Stacey May Fowles is a Toronto-based writer and author of Baseball Life Advice.
It's probably not surprising that my absolute favourite 2015 memory – if not my favourite sports memory of all time – was witnessing Jose Bautista's American League Division Series game five, seventh-inning, three-run home run bat-flip.
Maybe it's not necessarily the bat-flip itself. Despite its now legendary dramatic perfection – the way it hung horizontal in the air, how Mr. Bautista thrust out his chin and readied himself to round the bases, how he seemed to know, before anyone else, exactly what he'd achieved – the flip was really more punctuation than narrative.
For so many fans, it was all the things that orbited around that gesture that made it miraculous; a surprising sudden team ascension, an American League East title, a 53-minute inning, a delirious, earth-shattering win, and a truly incredible year in baseball.
At the centre of that feel-good drama stood Jose Bautista, ever defiant, and entirely ours.
Perhaps that's exactly why the possibility that today is his last day in a Toronto uniform wounds the fan base so much, why it causes people to handcraft thank you signs and cry in public at the ballpark. With nine seasons as a Jay, he's long been the face of the franchise, his potential departure feeling like a coring out of a team we fell so desperately in love with. Mr. Bautista was, after all, an integral part of two consecutive years of rare postseason elation, the kind we hadn't been blessed with in more than 20 years.
On paper, Mr. Bautista brought a great deal to the Toronto Blue Jays – a two-time Major League Baseball home run leader, a three-time Silver Slugger, a six-time all-star. But, of course, he was more than just good baseball, his most important contribution perhaps providing a real sense of identity. Girls and boys painted Bautista beards on their faces in tribute. T-shirts were emblazoned with that iconic game five moment. Chants of "Jose! Jose! Jose! Jose!" roared through the stands, on the concourse, and in the streets. A whole swath of local baseball-playing children wanted to grow up to be just like Joey Bats.
Despite being a fan favourite, despite his charitable endeavours and obvious leadership, he wasn't always the typical feel-good sports hero. Mr. Bautista could be prickly with media. He pulled no punches and minced no words. He "showboated" to rigorous external criticism. But that's what made him so compelling – his refusal to conform to baseball's so-called unwritten rules was exactly why he was so delightful to call your own.
The baseball bad guy had a soft side and Torontonians knew it. The way he'd high-five the Junior Jays on Saturdays, support student athletes via the Bautista Family Education Fund, and ride off after the ninth on his team scooter. His unwavering self-belief was more admirable and inspiring than egotistical. If he became baseball's favourite villain, we were more than willing to stand behind him. He represents the kind of qualities – confidence, loyalty, devotion, hard work – we hope to foster in ourselves.
As the famous line goes, how can you not be romantic about baseball? I would add that, as a Toronto Blue Jays fan, how can you not be romantic about Jose Bautista? A good, well-timed sports moment offers a feeling of catharsis, and he was the best at delivering that emotional release. Time and again, he'd execute a blast that defied the odds of the moment, or was exactly what the evolving story called for. We came to expect it from him – and a boisterous crowd, whether comprised of friends or enemies, fuelled his flair for meaning.
Though he may have been (and still is) a controversial figure league-wide, he will forever remain ours. No matter how many times the opposition criticized, booed, and bellyached over his perceived bad behaviour and his supposed disrespect for the game, he refused to compromise who he was – storied slugger, bat-flip king, Level of Excellence-bound, bronze-statue-worthy, bona fide baseball hero.
"It's a tough moment right now. I'm not going to try to talk too much," a softer Jose Bautista said in an emotional Sportsnet interview after the last Jays' home game of the season. "It's great being a player here in Toronto. I love this city. I love everybody. Hopefully, it's not the end."
Mr. Bautista reinvigorated baseball in this city, giving us the kind of majestic on-field experiences we'll never forget – rockets from the outfield, well-timed revenge home runs, a bat-flip that left its indelible mark on sports culture. If Sunday, in Yankee Stadium is indeed the end, if we are doomed to suffer the sorrow of seeing Joey Bats in another team's uniform next season, the only thing left to do is honour what he has given us, knowing he'll be leaving behind all our favourite sports memories, and a hole that's impossible to fill.