Baseball can be slow and safe and polite and, to many fans, just boring.
Not the Toronto Blue Jays. They have speed and swag. If you aim a pitch at a player’s head, expect a lingering scowl. Then a home run. And definitely some fighting words. They are the most interesting, compelling and unique team in baseball. For Latino and African-American sports fans yearning for baseball players who look, talk, compete and celebrate more like us — we found ’em.
With 13 players of color, among the most in the majors after the Dodgers, the Blue Jays are dripping with diversity and personality. Their roster includes Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin, LaTroy Hawkins, gold-plated-Jordans-rocking David Price, Dalton Pompey, Roberto Osuna, Ben Revere, Dioner Navarro, Marco Estrada, plus low-key Twitter genius Marcus Stroman, with Devon Travis and Maicer Izturis stashed on the DL. And their big bats are a major exception to an MLB season with fewer big hits than the former rapper Meek Mill.
Toronto leads the majors in runs scored, doubles, slugging percentage, total bases and RBIs. Somehow, in an upset, the team is second in WAR, on-base percentage and home runs. While the rest of the league is hitting like it’s 1965, the Jays are more like big-assed Barry Bonds, deliriously flipping bats and blasting bombs.
In 1999, when baseball was
at its best swimming in steroids, players hit .271, reached base at a .345 clip and slugged .434. This year, the league is hitting .254/.315/.400. The Blue Jays? .261/.329/.440.
Since trading for Troy Tulowitzki, the club has won 15 of its past 19, including a torrid 11-0 stretch. The Jays were down eight games to the Yankees on July 29, but that distance has been cut to a half game following the recent addition of ace pitcher Price, with Toronto controlling the wild-card race.
And it’s not just about the new stars.
No one in baseball has clubbed more homers since 2010 than Bautista, who has hit 215 of them. He’s one of the most outspoken voices on Latino baseball issues, chastising commentators, revealing when and why he has been steroid tested, and even writing about his uniquely Hispanic journey. None of which would matter much if the dude wasn’t also ridiculously fun to watch.
With the Jays up 11-4 late in one April game, Orioles pitcher Jason Garcia tried breaking Bautista with a pitch behind his back. Bad move against Joey Bats. Bautista ice-grilled Garcia, flipped his bat as the ball exited the field, stage left, then strutted around the bases barking at any Oriole who dared look him in the eye.
“That’s bush league,” Bautista recalled Orioles outfielder Adam Jones saying to him. “And I said, ‘What’s bush league is you throwing behind my head.'”
All this happened a week after Bautista skipped into a home run trot like Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston.
The unapologetic, wrestling-character feel to this year’s team has also affected ex-Blue Jays. After Kansas City pitcher Yordano Ventura tweeted in Spanish that Bautista was a “nobody” — he’d later delete it — former Jays catcher Gregg Zaun spit out a rant that advised Ventura to “show some respect,” “be a man” and “stop writing checks with your mouth that your skinny ass can’t cash.”
Everything about this team — from its fresh uniforms to its myriad associations with hometown emcee Drake — is unlike your average squad. Mike Trout grew up in New Jersey being told to behave like “he’d been there before” when he rounded the bases. His hero was the polite Derek Jeter. Jose Bautista grew up in the Dominican Republic bachata-stepping around the bases and punching people over ball and strike calls. He loved basketball and idolized the defiant Michael Jordan. As MLB seems to squeeze the celebrations and fun out of the game, Bautista and his Jays are the baseball equivalent of a snarling Russell Westbrook swinging from the rim or swivel-hipped Antonio Brown cavorting in the end zone.
Bautista says he doesn’t miss the Dominican baseball culture, despite its energy and emotion, because he wants to play at the highest level. “We’ve gotta adjust to how the game is played here,” Bautista explained. “That being said, I think emotion is not bad for the game. And I think understanding players — their emotions, how they play, and the passion — is something that continues to keep getting better at the major league level.”
Egghead traditionalists still talk about “playing the game the
white right way.” Many players of color grow up dancing and laughing on the field, but when their talent and dedication propels them to the highest level, their flavor can be viewed as disrespectful or worthy of a fastball to the face.
The “right way” even extends to fashion.
“Make it cooler,” pleads Price. “Give us more freedom with shoes. You know, stop fining people for not having whatever colors on their shoes. I think that would be a big deal, if they would let us express ourselves a little bit more and just make this game more appealing to all populations, not just African-American.”
MLB boasts many talented black and brown players, from Prince Fielder to Manny Machado, but African-Americans represented just 7.8 percent of the sport on Opening Day, and Latinos were 29.3 percent. Despite their larger percentage, Latinos remain a marginalized group. Some have to dodge death just to get here, and there are few translators to help them navigate a confusing culture; Asian ballplayers face no such troubles.
Our Jays refuse to be boxed in. And as strong as they’ve been this season, after shifting baseball’s power balance by trading for Tulo and Price, their numbers seem downright conservative.
Consider this: The last time Toronto looked this dangerous, this late in the season? 1993. So get with the program. If you’re reading this, it’s not too late.
With additional reporting by Marly Rivera.