Fifteen years after obscure trade, Bautista's name lands on Level of Excellence
TORONTO — It’s been 15 years since the minor trade that brought him to Toronto.
It’s been eight years since he authored the iconic moment that made him a household name to casual baseball fans across the country.
And it’s been five years since Jose Bautista played his final MLB game in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform, exiting the sport after 15 seasons in relatively quiet fashion.
His 10 years in Toronto were by far the peak, as a one time utility-man turned himself into a superstar.
“It was urgency,” Bautista reminisced on Friday evening from the same podium he sat at so many times during his playing days. “I reached the point of my career where it was either be that bench guy, utility guy or try something different and hopefully it worked.”
By now, the story is well known. It did work.
Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 21, 2008, in exchange for catcher Robinzon Diaz, Jays manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy went to work behind the scenes on Bautista’s swing, a hack that they had seen potential in from afar.
“Those two guys helped me out, worked with me behind the scenes a lot, even when I got here until I started playing everyday it took almost a full year until I saw some regular playing time,” Bautista said. “It was a lot of work behind the scenes and I’m glad that I came to this organization at the time that I did because of everything that happened after that, and they were a big part of that.”
The tweaks took, and as they say, the rest is history.
A career .878 OPS in a Jays uniform, 288 homers, with only Carlos Delgado ahead of him, as well as the bat toss that counts as one of the most impactful moments in franchise history.
The history that Bautista was a part of will be at the forefront Saturday when the now-42-year-old is deservedly enshrined on the club’s Level of Excellence.
Sitting inside the bowels of Rogers Centre on Friday evening to sign his one-day contract and officially retire as a Blue Jay, Bautista kept his emotions in check, something he couldn’t promise when he’s standing on the field seeing his name appear above the 200 level prior to Saturdays’ game against the Chicago Cubs.
“I appreciate the gesture of the one-day contract,” Bautista said. “I think everybody knew for a while that I had been retired, but this will make it official. There’s no other way to make it better than to come back to Toronto and sign this and make it official, official.”
For a second, it was almost hard to believe that eight years have passed since Bautista’s monster homer and ensuing bat flip sent this country into a postseason frenzy for the first time in more than two decades.
His time in Toronto, however, was about a lot more than that one swing for Bautista himself.
“Ten years is a long time so there are a lot of memories,” Bautista said when asked about his favourite moment in Toronto. “Great memories and a lot of great relationships. It’s hard to pick just one. There were plenty. Everybody seems to obviously go back to the playoff series and the bat flip and those games, but for me it’s hard to pick one. I don’t know if I have a favourite.”
This city and country sure does, and it’s not even close.
Even if it eventually ended earlier than everyone had hoped, that 2015 Jays club is one of the most talented that this organization has ever been able to construct.
Most believed talented enough to win a World Series, an assessment Bautista unfortunately agrees with wholeheartedly.
“That definitely feels like the one that got away,” he said.
Blue Jays manager John Schneider is hoping Saturday’s ceremony — the first of its kind in five years since Roy Halladay’s name went up posthumously in 2018 — rubs off on the current group that’s trying to, at the very least, get back to the point that Bautista’s teams did.
“Whether it’s the World Series teams from ’92/93, it’s always good to kind of remind guys about the history of the organization,” Schneider said. “For Jose to be kind of close to some of these guys, I think it kind of opens your eyes a little bit to how special a group can be and how you can be really remembered for a long time by doing some pretty cool things in big moments.”