The familiar song of “Jo-sé, Jo-sé, Jo-sé” echoed around Rogers Centre for the first time in six years as José Bautista was added to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence on Saturday.
A visibly emotional Bautista was honoured in a 45-minute ceremony before Toronto hosted the Chicago Cubs, culminating in him throwing the opening pitch out to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a symbolic passing of the torch between two centrepieces of the Blue Jays’ offence.
“You guys have no idea how much this means to me and my family,” said Bautista, clearing his throat to fight back tears, addressing the sold-out crowd at Toronto’s downtown ballpark.
He then introduced a five-minute video where he recounted how he was traded to the Blue Jays in 2008 and thanked several people from the organization as well as the fans.
“I knew that Toronto had a lot of great players, and that the Blue Jays had a great history, including two World Series,” said Bautista in the video. “I was also aware that from its very beginning, the Jays organization had strong ties to my home country, the beautiful Dominican Republic.
“But what I didn’t fully realize until I arrived in Toronto was that this was such a welcoming, diverse and multicultural city. You embrace me and my family as your own and I can’t thank you enough for that.”
Bautista’s name was officially added to the Level of Excellence overlooking right field, where he played for most of 10 seasons with the Blue Jays. His name adorns the facing along the 400 level of the ballpark beside Hall of Fame pitcher Roy Halladay’s name.
During his time in Toronto, Bautista was a six-time all-star and three-time Silver Slugger. He had 288 homers with the Blue Jays, including a major league-leading 54 in 2010 and 43 in 2011.
He is perhaps best known for his emphatic bat flip after crushing a tie-breaking three-run homer in the seventh inning of Toronto’s clinching 6-3 victory over Texas in Game 5 of their 2015 AL Division Series.
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The JaysCare Foundation, the charitable arm of the team, made a $100,000 donation to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Bautista’s name as part of the celebration.
He also received two Silver Slugger Muskoka chairs and a custom Level of Excellence Blue Jays diamond pendant. A mural celebrating Bautista’s dramatic bat flip was painted on the side of 99 Spadina Avenue, a nearby office building as part of the festivities.
“I want to thank you, the fans, who especially during those crazy wonderful days in 2015, and 2016, filled the stadium, watched by the millions on television and lived and died with every pitch,” said Bautista toward the end of his video. “I know for many of you, those memories will last a lifetime.
Bautista wiped away tears after a lengthy video message from former teammates, coaches, and his wife Neisha and their four daughters.
“I never thought there would ever be a day that I see José Bautista cry, and he definitely was crying a lot,” said former teammate Devon Travis after the ceremony. “I just think that a player of that calibre, the career that he had, when he’s in the moment and playing every day, I don’t think that players like that really ever look at themselves and say, ‘Man, you’re pretty damn good.’
“I think today he had the ability to soak that in, I think probably for the first time in his life.”
Former Blue Jays manager John Gibbons got one of the loudest cheers as Bautista’s friends and family were introduced. The massive ovation forced Gibbons to take a pause and drink in the cheers before walking out to the stage set up in the infield at Rogers Centre for all the dignitaries.
Cito Gaston, who led Toronto to back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, was introduced next, getting a reception that rivalled Gibbons’s.
The roars continued for every former member of the Blue Jays that Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae announced, including Justin Smoak, Ricky Romero, Devon Travis, and Montreal’s Russell Martin.
“I thought they were still cheering for Gibby, actually,” joked Smoak. “It’s one of those things where those teams were special, right? Special players, special people, coaches, everything and so when we have teams like that, the fans feel that as well.
“Hopefully the team that’s here now, the team that was here last year, a great team and great players, and hopefully they can feel the same thing.”
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Fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion probably got the largest cheer besides Bautista, with the burly corner infielder flexing both of his arms before marching to the stage.
Tens of thousands of fans lined up around Rogers Centre before the game, with some camping out the night before to make sure they got one of 20,000 bobbleheads commemorating Bautista’s bat flip.
“They were there when I came in at like 9 a.m.,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider before the ceremony. “Pretty cool. Absolutely. Pretty cool. I’m looking forward to the atmosphere.
“Looking forward to seeing all those guys and it was definitely buzzing early today.”