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It was almost five hours before game time on Tuesday and Rogers Centre was a cavernous shell without any fans.

There was a group of New York Mets players taking advantage of the relative solitude, participating in early batting practice. Among them was Jose Bautista, the former Toronto Blue Jays icon who was proving you can go home again.

Bautista appeared to be relishing the peace and quiet – his moment in the spotlight would come soon enough at game time.

He was leading Mets third base coach Glenn Sherlock around his old stomping ground – right field – critiquing the nuances of the artificial turf. With more than 1,200 games spent in a Blue Jays jersey over 10 seasons, Bautista knows every nook and cranny of the joint.

“It’s different, a little bit strange,” Bautista said about returning to the building and organization where he spent the bulk of his career and established himself as one of the brightest stars on the major-league stage. “But I guess in this world, in this sport, you’ve got to adjust and try to be comfortable in any setting that you might find yourself.

“It’s just another game. But everything leading up to it, it’s just – again, a lot of memories, a lot of emotions.”

For Bautista, it was anything but just another game.

It was his first return back to the city that came to love the brash nature of the once-daunting Dominican, every booming home run, every demonstrative bat flip.

From his bat flip heard round the world after his brassy postseason home run against the Texas Rangers in 2015 to the sock in the jaw by Rougned Odor the next year, it is all part of the Bautista lore.

Granted, it was a bit jarring to see Bautista wearing a Mets uniform, with No. 11 on the back instead of the No. 19 he sported with Toronto. Even Bautista admitted it has not been easy trying to shed his Blue Jays skin.

“I don’t think you ever do that once you’ve played in one place for that long,” he said. “It was, again, tough, just because it’s not what you’re used to.”

As the game drew closer, the love-in for Bautista grew louder. During New York batting practice, a large contingent of fans were jammed in the seats near the Mets dugout, many wearing Bautista Blue Jays jerseys and clamouring for autographs.

At one point, the familiar Bautista sing-song anthem that rang out so often when he played in Toronto – “Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose – Jose, Jose” – broke out among the fans. Bautista rewarded the loyalty, heading over after BP and patiently signing autographs for about 15 minutes.

Before the game started, the Blue Jays feted Bautista with a nice video tribute that highlighted his years with the team.

And when he came to the plate in the top of the first inning, the crowd rose to its feet for another collective pat on the back for Bautista, whose 288 homers as a Blue Jay is the second most in franchise history.

Bautista stood back, doffed his batting helmet and clapped back in appreciation. He then earned a walk.

In the bottom of the second, as an added bonus, Bautista made a great catch off his shoe tops of a fading line drive from Russell Martin.

Bautista’s run in Toronto came to an inglorious conclusion at the end of last season. His badly fading skills, and .203 batting average, made it easy for the organization to decline the option on his contract.

For a while, it appeared Bautista’s career might be over, as he was unable to find a team willing to take player with a big personality but diminished bat speed.

Finally, in early May, the Atlanta Braves took a gambit on the 37-year-old. That experiment ended after just 40 plate appearances in 12 games.

Then the Mets came calling. Tuesday night was Bautista’s 37th game, hitting out of the two-hole against the Blue Jays and playing in right. He’s not exactly the offensive juggernaut he once was, but his .250 batting average in a Mets jersey is decent enough, to go along with a .418 on-base percentage.

Bautista said he did not harbour any ill will toward the Blue Jays.

“I can’t say I was angry,” Bautista said. “It was a business decision and an understandable one. I’m not naive or selfish enough to believe that they shouldn’t have done that. Numbers speak for themselves and it wasn’t my best year, I think that’s no secret.

“But I received an opportunity and here I am and looking to make the best of it. I’m not trying to dwell on the past and let any of that drive me know. I feel like I can find enough drive, just in my desire to continue to play the game and help my team win.”

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