Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
When the season ends and the ol’ news tap stops a-flowin’, most team-specific websites switch immediately into delivering some of the most predictable types of content imaginable. Season overviews! Player-by-player postmortems! Offseason game plans!
There are a whole lot of quiet months to fill, so I can be as guilty of that as the next guy, but for the love of god, let’s at least put a twist on it!
And so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to do just that, taking a look at the Blue Jays figures who take the most shit from the fan base and asking the question: do the haters have a point?
Up first: Jose Bautista
The vast majority of Bautista-haters cheer for teams other than the Blue Jays, but it wasn’t always that way.
Bautista is the greatest offensive player in the Blue Jays history. He edges Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado by both rWAR and fWAR while in a Jays uniform. And yet along the way he’s taken no small amount of shit from his own fans. A lot of it, let’s be honest, could come straight from a list of cliches hurled at nonwhite players. Oh, nobody would ever accuse Bautista of being lazy, but too fiery? Arrogant? Selfish? Unable to control his emotions?
Much of it is stuff you could find a way to say about a whole lot of players. Josh Donaldson isn’t above chirping an umpire from the dugout, or telling an opposing pitching coach to suck his cock, or getting himself tossed for arguing balls and strikes, and yet he doesn’t wear it like Bautista does. Odd, isn’t it?
That said, it’s not like Bautista is exactly beyond reproach in those regards. The damage his temper can do is now evident every time his arm is tested. It hasn’t been the same since he tried to throw out Delmon Young in anger during a contentious mid-2015 game with the Orioles. And though his issues with umpires have mostly moved from on the field into post-game comments in recent years, it’s hard not to wonder if some of his criticisms might colour his treatment from the men in blue, or his team’s as a whole.
The counterpoint to that, of course, is that it sure as hell has never impacted his performance, which has always been spectacular. At least until this season. In 2016 Bautista took more criticism than he’s used to for his struggles at the plate, especially during September. In particular, his strikeout rate spiked at the worst possible time — for two weeks, from August 29th to September 12th, when the season seemed to be spiralling out of control. Bautista struck out in nearly 40% of his plate appearances over that span. But he finished the season strong, hitting more like his usual self (.260/.446/.508 over his final 19 games), and the haters — misguided cowards that they are — suddenly got quiet.
Still, all the typical criticisms of Bautista continue to simmer under the surface. And if it seems as though the club is making a genuine effort to bring him back this winter, we’ll be sure to hear them again.
Thing is, it’s not illegitimate to wonder whether Jose’s attitude is healthy. But where that kind of talk gets especially uncomfortable, at least for me, is when it’s extrapolated from and turned into some kind of imagined character defect. Only someone who doesn’t care about the team would be so cavalier about pissing off the umpires! He’s so selfish, always trying to hit a home run to pad his stats instead of trying to go the other way or make a productive out!
It’s especially bad when such thoughts don’t see the other side of the player: the determination, the self-belief, the incredible work ethic. All things we tend to think of as positive… until they’re not convenient to the way we tend — or maybe want — to see somebody.
At least you can have a discussion about that stuff, though. Worse still the fans who’ll work themselves into a lather over meaningless, vague, and selectively applied notions of “respect” or how to “play the right way.” I don’t want to psychoanalyze too much about all that, but what I’ll say is that I tend to believe a lot of it likely comes from growing up watching a game that was different — from fans yearning for things to be more like they knew, and not necessarily anything intentionally malicious. Unfortunately the end result isn’t terribly different than if it was.
When the Bautista hate veers into that kind of territory — when fans search for reason to act like he’s not worthy of being part of Our Tribe because he dares to admit he expects the best out of umpires and looks like he has a damn good time on the field owning his opponents — that’s when, for me, it can truly fuck right off. And let’s be honest, that’s really all that is, right? Nobody actually weeps for the poor umpires (or Sam Dyson). Nobody actually believes they’re such unprofessional hacks that they don’t understand it’s an emotional game and that players are only naturally going to disagree with them sometimes. Nobody wants a player who doesn’t thirst for success with every fibre of his being.
But at the same time, Bautista isn’t Tulo. I can give the haters that much. It’s just… why the hell would you want him to be?
The haters have some kernel of a point.
I’m going to have to be a bit wishy-washy with these, otherwise I’m pretty sure every verdict in this series will be “fuck no, the garbage haters don’t have a point.” Because mostly that’s true. But I can’t tell anybody that they need to like how Jose conducts himself on the field, or that there must be undercurrents of racism or ageism in why they don’t. I can certainly ask them to consider those things and to think about the things Bautista does that draw fans’ ire where other players might get away with it — or, on the flip side of that, to consider other players’ actions and what the response to them might be if it had been Bautista doing it instead. But there is a whole, long, glorious history of Jose being cocksure as fuck. I can’t deny it, and I can’t deny that it rubs people the wrong way. Crazy people, if they’re Jays fans, but people nonetheless.
Thing is, even if it does and you can’t stand him, you don’t quietly jeer the Black Knight when you’re sitting in his section at Medieval Times, you dopes! Have some fun, damn it! Be entertained!
Nobody is ever, ever going to accuse Jose Bautista of not being entertaining. And in my view we should love him for that — every last one of us.