You don’t remember Jose Bautista  was a Met? Yeah, he was another one of those veterans the Mets picked up when nobody else wanted him, another one of those faded stars of whom it was assumed he had nothing left. This was in 2018 when the Mets seemed to be doing a lot of that. Maybe that’s why you don’t remember. A lot of people claimed to have checked out on the 2018 Mets after things went awry.
Thing is, Bautista was pretty good as a Met. Sometimes very good. Sure, he came off the scrap heap, but nobody was scrappier and, this one particular night, nobody’s hitting was heapier. Guy got on base a ton. Great eye. I never knew that about him when he was a Blue Jay. To be honest, the only thing I knew about him as a Blue Jay was he hit loads of home runs and once flipped a bat so demonstratively in a playoff game that it got all of the Texas Rangers and half of the Western world enraged at him. The other half cheered his flair. I was only vaguely aware of the flip. It was during the 2015 postseason, and during the 2015 season, my mind was elsewhere.
Anyway, Joey Bats — I’d heard other people call him that; I never felt familiar enough to brandish his nickname — had been a Met on paper for like literally ten minutes in 2004, a footnote to the deal that made Anna Benson a Met. Something like that. Sometime later, Bautista, who apparently still follows all of us on Twitter, broke out to become a big star and once in a while, when there wasn’t enough of a compelling case to poke fun at the Mets, it would be pointed out that not only were the Mets paying Bobby Bonilla more than a million bucks annually, but they also had this 54-home run guy and let him go without realizing it. But, like I said, it was a paper transaction. Kansas City gave him to us so we could give him to Pittsburgh. He’d been with other teams, too. Nothing really clicked for another five years, by which time everybody but Toronto had given up on him.
Where was I? Oh yeah, 2018. Sorry, it’s one of those years people are always changing the conversation on when they’re Mets fans. Bautista had the great career with Toronto, but found himself unwanted in the free agent market the preceding winter when nobody was getting offers. No, not the collusion winter. That was way before, in the 1980s. Among players active in 2018, not even Bautista was old enough to have played then. Maybe Bartolo Colon. I’ll have to look it up. I don’t know, maybe almost nobody getting signed was collusion. Kind of felt like it, though the Mets must not have heard about it because they colluded to sign Jay Bruce for three years. Don’t get me started on that. Bruce found a taker. Bautista sat out there without a contract until the Braves took a flier on him.
No, I don’t know where that expression came from, either. It’s just one of those things people say. The Braves made every possible right move to get back to contending in 2018, but Bautista was the exception. He didn’t do much for them and they let him go. The Mets had a need — when don’t the Mets have a need? — and they snapped the guy up. He was a righty slugger at the exact right moment, the moment the Mets were missing Cespedes.
I know, when weren’t the Mets missing Cespedes? It didn’t seem like much of a contingency plan, but you know how the Mets were in 2018. Somebody was always getting injured, nobody was necessarily developing, and a team presumed to have a surplus of starting outfielders found itself with a shortage. They even tried Dominic Smith out there for a few games. Remember him?
Bautista, 37 years old, somehow didn’t get injured. And though he wasn’t exactly the “Joey Bats” from Toronto, he really wasn’t bad. The Mets were terrible, but it was totally not Bautista’s fault. Like they were gonna be good without him at that point? I have to confess when I picture him in the mind’s eye, I see the beard he sported and I chuckle because, given his glum resting face, he started reminding me after a while of Emmett Kelly, Jr. But Bautista was no clown. I had nothing but respect for the guy, though, granted, I do usually fall briefly in love with every former All-Star slugger the Mets bring in out of desperation. I was kind of gaga over Adrian Gonzalez that year, too.
Yes, Adrian Gonzalez was a Met. Man, does anybody besides me remember anything?
Let’s get back to Bautista. He was kind of an under-the-radar phenomenon…OK, “phenomenon” might be too strong a word. These were the 2018 Mets. There was nothing phenomenal about them by the middle of that dreadful season, but I don’t think anybody really noticed the nice job Jose — Bautista, not Reyes…yeah, he was there that year, too — was doing until the Mets went to Toronto around the Fourth of July.
No, I didn’t understand the scheduling, though it wasn’t the first time the Mets had been in Canada on the Fourth. They played at Montreal three times. Nobody has a memory, everybody treats today’s news as if there’s been nothing like it before. Sorry, I’ll get down off my soapbox now. However unprecedented it was or wasn’t, Bautista playing his first game at SkyDome…excuse me, Rogers Centre…was a big deal for Toronto fans. They gave him a warm welcome home. Kind of made us sit up and take notice of Jose. At least those of us who were still keeping tabs on the Mets in 2018.
When they came back to Citi Field to start their next series, against the Rays — and I don’t know why Interleague play hadn’t already gone away; it wasn’t like these games were humongous draws — we had what amounted to the Jose Bautista Game. I hoped it was the first of several as long as he was sticking around that year, but I also doubted there’d be another to match it for a signature affair.
