If Joey Bats and Encarnacion Are Done in Toronto, Blue Jays Fans Sent Them off with Proper Exit
Everyone from fans to teammates wants to see the two sluggers return to Toronto. But both figure to have plenty of suitors as they hit free agency.
Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
As he prepared to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, Jose Bautista stood in the on-deck circle for the 4,674th time as a Blue Jay, stretching this way and that, as he always does. The roar of nearly 49,000 fans reached a crescendo as he approached the plate. Then came the familiar sing-song chant of "Jose-Jose-Jose," forming a bass line beneath the cheers and applause.
Everyone knew this could be Bautista's final at-bat in a Toronto uniform, which he had worn since 2008, when no one would have dared to predict the home-run barrage to come.
This time, Bautista doubled, and the decibel level rose. Until then, it had been a quiet day under the dome, for the Blue Jays were losing 3-0, and within a few minutes, Cleveland would banish them from the postseason.
With one out and Bautista still on second, Edwin Encarnacion walked toward the plate in that familiar rolling gait of his. The crowd was quiet for a moment, before another collective realization took hold: Encarnacion, a free agent like Bautista, might soon be gone for good as well.
"ED-DEE, ED-DEE, ED-DEE," they yelled, loud and then louder, pleading with him to stay or, at least, hit another of his towering fly balls into the second deck and keep this thing going.
Encarnacion swung through an 84-mph Cody Allen curveball. He fouled off another curve. Allen chose the same pitch again, only this time he spotted it lower and a little farther off the plate. Encarnacion swung and missed.
Afterward, during a scrum, I asked him whether the chants, and all else that welled up inside him during that at-bat, had affected his focus. He was answering questions in Spanish, with team translator Josue Peley providing the English version.
One of the words Encarnacion spoke in Spanish was "emoción."
The translation: "Something I feel really proud of is the fans chanting my name there. Maybe that gave me a little too much energy. I tried to do too much."
A little too much emoción. Under the circumstances, Edwin Encarnacion was entitled to that.
The two Dominican sluggers have connected with the fans of Toronto in different ways, their common thread being the long ball. The imperial Bautista, articulate in two languages, projects a broad emotional range, often haughty and impudent in interviews, and sometimes humble, too, as he tried to be after the Game 5 loss.
But while it happens all the time, it is also absurd to judge a professional athlete on his interviews and his relationship with the media. Often, we reporters don't know the half of it. An athlete like Bautista, if indeed there is another like him, is deliberate in what he says and what he withholds. No comment of his is an accident, nor is it a complete portrait of the man.
Athletes often talk of the importance of execution. With Bautista, that applies to his words as well as his swing path. There are home runs and there are strikeouts, like his assertion that Ryan Merritt, the callow Cleveland starter, would be quaking in his boots on Wednesday. (Merritt played puppeteer with Bautista and his fellow batters over 4.1 innings.)
Nor is Encarnacion an easy read. With the TV lights on, he usually speaks only in Spanish, letting Peley translate. Alone with those of us who write in print, he readily answers in English without retreat. He works at it. He wants us to understand. His expression and tone are soft, humble and generally sombre.
Watch him converse with his Spanish-speaking teammates, and a different Encarnacion emerges. The solemnity is still part of his range, but he is often raucous and a tad cocky, too. Listening to him in Spanish, even without understanding the words, one feels more of his emoción.
In his postgame scrum following Game 5, after what might have been his farewell at-bat as a Blue Jay, Encarnacion was subdued, but the emotion was crystal clear.
He came here as a scatter-armed third baseman in a 2009 trade with Cincinnati, a player the Reds were eager to discard. Since then, he has hit 243 home runs, including four in the postseason. Since 2010, he has averaged 35 per season.
Neither he nor Bautista would speculate on where they might land after the free-agent market heats up. But Encarnacion made it clear he would prefer to stay where he is.
