Jose Bautista didn’t mean to break one of baseball’s unwritten rules.
He didn’t plan the bat flip that punctuated the three-run home run he hit against the Texas Rangers five years ago Wednesday, the drive that propelled the Blue Jays into that year’s American League Championship Series.
It was a product of anger and frustration, in a series-deciding game that largely hadn’t been going the Jays’ way. It was a show of how it feels to shift the momentum in your team’s favour. It was pure emotion, the kind of honest and authentic reaction that today’s sports fans ask of their athletic heroes.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, whatever I do, anything like that, and I certainly didn’t plan it,” Bautista told Fox Sports during an on-field interview after the game, when the buzz still in the air at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. “It was just the moment.”
That bat flip remains one of the most memorable moments in Jays history, and one that baseball fans of all ilk can recall. It still gets people talking and draws attention to the game, which finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis as attendance drops and the fan base ages and as it searches for solutions with three-batter minimums and pitch clocks and more tinkering.
If we’ve learned anything from Bautista’s bat flip five years on, it is that a little flair can go a long way in generating buzz. So why is it, then, that some in baseball are still so keen to stamp it out?
Some in the game are on board. When San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. flipped his bat earlier this month — after homering in a must-win Game 2 of a National League wild-card series against the St. Louis Cardinals — the 21-year-old hardly suffered the wrath that Bautista had in the aftermath of his own bat flip, with far fewer fans, analysts and opponents questioning Tatis’s theatrics.
“Move over, Jose Bautista,” read a post from Major League Baseball’s official Twitter account, captioning a video of Tatis’s flip-and-strut celebration before he rounded the bases.
But a vocal group of baseball stalwarts still opposed the young star’s decision and proved even the next face of MLB, as Tatis was touted in this breakout year, is not immune to the game’s rigid unwritten rules.
Tatis had learned that the hard way just six weeks earlier, when he was the subject of heated debate after hitting a grand slam against the Texas Rangers on a 3-0 count in the eighth inning of an August game, when the Padres were already up by seven runs.
Tatis was lambasted for running up the score, by Rangers players and staff. Even his own manager, Jayce Tingler, suggested he took issue with his player’s decision.
“I didn’t like it, personally,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “You’re up by seven in the eighth inning and it’s typically not a good time, 3-and-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game. But … the norms are being challenged.”
And so they should be. Bautista and Tatis have breathed personality into a game that seems, at times, desperate for a lifeline.
Mitch Moreland, a Rangers first baseman for Bautista’s bat flip who spent the second half of this season with Tatis and the Padres, told the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this month that baseball is experiencing “a new time.”
“It’s a different type of entertainment,” Moreland said. “It seems like its happening more and more around the league. It’s the new baseball.”
Even Tingler, who later backpedalled his critical comments about Tatis’s grand slam, seems to be accepting the bat flips.
“Nobody is showing anybody up,” he said. “It’s energy. It’s raw. It’s real. They’re playing the game. They’re firing up their teammates.”
And they seem to be firing up their fan bases, too.
There will no doubt be countless social media posts and articles Wednesday reflecting on Bautista’s bat flip. It will conjure memories of the hair standing up on fans’ arms and the excitement in the pits of their stomachs as the ball went over the left-field wall, of the roar that acted as the soundtrack to the flip and the hoarse voices fans woke up with the next morning from all the celebrating.
It will stir anticipation for next season, whenever that may be, unlike any of MLB’s marketing campaigns or rule changes will — just like Tatis’s show-stopping moments did throughout the 2020 season.
Bautista taught us five years ago that some unwritten rules are meant to be broken.
It’s about time baseball, as a whole, took that to heart.