Edwin Encarnacion was the first man out on the Rogers Centre turf Monday – 5 1/2 hours before game time. He sat down along the first baseline and stretched quietly. When a few of his new Cleveland teammates emerged, he got up quickly and left.
Four hours later, he came out again to speak. He didn't say anything remarkable. It was the reaction to his presence that was notable. Hundreds of early arriving Toronto Blue Jays fans massed above the visitors' dugout and stood silently, even though they couldn't see him in there. There was something vaguely primitive and worshipful about it.
The Toronto players were taking batting practice as Encarnacion spoke. Usually, the crowd would be over their dugout. On Monday, no one called their names. The fans had all come to see the prodigal son return, if only for a visit.
"Tell Edwin that we want Edwin to come back," a woman shouted down pitiably, capturing the general, downbeat mood.
It's strange how things change once someone has gone.
During his 7 1/2 year tenure in Toronto, Encarnacion captured relatively little attention. At first, he was best known as a defensive punchline at third base.
In Year 4, at 29, he enjoyed one of those rare, late-blooming runs that have so benefited this generation of Blue Jays. Still, people didn't rate him anywhere near the top of the lineup. He was everyone's third- or fourth-favourite player.
That was on Encarnacion. He was likeable enough but too reticent to leave a deep impression. He was never unfriendly but visibly resented talking, especially about himself. Most questions were deflected by an exaggerated language barrier or a series of elaborate shrugs.
Looking back on it now, no top Toronto athlete has ever managed to remain so obscure while performing so reliably for so long under public scrutiny. He wore silence like a force field, proving that in the era of constant exposure it can still be done if you commit yourself wholeheartedly to the mission.
Somehow, a genial air still surrounded him. It was a given in the clubhouse that Encarnacion was admired by all and known by very few.
"He's one of the good ones," manager John Gibbons said Monday. "I'll probably run into him [at batting practice] – find out whether he liked me or not."
He was joking. Sort of.
More often than not, the good ones are only properly appreciated once they've gone. The present is reserved for the loud ones and the self-promoters.
Another reason people may feel especially wistful about Encarnacion is that he was the first domino to fall. After the Jays went out in the 2016 American League Championship Series to this same Cleveland club, there was a sense they'd been a lot closer than the five-game encounter looked. You'd have to be awfully stingy with your chances not to agree that this group probably deserved one more together.
Jays management was just that parsimonious. Letting Encarnacion go was the first sign that a rebuild is, if not yet imminent, certainly pencilled on the schedule.
"It took a few weeks to understand what happened. It was difficult because I was hopeful the situation would have been different," Encarnacion said Monday through a translator. Insert a few swear words and the sound of fists smashing down on bar tops and you'd have a pretty decent rendering of how the win-now portion of the fan base felt as well.
Once Encarnacion signed a below-market deal in Ohio, everything began coming apart. There was a deflating sense of neither/norism about the roster. The season started, and all hopefulness began to bleed away.
It kept on that way Monday as catcher Russell Martin announced he would go on the disabled list with an "inflamed nerve" in his shoulder/neck. Disturbingly, Martin does not seem to have a grip on what's ailing him.
"The whole [left] shoulder region is weak and numbish," Martin said. "It's strange. A little scary."
Between Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez, the Jays now have $70-million (U.S.) worth of personnel beginning and completing their workday in the trainers' room. The season isn't lost. Close, but not quite yet. However, it is abundantly clear that it's cursed.
Bizarrely, that made Encarnacion's return the first good news in a while. While it's a reminder of what might have been, it's also a rare 2017 chance to feel good about life while Toronto baseball is happening in front of you.
Nevertheless, Encarnacion seemed honestly unsure how he would be received.
"The fans used to like me there [in Toronto], but I don't know," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sunday. "We'll have to wait and see. I'll be ready for anything."
With a pack of admirers looming above him in the pregame, he seemed a little surer of things. But just a little.
"I hope I receive support," he said through his translator. While she was in the midst of answering, he shouted, "No boo!" It got a laugh, and he smiled, but there was something honestly plaintive about it.
If Encarnacion had doubts, he was the only one. The Jays gave him a short video tribute before the game began. He got a standing ovation that was maybe a six out of 10. He tipped his cap, tapped his heart and it was over. He was not a salient factor in the Jays' 4-2 win.
It'd be pointless now to guess how Encarnacion's presence would have changed this year's Jays. He's not hitting particularly well in Cleveland (though he is a notorious slow starter). He wasn't going to knead out Donaldson's knotty muscles or take a spot in the rotation. No one player was going to sort out this mess.
In leaving, what Encarnacion did most importantly was transform from a Jays player to a romantic symbol of the Jays' decline. He was the first guy off the boat. Now that it's sinking, he's a human reminder of an era that is in the process of going from the urgency of right now to the nostalgia of "Hey, do you remember the guy who … ?"