Jose Bautista's amazing career was always going to end like this
It started, of all places, in Baltimore. A decade-and-a-half later, Jose Bautista’s wild, wondrous career ended, in all likelihood, on a gray morning in Atlanta, a world away from his adoptive home, not with any grand ceremony but instead with hushed tones and a handshake.
It was always going to end like this for Bautista, an unlikely superstar resolute in his reluctance to quietly resolve. He could've called it quits last year, after his prodigious power abandoned him and no market for his services developed. Nobody wants to go out like that, but at least he could've spared himself the certainty of his newfound ineptitude, and ensured that the jersey most dear to him - that of the Toronto Blue Jays - would be the last he ever wore.
Of course, though, he didn't.
All those accolades, all those home runs, the legions of adoring fans, and the guarantee of prime real estate on the Level of Excellence at Rogers Centre couldn't rewire the circuitry of Bautista, who fought like hell for everything he got and never stopped. He was only ever going to come off the field kicking and screaming. (That last ovation in Toronto sure was nice, though.)
Bautista fought off his modest draft pedigree, making it to the big leagues at 23 (after being gobbled up by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft) despite being selected in the 20th round out of an anonymous Florida junior college. And he fought off his journeyman label quickly enough, settling into a regular role with the Pittsburgh Pirates at 25 after being shuffled between four different teams the season prior. Less than two years later, even as his performance floundered, Bautista bristled at a late-season demotion to Triple-A, a gambit that got him traded to Toronto for Robinson Diaz, then a player to be named later. The rest, as they say, is history.
But even as Bautista blossomed, against all odds, into an icon with the Blue Jays, his fight never waned. During his reign as one of baseball's elite hitters, he routinely clashed with umpires and squabbled with opponents, eventually becoming persona non grata in Baltimore, his old stomping ground, and in Arlington. Once, he even injured himself for the sake of spite, wrecking his shoulder in an effort to embarrass a foe that had, by association, wronged him. Throughout it all, the only thing he didn't fight was his impulse to toss his bat to the moon after smacking that unforgettable homer in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Bautista refused this past winter to kowtow to the aging curve, to the raw numbers, and to his increasing and plainly observable inability to put the barrel of his bat on the baseball with any consistency. He was undeterred because nothing could deter him. And so, last month, the ignominy of riding buses be damned, Bautista signed a minor-league contract with the Braves, agreeing to play out of position - and, if only briefly, out of his element in podunk towns - to get another shot at The Show.
It didn't pan out. In a dozen games with the Braves, the 37-year-old - promoted to the big leagues after a perfunctory throat-clearing with Triple-A Gwinnett - went just 5-for-35 (.143) with 12 strikeouts. He hit only two home runs, a function of consistently lousy contact quality. Predictably, his defense at third base was also poor. So, on Sunday morning, Bautista was released, with his job being handed to a younger, more capable player.
Having confirmed the fears that began fomenting in Toronto last April, Bautista will now be hard-pressed to find gainful major-league employment. To stay in uniform, he may have to resign himself to the largesse of Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves' GM - and Bautista's longtime boss in Toronto - who made him a standing offer to return to Gwinnett should he fail to get work elsewhere.
He'll probably do it, though. We might know better, but Bautista has made a career out of fighting, and beating, the odds.
It'd be foolish to expect him to stop now.