 people in attendance that night, but boy did they make a lot of noise.

 

Every time Bautista came out to right field to warm up before the Blue Jays batted, and between batters, and when time was called, he kept turning around and looking up to various places in the stands, and waving. I can’t remember him ever doing that before (the other outfielders don’t) and it wasn’t because someone had called his name. It was like he was taking it all in, intentionally making eye contact with people and acknowledging them.

 

Too hot to wear jerseys, we shook them like flags every time he turned around. On Tuesday night, a few of us waved at him when he glanced our way during a replay review, and he returned the wave. Then we all started squealing like teenagers, because what else were we supposed to do, be nonchalant about it??

 

When Jose came to the plate, even as a visiting player, he got his own walkup song. The same tune he’d used throughout 2010 blared through the speakers, and the crowd was on its feet cheering his name. He tapped Russell Martin on the shin guard with his bat in greeting, and tipped his helmet to Marco Estrada on the mound. Martin suddenly felt the need to adjust his pads, and the umpire cleared out as well. They gave Bautista his moment.

 

 

I’ve never witnessed a player of his status come back to Toronto – not even Edwin Encarnacion’s return in 2017, after his postseason heroics the year before, came close. The biggest return of a franchise icon I’d seen on TV was when Troy Tulowitzki played his first game at Coors Field since being traded. The standing ovation he got then gave me chills, and I had hoped Bautista’s would measure up. Despite the 30-degree weather, the chills were right on cue.

 

Their reactions were kind of different, though – Tulo seemed touched, and a little surprised, but like he was trying to keep it all in. Maybe that’s just his usual stoicism displaying itself. Bautista, on the other hand, offered a little smile, as if the cheers had lifted his spirits after a disappointing winter. Maybe they did.

 

 

With Estrada gone with an injury in the 1st, and the bullpen allowing homer after homer, it wasn’t the best game to be at. Really, it was depressing. Jose was the best part of it for the first five innings. It sure felt like the Jays pitchers were trying their hardest to make sure he got as many at-bats as possible.

 

He made a diving catch on a line drive by Russell Martin in the 2nd inning, and we cheered for him. He misplayed a bouncing Randal Grichuk liner in the 7th (later admitting he’d wanted to throw Grichuk out at first base), and we cheered again. When Yangervis Solarte homered into the right-field bullpen, tying the game, he climbed the fence even though the ball was well back beyond his reach. I can’t remember seeing him do that before – maybe he was showing off a little.

 

The Jays went ahead 8-6 in the 8th. As things stood in the 9th, he represented the last out of the game. Then again, Jose Bautista does things on his own terms, so he ripped a single into left-center field, and the next batter walked. Tyler Clippard came in and got a groundout, but for a second we all feared that Bautista was going to spark a comeback for his new team, like we’d seen him do so many times before.

 

I wondered how he felt. I wondered if he was mostly happy to be back, or mostly sad to know that he’d have to leave again. What is it like to go back to your former workplace, while now being employed by their competitor, and have every single person there be, not just happy, but overjoyed to see you?

 

I wondered how long his Player’s Tribune article had been sitting, half-written, on his computer before he finished it. I wondered how long it took to put those memories and feelings into words. I wondered if he’d been practicing his helmet-tip beforehand, and I wondered if, like he claimed, he really managed to avoid shedding any tears

 

I wondered if this would be the last series he would play in Toronto, where he would be next year. I also wondered what he will do once he retires for good. I’m pretty sure he would be welcomed back to the Jays organization, in any capacity, with open arms.

 

I thought that was the end of it… but I was wrong.

 

So I freaked out around noon on Wednesday because I realized it was a night game and not a day game like I’d previously thought. After a long, nail-biting search of bus and train options for one that could get me home from the game, I bought a ticket with less than five hours to go before first pitch (much to the amusement of my coworker, who definitely thought I was nuts).

 

I’m not a spontaneous person. I’m not an impulsive person. I’m a person whose anxiety gets kicked into high gear by taking public transit.

But Jose was there.

 

Which is why, after I’d said my “Goodbye for now, perhaps for good” to him already on Tuesday night, I went allllllll the way back to the Dome to return to the Flight Deck, and pay $12.75 for a can of cider, and stand for three hours and watch him again.

 

Wednesday was slightly more subdued, even before game time. They didn’t play the tribute video, and it was significantly hotter inside the Dome and out. Tuesday night had been better, both in terms of the Jays’ performance, and the enthusiasm of the crowd’s reaction to his every move.

 

You probably saw that Jose got another standing ovation during his first plate appearance, and tipped his helmet again, as well as the fact that Marcus Stroman joined in on the applause. What you didn’t see was that before Bautista even acknowledged the crowd, he stood at home plate and did a little bow in Stroman’s direction. It reminded me of the wink and smile he’d given before they faced off last year during the World Baseball Classic. An acknowledgement that, no matter the circumstance, these two have a remarkable bond. That was made even more obvious by the fact that Stroman had warmed up to Drake’s “Trophies” before taking the mound – another of Bautista’s old walkups.

 

 

We watched him pacing in right field again, we watched him stretching again. It almost seemed routine at this point – of course that’s Jose, of course he’s here. Naturally, he’s batting second, and playing in right, despite the Mets using him more frequently in left field this season. The game took longer to get away from the Jays that night (they held a lead in the 2nd, another in the 4th) so we were more focused on their offence when Bautista was fielding. The 5th inning dragged on, and Bautista got his second hit of the series, driving in a run as well as scoring one. As much as I wanted it to be over so the Jays could hit, I mostly wanted him to come back out. We debated over how to get his attention. In the 7th, he reached on a dropped third strike, again getting the best of his old pal Martin.

 

Then, in the bottom of the 8th inning, with two outs, less than 10 minutes before I had to leave to catch my last-chance train to get home, Martin laced a single to center field (he was 3-for-3!) to extend the inning. The Mets made a pitching change, Jose wandered over to the other outfielders, and my friends and I took the opportunity of a lull in the noise to yell “WE LOVE YOU JOSE!”

 

We got a wave of his glove in return.

 

That final gesture, right there, made the stress and uncertainty, and the inevitable tiredness at work in the morning, all worth it. We sent him that love, love borne out of 10 years of devotion and 288 home runs, of records broken and leaderboards topped, of All-Star appearances, smirking postgame scrums, of bat flips and taunts and all the rest, and he received it.

 

He didn’t hit a home run in either game, which is probably for the best. It turns out he was saving that until he got back to New York – on Friday night, he hit the first walkoff homer of his career, and a grand slam to boot, to help the Mets beat one of his old division rivals. Had he hit one in Toronto, I don’t know what would have happened. On the one hand, it could have been nice and sentimental, or the Dome could have been ripped in half by the conflicting emotions. All I know is, every other game I go to this year will seem a little anticlimactic after this.

 

I got my train, and I got home safe (before midnight!) without missing any of my buses or connections or anything. All I missed was an uneventful bottom of the 9th. I wouldn’t make a habit of it, and definitely not when I work the next morning. But to see our Jose in Toronto again, I’d have done just about anything. Anxiety be damned.

 

Family first. 💙

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