Fowles: The Bautista-shaped void

Jose Bautista
Photo credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In a year that could very well be Bautista’s last as a Toronto Blue Jay, it’s interesting that a rather random injury gave us a brief sampling of what life might be like without him.

Bautista’s “Turf Toe”—a bizarre ailment we all frantically Googled around the twentieth of June—provided a hearty taste of the ominously pending and mostly unthinkable Bautista-void that could be upon us. What was hoped to be fifteen days on the disabled list ran well over a month, a large enough sample size to suggest that things were, and if necessary, will be, completely fine.

One can only conclude that if Bautista goes elsewhere in 2017, it will certainly suck, but we won’t be destroyed, and we’ll still be contenders.

Having said all that, and as much as I usually rally against living too far in the future when it comes to baseball, it may be time to start talking about the emotional ramifications of Bautista’s departure—the “heart” portion of these discussions, if you will. I’m all for living in the now and enjoying each day as it comes, but I can’t help but wonder what a Bautista-less Toronto even looks like. The man has been a Blue Jay for an incredible nine seasons, which is longer than a chunk of those who cheer for him have even called themselves fans. He’s been anointed a six time All-Star here, won the Silver Slugger Award three times here, taken home the Hank Aaron award twice here, and is responsible for the most Jays-defining moment of the last two decades.

In short, he’s a legend.

Thing is, Jose Bautista is the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s actually hard not to think of him as the very centre of this team—the unofficial captain, the spokesperson, the go-to image, and the brand itself. In a team of immense talent, multiple stars, and one pretty damn charismatic MVP, Bautista unquestionably remains the defining face of the organization. I would even go as far as to guess there are more Bautista jerseys out in the world than any other name on the team. He’s the easy fave player, the t-shirt you put on your toddler, the defining sound bite, the guy whose opinion you really want to know.

When the news hit of the acquisition of outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. from the Padres on Tuesday, I was amazed to see so many cavalier “bye bye Bautista tweets” poisoning my timeline. Yes, the front office is planning for an uncertain free agency future, but how can people be so flippant about something that will for so many feel like a coring out of the team? This is not the loss of David Price, or Brett Lawrie, or Adam Lind—this is the loss of a Booster Juice-drinking, Silver Jeans-wearing, city-defining icon. What of our bat flip tees? What of Mini Bautista? How will we cope?

Bautista is beloved, admired, and celebrated in Toronto with good reason. Beyond his enduring talent, and all his charitable endeavors, he’s got a demeanor that both demands and earns respect. He’s classy, loyal, eloquent, quick-witted, and won’t put up with anyone’s shit. He’s the guy who picked up the tab for not only his team’s meals, but the opposing team’s meals, and who boycotted Sportsnet for three months based on the way they treated a teammate. He’s had zero problem openly criticizing the media for their racism, and has claimed the label of feminist when asked. He’s a total diva in the best way, someone who admires himself and his skill, and we endlessly love him for it. (Worth noting: he also looks good on a scooter.)

Though other teams may hate him enough to punch him in the face, having someone like that as one of your own is a defiant and defining badge of honour—a living, breathing “fuck you” to anyone who may have judgment, lazy hatred, or doubt. When he was activated from that recent stint on the disabled list, you could almost hear a collective, citywide sigh of relief. It hardly mattered that he debuted with a walk and a single. We were simply grateful he was there at the plate with his fierce, mouth guarded face.

This recent break from Joey Bats has taught me to really savor what might be the last remaining months of all that bravado, and all those beautiful blasts. He may just be a single ballplayer, but there is a certain degree of personality and identity that will be stripped from this team if he ends up elsewhere. Obviously players come and go, and you cope regardless, but now this one feels decidedly different—too much for a throw away quip on social media.

It’s hard to deny the richness of this man’s character has come to define us in so many ways, and it’s difficult to imagine what would fill the massive Bautista-shaped hole whenever he does decide to depart. I’m certainly bracing myself, but I’m also not missing a minute.