When Jose Bautista was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in August, 2008, the move went largely unnoticed. Nobody spoke to him when he arrived. Nobody asked the general manager what he could do or why he'd wanted him.
At that moment, Bautista was neither young (27) nor accomplished. The Pittsburgh Pirates had been so anxious to be rid of him, they hadn't bothered to decide on the player they wanted in exchange. They just wanted his salary off the books.
On the night of the trade, Bautista e-mailed a Pittsburgh reporter.
"It feels good to go somewhere you're wanted," he wrote. "I think this change will be good for my career."
That doesn't sound like the Bautista we grew to know. Our Bautista was never doubtful or needy. He was the opposite of those things. He was the most imperious athlete Toronto has seen in a quarter-century.
Bautista had his weaknesses – vainglory, a tendency to overplay his hand – but they were all extensions of a towering self-belief that was his greatest strength.
Even now that he's on his way out, Bautista remains unbowed. He's leaving Toronto the same way he came in – with an "I'll show you" sneer.
It ends this way for every player – a lost step, a little hitch in the swing that can't be massaged out – but it has seemed especially cruel watching Bautista decline this year. The organization's renaissance was built on his back. Almost alone, he turned Toronto into a baseball town again. He deserved a better exit.
The Silver Sluggers and all-star appearances were the least of it. Over his decade here, Bautista came to symbolize the city's smouldering outsider resentment. Not so long ago, when Toronto was the world capital of losing, Bautista was the one person in a uniform who carried himself like a winner.
He was the guy everyone had been wrong about. His career as a Blue Jay was an ongoing rebuke to all the people who thought he wasn't good enough to play baseball.
It was a long list. Bautista was only able to secure a college scholarship by compiling, editing and mass-mailing his own highlight reel. He was taken 599th in the draft. Twenty-seven of the 29 other players taken in his round did not play a single game in the majors.
Before being dumped in Toronto, Bautista was picked up and ditched by a half-dozen teams. Everyone was looking at the mechanics when they should have been looking at the man. That must be the explanation for why so many smart baseball people misjudged him so badly.
Once Bautista became one of the three or four best hitters in the game, people got interested. A lot of them.
Most guys would have soaked up the attention as their due. They would have eased up, grown an amiable personality. That's how it works in a clubhouse – the king has his courtiers. The more kingly, the more courtiers.
Bautista had very few. He liked to keep things businesslike. He didn't just talk to anyone who wandered up. He preferred that you make an appointment. He'd argue pedantically about the way things were worded. If you tried repeating back to him what he'd just said for clarity, he'd say, "Those are your words. I didn't say that."
Even though he just had.
If you wrote something he didn't like, he'd make sure you knew it. This is how my picture once ended up on a locker-room bulletin board with an "X" drawn through it. You had to admire the guy's consistency – if you took a poke at him, he'd poke back. Harder.
Even in front of a camera, Bautista often couldn't hide his disdain. He'd stand there, expressionless, enduring an interview even if the whole point of it was detailing how amazing he was. Few great players have ever seemed to enjoy the adulation less.
The undercurrent in all of his professional dealings was, "Where were you when nobody wanted me?" You were either with him or against him. And he didn't really give a damn if you were with him.
Maybe that was the secret – Bautista never got comfortable. With any of it.
He didn't play baseball for money or glory (or, at least, not just for those things). He did it to prove something. There was no better audience for that sort of player than Toronto.
Back in the late aughts, people were looking for a reason to care about a dreary, charisma-free ball team. Bautista was their one-man rationale. He would not submit to the club's history of mediocrity. He was the rising tide that floated all boats – and we're not just talking about baseball. If Toronto gave Bautista a chance, he gave the city back an identity. It was a more than fair bargain.
Outside Canada, baseball people eventually grew tired of trying to turn Bautista into one of the sport's promo-ready grinners. Bautista would not grin on command. If he wouldn't be the genial hero everyone expected him to be, they'd cast him as the villain instead.
He argued too much, they'd say. He made a show of himself. He broke the code. Baseball pros are leery of taking their grievances outside the fraternity, but with Bautista you could fill your boots. He was Major League Baseball's designated target of derision.
That didn't seem to bother him, either. Wasn't it just another example of everyone getting him wrong? As the image took hold in the popular mind – "the most hated man in baseball" – Bautista grew quieter and more intractable.
After that people left him alone, which may have been the whole point. If he cared to send any messages, he'd telegraph them from the batter's box.
That's the lens through which the bat flip should be viewed. It wasn't aimed at the crowd or his teammates or the Texas Rangers or MLB writ large. It was a message to everybody. To every person who'd ever told him he didn't have it.
We didn't realize then that that home run was the capstone of Bautista's career. Like some Zen master, 30 years of toil had resulted in one perfect moment. Having achieved it, Bautista began slowly falling back to Earth.
It's nothing to be sad about. Few others get the same chance. Far fewer still follow through on it.
Bautista got to define the parameters of his legacy in a way that encapsulated his essence – one guy, standing alone, doing what they told him he couldn't, and then letting them all know he'd done it.
Unlike any pro athlete I've ever known, Bautista was his own creation. No more gifted than anyone else, no harder working. What he had was an uncompromising will to succeed. Had he chosen to become an academic, a businessman or a carpenter, he would've been the best at that, too. He had the indefinable thing that makes certain people want it – any sort of "it" – more than the rest of us. If that ate at him, it also drove him.
There's a story passed around on press row – one that may even be true – that on a hot day during Jays spring training someone forgot to bring paper cups for the water jugs. When Bautista complained, a teammate pointed out a nearby fountain. Bautista turned on him and said, "Have you ever seen a thoroughbred drink out of a trough?"
The story is endlessly retold because it is so perfectly Bautista. He was the guy who needed everything done the right way.
He held himself to that standard and expected everyone around him – the team, the organization, its fans, even the country he played in – to do the same.
I suppose it's possible that at some point better players than Jose Bautista will put on the Blue Jays jersey, but I have a hard time believing any one of them will come close to matching his titanic resolve.