For the better part of the last five years, one of the great concerns among some corners of Blue Jays fandom was squandering Jose Bautista’s peak. Improbable as it seemed when the team excised Alex Rios from the roster and gave Bautista his big break, surrounding him with a good supporting cast was job one for management as of about May 1st, 2011.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying in past years but, finally, the Blue Jays have a more than capable lineup surrounding Jose Bautista. He still sits in the middle of this potent offense, hitting third and playing right field every day despite a wonky shoulder (injured, of course, under inauspicious yet delightful circumstances.) And his team is now very good, in first place with mere weeks remaining on the schedule. They wouldn’t be there without him and they won’t stay there without his contributions.
He’s still a very good player but on this very good team, he doesn’t need to be The Man. Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki and David Price aren’t Bautista’s supporting cast, they are equally integral to the Blue Jays rise to contention and drive to stay there. And that’s okay.
The 2015 Blue Jays don’t need to be Jose Bautista’s team because he’s not quite up to the task of carrying such a burden. No one player ever is. The ravages of time don’t necessarily apply to a player boasting 33 home runs for the best offense in baseball. His .380 wOBA ranks him 7th among qualified American League hitters. That’s good. Great, even.
Yet they fall well short of Vintage Jose - which says a lot more about his past than it does his present. At 35, his peak is all but over. Luckily, strolling down from the mountaintop requires stops along the way, stops taken at points still significantly above sea level.
His name appears 77 times on this page of Blue Jays all-time and single season records. He sits second in franchise history in Wins Above Replacement and home runs. He has authored many unforgettable moments and rubbed all the right people the wrong way but, unless this season ends as it should, I’m not sure how he ends up remembered should his time in Toronto come to a close at the end of next season.
The stats say one thing but the “Jose Bautista is the Greatest Blue Jay” argument is pocked with mile-wide holes. It’s easy for me -- in the face of criticism that can be both with and without merit -- to become defensive of Bautista and all he’s achieved and/or produced on the field. Doing so ignores how his name is conspicuous in its absence when lists of “team leaders” are rattled off during radio hits. It hand-waves his prickly personality, his interactions with umpires, and the way media murmurs and his evident lack of whiteness turns well-meaning folks against him.
Dismissing his critics with a “fuck them” is an easy out. “Fuck them” doesn’t put names on the Level of Excellence. Not everybody appreciates madcap base running and handfuls of starts in center field while 33-years old. Not everybody appreciates the best player on a series of fourth-place teams playing “scoreboard” with a club whose World Series rings are still new enough to not need polishing. Not everybody cares about WAR nor do they care about how much more valuable walks are than outs.
Fortunately, the pursuit of a banner that hangs a little higher (and a little longer) can shut down such debates.
Outside Internet shouting matches there are legions of fans from all walks of life wearing “Bautista 19” gear out and about in their daily lives. National (Canadian) chains want to be in the Jose Bautista business - he promotes quasi-healthy smoothies and quasi-cardboard pizza with actual enthusiasm. Fans of other teams often speak of him with reviled reverence, wary of his spot in the lineup but stopping short of any respect beyond “begrudging.”
There aren’t many players like Jose Bautista over the history of the franchise. He’s its current face almost by default, a king presiding over a country during a time of fallow fields and dry riverbeds. As times improved, he became slightly less prominent, ceding some spotlight to the superstar currently occupying third base. Hardly a Joe Carter-type passenger jammed into an advantageous position, Bautista remains extremely valuable during an important time, but it isn’t “his” team as it was before.
That’s sort of the point, in the end. The ‘92 and ‘93 teams weren’t Roberto Alomar’s teams as much as he was the focal point of a balanced attack, the Donaldson to Bautista’s Molitor (and Encarnacion’s Olerud? This falls apart quickly, let’s move on.)
The good thing is the big games are still to come and Bautista remains vital to the success of the Blue Jays. Innumerable opportunities to hit big home runs off shitbird closers await him, and everybody watching knows he won’t hesitate to react in a manner consistent with franchise standards.
Worrying about legacy in the middle of a pennant race is hardly a good use of time, but it serves as a viable parking lot for performance anxiety related to a Huge Septemeber Series. It is a weird twist that while Jose is no longer the best player on the team, it’s the inclusion of other, better players that might permit him the chance to cement his place among the best to ever wear the uniform(s).
This is his chance to be a compiler of genuinely memorable moments in addition to gaudy stats and personality scorn. The numbers stand on their own - now he gets to contribute something that will transcend those statistics completely.