No serious fan of the Toronto Blue Jays would challenge the claim Jose Bautista is the team’s best player.
Jul 15, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; American League outfielder Jose Bautista (19) of the Toronto Blue Jays is unable to catch a fly ball in foul territory in the third inning during the 2014 MLB All Star Game at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Bautista boasts the most reliable bat in the lineup and provides some mighty fine defence, too. His competitive spirit in right field might put him in harm’s way at times, but you always know he’s making an effort. You can’t say the same for the lackadaisical Colby Rasmus, who unfortunately covers the most ground in the outfield. (If only we could replace Rasmus with a second Bautista-like defender…)
If there’s a fault in Bautista’s game, however, it concerns how this competitive spirit is translated in the batter’s box and off the field. Bautista has quickly earned himself the reputation as someone who complains about balls and strikes, and this has led to his early exit from several games where the team could’ve still used his help. The latest example of this happened on August 24th when home plate umpire Bill Welke was quick to toss Bautista out of the game after the veteran outfielder questioned his strike zone.
The incident drew no sympathy from Jays manager John Gibbons, who perfectly captured the problem with Bautista’s sometimes over zealous and selfish play: “Bottom line, we need him in the game,” he told reporters after the game. “Say your piece, get the hell out of there. We’re trying to get in the playoffs. We need you on the field.”
As I mentioned, this is only one example of Bautista’s personality rubbing against his leadership role on the team. A second example can be taken from his comments regarding the Jays’ inactivity on trade deadline day.
I won’t deny the team’s inactivity upset me as a fan or that Bautista wasn’t the only player on the team to express his disappointment. Closer Casey Janssen – another veteran on the roster – was openly displeased with the team.
On the one hand, players should have room to voice their displeasure. It shows they care about the team and it puts the pressure on management and ownership where it properly belongs. At the same time, however, your top player – your team leader – needs to show better judgment in terms of how he expresses himself since he’s often (seen as) speaking for the whole team.
In other words, it’s one thing for Janssen to complain, but it’s something entirely different for Bautista to complain. His expression of “disappointment” went beyond a simple press interview and struck at the very heart of the Jays’ current roster.
What type of message did he send to his teammates by suggesting the Jays aren’t good enough to compete in their current form?
He basically said – rightly or wrongly – they don’t make the cut in his eyes. He’s an established all-star so he clearly wasn’t referring to himself – he was talking about everyone else on the team save maybe Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes. At the very least, he told newcomers Danny Valencia and Nolan Reimold they’re not the answer.
That’s quite the introduction, no?
Jul 31, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista (19) is congratulated after hitting a home run during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Bautista has complained about the quality of the players around him and I doubt it’ll be the last time either. It’s understandable he’d let his true thoughts escape at the critical moment of inaction, but what we really have here is a pattern: Bautista has expressed his desire to play for a contender on multiple occasions.
In fairness, Bautista’s always said he wants to remain in Toronto and that the Jays could be this contender, but the comments also point to a player who desires something bigger for himself than what the Jays can offer him at present. For a normal player, this is completely understandable and probably wouldn’t draw any attention. That’s not the case when it comes from your supposed club house leader.
Could you ever imagine Jason Varitek or Derek Jeter saying such things? They’d accept their fair share of the responsibility, declining to deflect blame onto unnamed teammates or unimportant umpires who have questionable strike zones.
If this was the entire situation, there’d be little left to say about Bautista’s leadership qualities. He clearly doesn’t have the personality for the role. Having said this, it might be the case he’s been pushed into a role by the team, media and fans alike that’s actually better suited for someone else. A lack of true alternatives on the team, however, brings the question back to Bautista: who else can lead this team?
A lack of continuity on the roster over the past three seasons makes it hard to identity any true leadership rivals, and the uncertain futures of Cabrera, Rasmus and Adam Lind seem to remove them from consideration. Add the poor health and/or inconsistent play of Reyes, R.A. Dickey and Janssen and the same problem arises. Encarnacion is a possible candidate, but the Jays were willing to part ways with him a few seasons ago. What does this say?
Aug 10, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Melky Cabrera (53) celebrates the win with first baseman Jose Bautista (19) and shortstop Jose Reyes (7) during the nineteenth inning in a game against the Detroit Tigers at Rogers Centre. The Toronto Blue Jays won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
In other words, there is no real alternative to Bautista. He’s been forced into a leadership role that his personality seems to precludes him from fulfilling on a satisfactory basis. If you listen to the guy speak about himself, the team or even baseball in general, “ideal leader” isn’t the first thing that comes across your mind. Competitive, arrogant, conceited – these are all more apt descriptions for him.
Here’s the final twist, however: if you watch Bautista play but channel out his whinny voice and petulant antics, a true leader begins to emerge – someone who can lead simply by example. (He’s like your routine Britney Spears video in this respect: hit mute and enjoy.)
Want proof? Look at the Jays’ last five games and how Bautista, freshly chastised by Gibbons for last Wednesday’s selfish spat with Welke, has carried the team by the barrel of his bat. He hit a home run in each of these games and what remains of the Jays’ microscopic playoff hopes today would be absolutely nothing without his timely contributions.
This is the Bautista who can and should be leading the Jays – a Bautista who plays with his glove and bat, not his mouth. As the Jays enter the final month of the 2014 season and look ahead to next season and beyond, this is the Bautista they want leading the charge.
Unfortunately, it’ll never be entirely clear if Bautista wants to or can actually lead the charge. This is simply a part of the multi-dimensional Bautista that Jays fans have to accept.
At times, he’s a great teammate and can carry the entire club on his own, but he’s also prone to selfish outbursts that hurt the Jays in numerous ways. At the plate, in the field or to the press – Bautista has done his fair share to both boost and hinder the Jays.
He’s not an ideal leader, but he’s our leader. Is this enough?
Do we really have a choice?