Jose Bautista's near-definite Toronto finale a low-key affair

TORONTO — Even though Sunday was Jose Bautista’s last game as a Toronto Blue Jay at Rogers Centre, nothing about the monumental event was explicitly stated.

The 9-5 win over the New York Yankees should have been a game full of tributes from teammates and coaches plus lengthy rounds of applause prompted by the Jumbotron. Bautista’s highlights should have been plastered on all the video boards at every conceivable opportunity. The whole thing should have been a spectacle of earned tackiness dripping with “feels.”

That’s not what happened, though. Instead, the Blue Jays were handcuffed by the tiniest sliver of doubt. Bautista has said nothing about retiring, and the two sides have a mutual option for 2018. There’s no way the team would exercise their half of the option based on the slugger’s performance this year, but they haven’t stated that publicly. Nothing is written in stone that says he’s gone, even if logic dictates that his departure is certain.

It’s a situation that Bautista — very reasonably — has found a little uncomfortable, especially with the media circus it has attracted in recent days.

“It’s a little awkward having to come here and try to keep my focus on contributing on a day-to-day basis to try to win ballgames and deal with that kind of stuff,” he conceded. “But it’s part of the deal.”

Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista hits a single in front of a crowd on their feet cheering him. (Jon Blacker/AP)

As a result, even though it was clear to everyone in the building on Sunday that Bautista won’t be playing here as a member of the Blue Jays again — that could not be said in as many words. That was made especially clear in the post-game comments of his teammates, who were reticent to call this the end of anything.

“With his future being uncertain we wanted him to go out in Jose fashion,” Kevin Pillar said. “[We wanted to] allow this city and the fans that were here today to tell him how much he’d meant to them.”

Marcus Stroman took it a step further, not only simply acknowledging the possibility of Bautista returning, but advocating for it.

“I hope he’s back, to be honest with you,” he said. “I hope this is not the last home game I have with [Bautista].”

Bautista, the man of the hour himself, also very intentionally avoided characterizing the game as a finale.

“It is a possibility that I might not be back,” he said. “Those decisions will be made when they are and we’ll see what happens.”

Even with a song and dance about Bautista’s return being possibly underway, the game itself was packed with tacit acknowledgments to the contrary, including but not limited to:

  • Stroman coming out and throwing his pre-game bullpen session in a black Bautista jersey he got from a team showcase.
  • Bautista running to his position by himself when the team was announced with the rest of the Blue Jays standing by the dugout clapping — a plan hatched by Stroman, Pillar and Goins unbeknownst to the outfielder.
  • Usher’s “OMG” (Bautista’s 2010 walkup song) playing for his at-bats.
  • Periodic “Jose! Jose! Jose! Jose!” chants from the right-field seats whenever the Blue Jays were in the field.
  • Standing ovations for every at-bat, including a rousing applause for Bautista on his way back to the dugout after his final trip to the plate in the eighth.
  • Bautista being pulled from the game for a defensive replacement in the ninth and hugging teammates and waving to the fans on the way into the dugout — a late-game touch courtesy of manager John Gibbons.
  • A brief curtain call for the crowd.
  • A barrage of baseballs thrown to the fans from the whole Blue Jays team following the game’s conclusion.

His performance on the field was strong as he went 2-for-4 with a walk, but not one that looks to crack “Jose Bautista’s Greatest Hits.” Even so, the right-fielder deserves credit for staying within himself and not being affected by the moment, at least early on. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where he would just swing for the fences, but he hit two opposite-field singles and drew a walk in his first three trips to the plate. In his last two, he had a shallow fly to right and a popup that might have resulted from a more dinger-focused mindset.

The only other evidence of him pushing the envelope for the crowd came in the bottom of the fourth when he tried to score from first on a Kendrys Morales single, only to be gunned down at the plate. Even then, it was a justifiable risk on a ball into the gap that resulted in a close play.

For a player known for showmanship and dramatic flair, his almost-certain finale was something of a low-key affair. The was game won by the fifth and there was no signature Bautista moment or official acknowledgement of the contest’s significance.

What wasn’t missing was the connection between the fans and the player. With no administrative red tape to separate the two, 47,394 fans were free to express their love for Bautista without restriction and he was free to acknowledge and absorb it. Both parties did just that all day.

From Bautista’s point of view, though, there’s still more for him to say. Asked if he had a message for the fans, he was very clear on that.

“I think there will be a time and a place where I expand on my thoughts, but it’s not yet.”