For the second time in as many months, the career of Jose Bautista looked to be over. Released by the Atlanta Braves after a couple windswept home runs and 40 otherwise forgettable plate appearances, the six-time All-Star did little to disabuse the notion that his disastrous 2017 was a fluke. It seemed like this was finally it for the former Toronto Blue Jays superstar.
With his name on the waiver wire, countless sportswriter eulogies were launched from the laptops of baseball scribes like so many Bautista home runs. His career finally over, the player must be clued into the reality that everyone watching at home saw last July—that this is it. This weird coda in Braves colours another entry into the "wait, that guy played for them?!" files.
It lasted all of 24 hours, when reports of interest from another National League club surfaced. Just as quickly as the homilies were solemnly shared on social media, he was back again, bound for Citi Field in Flushing to serve as a backup outfielder for the New York Mets.
Rather than a dramatic press conference and with no heartfelt Players' Tribune letter in the offing, Bautista arrived at the field less than an hour before game time, inserted straight into the lineup by a manager who admitted he didn't even speak with the outfielder until moments before the first pitch. A far cry from the teary send-off in his final home game as a member of the Blue Jays.
After his Mets debut, Bautista expressed appreciation for an opportunity to help his new club win in whichever role his manager chooses. For a player with such an outsized reputation, known more for his bat flips and on-field encounters than anything else, it appears humbling. How quickly he fell from reportedly seeking a nine-digit payday to a free agent journeyman trying to prove he can still compete.
If accepting his release in Atlanta and then quickly signing the next decent offer to come along was a humbling experience for Bautista, it wasn't the first one. The writing was very much on the wall after the baseball job market repeatedly offered the formerly prodigious slugger little more than a collective shrug.
After signing a one-year contract with the Blue Jays after the 2016 season, Bautista was among a growing legion of aging batters still waiting for their next opportunity when the most recent Opening Day rolled around on March 29. Finally the Braves came calling in late April, and now the Mets offer a chance to slip into a part-time role for another injury-ravaged NL contender.
Though the free agent market didn't match his confidence, Bautista remained steadfast that he can still compete at the highest level. It's a return to the dominant theme running throughout Bautista's career—his belief in his abilities remaining unshaken while the baseball industry expressed doubt.
This tension created an unconventional path to the big leagues for Bautista. Without a life-changing international free agent offer on the table, he and his family prioritized education as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, opting instead to play college baseball in the United States at Chipola College along the Florida panhandle.
A late-round draft pick, the baseball industry got right down to the business of chewing him up like so many young players before and after, yet Bautista persevered through the minor leagues and the vagaries of the Rule Five draft, famously playing for four different teams in one season.
After finally arriving in Toronto in 2008, with the possibility of being ground up further by baseball's labour machinery, Bautista heeded the fateful words from former teammate Vernon Wells—"start earlier"—a reference to timing his now-famous leg kick to catch up to major league fastballs, and unlocked the superstar within.
These experiences shaped him as a player and gave him an edge. It was through this crucible that Bautista emerged a better and more self-aware athlete. He learned how he needed to keep his body physically ready for the grind of a long season, dedicating his winters to flexibility and strength exercises, eventually overhauling his diet to stay at the top of his game.
It was this desire to improve that drove Bautista to become one of the most studious players in the game, pouring over video highlights to learn opposing pitchers' tendencies and his track record against them. He knew the strike zone as well as anyone, frequently clashing with umpires over disagreements of interpretation, fueling the loathing opposing fans felt for him.
But baseball is a different game now, a game in which velocity is king and the former glories of now-slowed bats don't pay the bills. His new team plans to use him sparingly, deploying him only when the situation sets the 37-year-old outfielder up for success. All the video sessions and all the power yoga in the world won't stop the whispers that Bautista can no longer hack it.
No matter how this stint with the Mets finishes, his legacy is secure. The alien jerseys appearing at the end of his career retrospective don't damage that legacy, they secure it. One of the most spectacular, unlikely baseball careers in recent memory wouldn't have been possible without Bautista's unwavering confidence and steadfast belief in his ability. He still believes while he's desperately trying to hold on to whatever is left of his storied career. That's who he is and that's what helped him become a star.