“Everyone loves bat flips now”: A Q&A with Blue Jays legend José Bautista

“Everyone loves bat flips now”: A Q&A with Blue Jays legend José Bautista

The slugger dishes on being inducted into the Level of Excellence, coming to terms with being a villain and how Toronto would be the perfect city if it were closer to the equator

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For a few glorious seasons, José Bautista was one of the most hated players in Major League Baseball—and that’s just how Jays fans liked it. Cunning and aggressive on the field while candid and generous off it, Bautista embodied the underdog ethos that defines Toronto sports fandom. Today, Bautista—who left his old club in 2018—is in town to sign an honorary one-day contract to officially retire as a Blue Jay. On Saturday, in front of a sold-out Rogers Centre crowd, he will be inducted into the Level of Excellence. Here, Bautista talks about receiving the greatest honour of his career. He also dishes on the legacy of his infamous bat flip, bobbleheads and keeping up with Mini Bautista. 

Congratulations on your induction into the Level of Excellence. How did you celebrate this massive career milestone?
It’s been a while since I found out at the beginning of last year. I don’t know if I did anything special. Maybe I opened a bottle of wine. I think it’s less of a celebration than a chance to reflect on my time in Toronto: the relationships, the memories of all the work and the grind that we put in as a group, the fans and all the people behind the scenes—the club house, the security, everyone. There were so many people that showed up so I could do my job. It’s a huge deal to be recognized in that way by this organization. 

When you first joined the Jays in 2008, could you ever have imagined your name up there in the stands with the greats?
I don’t think that’s a goal you set. Maybe you want to get to the big leagues, you want to have an impact. But this is more than I could have ever imagined. I remember being a young man, looking up at those names in the Rogers Centre. The way the Blue Jays honour their players is unique. The Level of Excellence has these big, bold letters. The way the stadium is set up, you can’t help but see it.

I’m sure you’re aware that the first 15,000 fans to arrive to the Rogers Centre on Saturday get a José Baustista bat-flip bobblehead. Have you seen it?
I have and it looks awesome! I didn’t know how they would pull off suspending the mini bat in the air, but they figured it out. I love it, but more importantly, I hope that the fans do.

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You’re known for that bat flip from 2015. Do you consider it your defining moment with the Jays?
If I had to pick one, that would probably be it. It was a great, series-defining moment in the biggest game we had after a 22-year playoff drought. But instead of the bat flip itself, what I’m really proud of is the way we reignited the city’s love for baseball. We hadn’t seen that excitement since 1993.

Fair. Still, were you surprised by the level of attention the flip got? Some speculated that you never meant to throw it that high; others thought that it was planned in advance.
If anybody tells you that there is enough time to do a rehearsed execution of such a movement, or to even have time to think about it, they’re wrong. I wasn’t planning to flip the bat, I never thought about it in advance. It was a reaction to the momentand then the stadium exploded. I don’t remember anything after I hit the ball. Then all of a sudden, I was taking a drink in the dugout and people were fanning me with a towel. I was surprised by some of the conversations that happened after the fact. I think a lot of people tried to turn it into a debate about disrespecting the unwritten rules of baseball. There were definitely two camps, but look at today: bat flips are way more accepted across the league. Everybody loves them. 

Does it feel like you were villanized for relatively harmless behaviour?
One hundred per cent. Other sports have been more open to change. In basketball, if you dunk and pump your fist, it’s not considered disrespectful. In football, after a touchdown, they’ll spike the ball and dance. Things are changing in baseball, and it shows the evolution—an acceptance of different cultures. Listen, I don’t take it personally now. Back then, maybe it got to me a little bit. Now, I understand that controversy sells. For me, it was a game, it was an act of celebration and it was about passion. But maybe the truth is less exciting.

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Is there a current Jay that you think demonstrates the kind of passion you’re talking about?
Managing your emotions is hard in baseball because you play every day and if you’re having those ups and downs, it can drain you. When I watch the games, I can tell that every single guy cares. A lot of these guys are poised and graceful and professional. And then from time to time, you see Vladdy or Bo get pumped up.

Do you watch every Jays game?
More days than not, the games will be on in the background or I’ll catch up later with highlights. I try to watch as much as I can, but when you’re a full-time dad, there’s homework and bedtime and all of the things that get in the way.

Do you get back to Toronto much these days?
I was here in June for Joe Carter’s golf event, and I’ll be back again in September. I’ll probably visit more often nownot just because of the Level of Excellence, but because it’s easier to travel since the world is coming out of the pandemic. I have friends I want to visit, old relationships to rekindle. My family is in Tampa. I moved there when I signed my big deal with the Jays in 2010 and it’s been home ever since. Spring training was nearby in Dunedin, but we like being in the city, rather than the beach. We love it. I’ve always said it’s similar to Toronto, except for the weather.

That’s not insignificant when you play for a team with a five-month winter.
Right. Being from the Dominican, the weather was a big adjustment. I’ve always said that if I could, I’d pick Toronto up and move it closer to the equator so I could live there full time. Early in my career, I was living as a nomad. Then I was in Pittsburg, which is a smaller, blue-collar kind of town. I grew up in Santo Domingo, which is a busy, vibrant city. Coming to Toronto let me feel that again.

What were your favourite hangouts back in the day?
My go-to places were Barberian’s, Jacobs, Buca, Sher Club, Cactus Club, Harbour 60, Sotto Sotto, Patria. I would get “the treatment” at those places. I would take friends when they were visiting.

Can José Bautista walk around in the city or do you fear a mob of fans?
I have no issue with people showing the love. Are there times when I’m mid-bite and somebody wants to take a picture and I wish they could wait a few minutes? Sure. But I’m never going to complain when people come up to me and want to celebrate my career. I just roll with it.

You have called Jays fans the best in baseball. What is it about us that’s so great?
The fact that the Blue Jays are Canada’s team is a unique situation. It brings a heightened sense of pride. I’m not saying other fans aren’t passionate. St. Louis fans love baseball so much that they cheer for the opponents. Chicago fans are loyal to the Cubs even though there’s another team in that city. Red Sox fans take a lot of pride in their record. And Yankee fans want to rub your loss in your face.

Do you remember Mini Bautista?
Yes! I follow him on Instagram. I think he moved back to England with his family. They’re still baseball fans and every now and then they will send me a message.

Could you ever imagine coming back to Toronto in a coaching capacity?
Right now, I’m focused on getting through this Level of Excellence weekend. I’m open to whatever could be a fit in the future. However I can help the organization, I’ll do it.

And we’ll do our best to fix the weather.
Well, baseball is a summer sport, so we don’t have to worry about that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.