TORONTO — With his chances of returning in 2018 essentially slim and none, a long goodbye to Toronto slugger Jose Bautista kicked off Tuesday night as the Blue Jays began their final homestand of the season.
The six-time all-star was given a warm ovation before his opening at-bat at Rogers Centre against the Kansas City Royals. The buildup will likely only increase ahead of Sunday's home finale against New York.
"I know he's probably feeling it inside," Toronto manager John Gibbons said before the game. "I don't know if you'd see it outwardly but you might. Jose is a very proud man, that's for sure. He's a perfectionist.
"He's driven to be the best. He always has and he'll continue to do that."
The 36-year-old outfielder has been a longtime face of the franchise and was a key force in helping the Blue Jays make back-to-back ALCS appearances over the last two years.
But both Bautista and the Blue Jays have struggled this season. It's a virtual lock that the option on his contract will not be picked up for next year.
Bautista, who was not available for comment before the game, flew out in his first at-bat. He made a nice sliding catch in the third inning, kickstarting the familiar 'Jose! Jose! Jose!' chants in right field.
He entered play with a .207 batting average, 22 homers and 60 RBIs on the season.
Gibbons said while it's unclear what Bautista's future might hold, he will go down as one of best players in franchise history.
"It's an honour for me to get a chance to get to manage one of the better players in the game," he said. "I'll never forget that."
The Blue Jays acquired Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008 and he enjoyed a breakout season two years later. He became one of the sport's most feared hitters after belting 54 homers and driving in 124 runs in 2010.
Bautista provided a long list of memorable moments, none bigger than the bat-flip homer in the deciding game of the 2015 ALDS against Texas.
"Really there wasn't anything he couldn't do," Gibbons said. "I know this place is special to him too. Really this is where he made his name and came into his own. I think he got his first real opportunity here and became one of the better players in baseball because he was kind of a journeyman, bounced around, a utility-type guy.
"This is where it all came together for him."
The Blue Jays' three-game set against the Royals will be followed by a three-game series against the Yankees.
Toronto will close out the regular season next week with a six-game road trip that includes stops in Boston and New York.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press