First, he runs through the outfield wall. No, not quite Rodney McCray reincarnated. See, he kind of whiffed on a fly ball and then braced for impact against the fence in right center field. Except that was the bullpen door and — I don’t get how this happens — the gate was left unlatched. That actually happened twice at Citi Field inside a month that year. Geez, what an organization, what a season. Jose kind of limped around for a minute, and I figured it was another outfielder joining all the rest — Cespedes, Bruce, Lagares if you can remember him anymore — but no, Joey Bats was resilient. He even made a nice leaping grab the next inning. “No ill effects” as Gary Cohen might have said.
Bautista walked a couple of times in that game, which wasn’t that big a whoop, considering he did that plenty. Bautista and Wilmer Flores were the offense most nights: walking and waiting on base for somebody to drive them in. Wilmer would have been better off waiting. This was one of those nights when the third base coach sent Wilmer from first on a double. Wilmer was not only out by approximately five miles, but he slid somewhere east of East Elmhurst. We all loved Wilmer in those days, but we kind of had to watch him with one eye covered when he was doing something besides hitting.
Bautista stole a base that night. Funny that I remember that. He could run a little even at that advanced age. Mostly what I remember before the big finish is Jacob deGrom got his ERA down to 1.79, best in the majors. Man, he was good that year. Never got wins, because the Mets were the Mets, but what a pleasure to watch him mow down hitters, and even more of a pleasure to watch him strand runners in scoring position. I think he gave up a solo home run to some Ray I never heard of before, but otherwise went eight innings unscathed.
Of course Jake left in no position to get a win unless the Mets scored for him ASAP, which they didn’t, because god forbid. Familia came on in the ninth. Familia was still with the Mets at that point in 2018. He wasn’t what he was when he was helping the Mets to the playoffs a couple of years earlier, let alone what he was when he was setting up his buddy Jenrry Mejia, a name I probably wouldn’t recall here except they unsuspended him for life the same day as all this was happening…no, I don’t get how that works, either, but we all make mistakes, I suppose. Chances to correct them are nice.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Familia was having trouble in a tie game. The bases were loaded and he got a grounder to first. Flores was playing first, which was always an adventure. Wilmer lollipopped the ball home on a force play. The catcher — Mesoraco by then; catching was not a Met strong suit most of the 2010s — had to leap into the air and pull down Wilmer’s throw and make a tag. The runner was called out. The Rays challenged the call. The Rays did lots of nitpicky things. They didn’t even use starting pitchers. Somehow the call didn’t get reversed and Familia would get out of the mess. It was early July, weeks before the deadline, so I hoped Jeurys didn’t damage his trade value too much.
Finally, the bottom of the ninth and a chance for deGrom…well, no, deGrom was gonna get a no-decision no matter what, but I was sick of watching him be involved even tangentially in Met losses in 2018. An overly familiar storyline, you might say. Maybe we’d get lucky, I thought, before laughing at the notion. Nevertheless, Todd Frazier worked out a walk, Mesoraco singled after trying to bunt, Rosario bunted beautifully — he didn’t break out as a star immediately the way we wanted him to, but he had his moments in his first full year — and, after getting Smith out as a pinch-hitter, the Rays walked Nimmo intentionally. It might have been the only time all year Nimmo didn’t point to the sky upon arriving at first.
That brought up Bautista and that brings up the big moment, the reason why we still call it the Jose Bautista Game, the first-pitch grand slam Bautista launched into the second deck. I don’t remember who the title sponsor was for it in 2018. They could have called it Jose Bautista’s Landing. The pitcher who surrendered the homer, by the way, was named Chaz Roe. I had to look it up while I was telling you about all this. The Rays were like that.
Oh, the whole thing was beautiful. As horrific as the Mets were in 2018, they all came out to greet him at home plate like they’d just won a big game in a pennant race. Asdrubal Cabrera — remember, this was before the deadline — literally kicked him in the ass. I don’t know what that was about. Maybe they now shared a bond from hitting dramatic walkoff homers. I saw Reyes get excited and Conforto…no matter how much the Mets sucked, I loved the way they came together in victory, as if you could almost scrape away the suckage like frost on a windshield and, if you peeked inside, you could see there was still something there.
It was the eighth walkoff grand slam in Mets history, not to mention the first by a guy who also stole a base in the same game. Such a thing is always exciting and gratifying, but I remember thinking — kind of like I did when Tim Teufel did it in a tie game in extra innings in 1986 — man, we only needed the one go-ahead run. Any way we could use the extra three to stake ourselves to a lead the next day? Much was also made in the aftermath that it was Bautista’s first walkoff home run despite it being his 337th home run overall. It’s not like that’s a real statistic, but OK, cool. What I really liked — besides that it won the game for the Mets over the Rays, 5-1 — was that it came on the 56th anniversary of Gil Hodges’s final major league home run. Yes, another righthanded power hitter the Mets picked up late in his career that people might not remember being a Met, save for what he’d do as a manager not all that many years later. Gil hit 370 home runs overall, most of them as a Dodger, of course, but the final few as a Met. When Gil hit No. 370 on July 6, 1962, in a Mets win, no less, he had more than any National League righthanded slugger had ever belted. How that statistic alone didn’t catapult him into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible…ah, I don’t wanna go there.
I don’t wanna go back to 2018 too often, either, but for the Jose Bautista Game on July 6 , I’m happy to take a quick trip back. OK, a lengthy trip. Trust me — that was one worth remembering in detail.