"To be honest, I'm really sad because I don't know what's going to happen next," he said. "But overall, I feel really proud for what the fans and what this organization have done for me."
Not what he has done for them. What they have done for him.
Bautista would not bite when asked the same question about his future. It is clear both he and Encarnacion will test the market, without regard for the proverbial hometown discount.
Bautista turned 36 on the day the Blue Jays were eliminated. Encarnacion is 33. Both Bautista ($14 million) and Encarnacion ($10 million) are significantly underpaid in the context of baseball's current market. This is their last shot at the biggest windfall of their lives.
"I don't want you guys to think that I'm being stubborn," Bautista said after repeated questions about his future. "I just don't feel like I'm in the right state of mind to be talking about that stuff."
There was no emoción in his response, and there will be none in his ascent into free agency.
Naturally, the rest of the Blue Jays want Bautista and Encarnacion back. Over their years in Toronto, they formed the fulcrum in an offence that gradually found its way to the postseason after more than two decades of trying. Almost overnight, the complementary pieces emerged: Russ Martin, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Marco Estrada, Michael Saunders, Devon Travis and J.A. Happ (the sequel) in trades, and Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman from the drafts of Alex Anthopoulos.
They call Bautista "Bats," after his @JoeyBats19 Twitter handle. For Encarnacion, Edwin sounds too formal. When English speakers approach, he answers to Eddie.
Was this the last time Edwin Encarnacion leaves Rogers Centre as a Blue Jay? "Thank you!" "Please come back, Eddie!" "F--- the Red Sox." pic.twitter.com/vmO0uSrtcT
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 20, 2016
Fans gathered outside the Rogers Centre to wish Encarnacion well, and begged him to stay, after Game 5.
"We'd love to have Bats back, we'd love to have Eddie back," Josh Donaldson said. "These guys have been the faces of this franchise for many years now. Everybody who follows the Toronto Blue Jays or watches the game of baseball knows how important they are to our team. The fact of the matter is, everybody in here we want on our team. We went out there and grinded together. We've shed blood with each other."
Saunders, the Canadian from Victoria, British Columbia, who rooted for the Jays as a kid, shed more blood than most, missing virtually all of 2015 with a knee injury before bouncing back with his best season this year.
He got to the majors as a Mariner. Being a Blue Jay was his childhood dream, fulfilled via trade. He is a free agent but he does not want to leave. Nor does he want Bautista and Encarnacion to go, either.
"I think their names rightfully belong probably somewhere on the Rogers Centre with the rest of those names (on the Level of Exellence)," Saunders said after the Game 5 loss.
"What they've meant not only for this team, but for this city, they kind of put the Jays back on the map. They're incredible players. You know what they're all about playing against them, but once you actually get here and get to know them as people, they're phenomenal people and they're some of the greatest teammates I've had."
Last week, there was an iconic TV shot in Cleveland of Encarnacion singing along to "O Canada." During the gloomy clubhouse post-mortem Wednesday night, someone asked him about that, and he smiled.
"It means a lot to me," he said, "to be out here and that I actually learned some of the national anthem."
For Toronto fans, Encarnacion became part of their national baseball anthem. So did Bautista. One or both will be gone next year. An epoch will end.
In his customarily straightforward way, Jays manager John Gibbons put it all in perspective.
"It's a game we play," he said, "but it's still a big business, and guys earn the right to try free agency. They both love it here, but it's still a business.
"But me personally, if I'm not around them again, I have great memories. Regardless of what they did on the field, two good guys."
Two good guys. Plus Bautista with 265 regular-season homers as a Blue Jay, and Encarnacion with 239. That's 504 memories to keep, along with those images of laser throws from right field in Bautista's halcyon days and slick picks at first by Encarnacion.
Along with countless fans, Martin would love to see them stay. Like the fans, he is helpless to make it happen. But for a moment on Wednesday night, he smiled and imagined himself performing an intervention.
"Knock on the GM's door," he said, "and be like, 'Hey man, do this.'"