'I can't wait': Bautista ready to join Level of Excellence

August 11th, 2023

TORONTO -- The King is back, for one night only.

José Bautista’s name will be added to the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence in a ceremony prior to Saturday’s game against the Cubs, acknowledging one of the greatest players in club history who went from an afterthought to the face of the franchise for a decade.

But first, there was one final piece of business. Bautista signed a one-day contract with the Blue Jays on Friday to officially retire with the franchise he helped put back on the map.

“I’m sharing this celebration with the fans,” Bautista said. “This is a celebration of my career and all that I was able to accomplish with the Blue Jays, almost entirely with the Blue Jays. I have all of the gratitude in the world towards the organization. It’s always great to be recognized and celebrated. I can’t wait to be there Saturday, sharing this with everybody.”

The Level of Excellence holds the most important names in franchise history, from players to coaches, executives and broadcasters, wrapping around the facing of the 400 Level at Rogers Centre.

Bautista will join George Bell (1996), Dave Stieb (1996), Joe Carter (1999), Cito Gaston (1999), Tony Fernandez (2001), Pat Gillick (2002), Tom Cheek (2004), Paul Beeston (2008), Carlos Delgado (2013) and Roy Halladay (2018).

“There aren’t many names as synonymous with Blue Jays baseball as José Bautista, and it is our great honour that he will officially retire in a Blue Jays jersey,” said Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays’ president and CEO. “On behalf of a generation of Blue Jays fans that had the privilege of watching his clutch moments on the field and inspiring work ethic -- thank you, José, for a mesmerizing decade representing the Toronto Blue Jays.”

Now that Bautista has some distance from the game, he’s “honored and humbled” that the day has finally come. He’s best known for The Bat Flip, which sits just shy of Joe Carter’s World Series walk-off homer in Blue Jays lore, but Bautista was so much more than that.

“Fifty-four home runs was nice,” Bautista said with the casual confidence only he can pull off, “but getting back to the playoffs in 2016 [after ‘15] was amazing, as well. It’s the memories. It’s the relationships and the moments with the fans. You tend to remember that more than the individual accolades.”

The stats tell part of Bautista’s story. He still holds the club record with those 54 home runs in a single season (2010), and he launched 288 home runs over his 10 seasons with the Blue Jays. This all came after he bounced between the Pirates, Rays, Royals and Orioles in the early days of his career, something that feels so far away for fans but so close to Bautista’s own experience.

“That’s the only thing I’ve known,” Bautista said. “Out of the Dominican, trying to sign as a free agent wasn’t easy and I ended up coming to junior college. I didn’t get drafted high, but I got an opportunity with the Pirates. I wasn’t a top prospect, but I kept grinding away. I was a Rule 5 pick and that opened doors in the big leagues, then a year after I went back to the Minors with the Pirates in ‘05 and ‘06, I came up and stayed in the big leagues. I felt like I was not fully achieving my potential.”

When Bautista broke out with the Blue Jays in 2010, that all changed. He helped to bring eyes back to the Blue Jays after years stuck in the middle, and eventually led them to the postseason in ‘15 and ‘16. The magic from those seasons is still something the Blue Jays are chasing, and it was Bautista at the front, leading with his attitude as much as his bat.

There was an undeniable edge to Bautista in his playing days. Not only did the Blue Jays have baseball’s most feared slugger, but they also had a player who knew he was exactly that. Underneath that exterior was one of baseball’s more cerebral players both on and off the field, and his sharp wit still lives on in stories around Rogers Centre.

These days, “Joey Bats” is a proud father of four young girls, staying busy around the house and running to practices for gymnastics and volleyball. It’s a new stage for Bautista, who will live on as a franchise legend for as long as baseball is played in Toronto.

So many of Bautista’s biggest moments came alongside a sidekick, too. He and Edwin Encarnación, both late bloomers who became superstars in Toronto, were baseball’s most feared one-two punch at their peak. One day, Bautista hopes to have Encarnación right next to him on the Level of Excellence.

“Edwin is one of the brothers that baseball has given me,” Bautista said. “I’m looking forward to his moment in the limelight, hopefully shortly.”