Jose Bautista’s bat flip—it was more of an chuck, or hurl, or even a hammer-throw—was louder than the Rogers Centre crowd that cheered his monstrous home run, the deciding three-run blast in Toronto’s 6-3 victory over the Texas Rangers, which clinched the Division Series for the Blue Jays. It was a work of raging joy. If you were to translate it into words, some unprintable phrases would appear on the page—”Bleep yeah,” or maybe more to the point, “Bleep you, Texas Rangers, for trying to end our season on a fluke.”
Before considering it any kind of unsportsmanlike act, consider what Bautista had been though. Since 2010, he’s been one of the best players in baseball. Bautista led the American League in home runs in 2010 and 2011, with 54 and 43, respectively. Yet, he’s toiled in relatively anonymity in Canada, as Toronto hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since his emergence (the team hadn’t reached the postseason in the 21 seasons prior to this one). For a 2011 TIME profile, I spent a few hours with Bautista, at the time MLB’s top slugger, eating in a crowded restaurant and walking around Kansas City, a pretty savvy baseball town. Not a soul recognized him.
So he’s been waiting for this breakout moment, with a huge audience tuning in. On top of that, when Bautista stepped up to the plate with the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh, the Rogers Centre was charged with the kind of emotion you could even feel through your television set. I had no rooting interest in this game. But I was ready to throw some bats.
In the top half of the inning, Texas had taken a 3-2 lead on one of the weirdest plays of all-time: with a runner on third and two outs, Toronto catcher Russell Martin tossed the ball back to pitcher, like he’s done so many thousands of times in his career. But this ball inadvertently hit the bat of Shin-Soo Choo; since Choo was still in the batter’s box and had no intent of interfering, the ball, which ricocheted down the third base line, was live. Rougned Odor scored from third; Texas broke a 2-2 tie.
The umpires conferred. The managers argued. Some in the crowd behaved horribly, throwing beers cans onto the field, and at other fans (one apparently nearly struck a baby). Finally it was official: the umpires made the right call, Texas led 3-2, and Toronto’s 93-win regular season, and first playoff appearance since 1993—the longest post-season drought in baseball—was in danger of ending on the freakiest of plays.
Luckily for everyone involved—did Texas honestly want to win on such a loophole?—Toronto rallied in the seventh, with the help of three Texas errors that loaded the bases. With one out, Toronto’s Josh Donaldson hit what looked like a sure pop-out to second base. Odor, however, misread it; the ball dropped over his head, allowing the tying run to score. Texas, however, was able to salvage a key second out on a force play at second.
Toronto’s hopes rested on Bautista, at the plate with runners on first and third, two outs. As soon as he struck a 1-1 fastball from Texas reliever Sam Dyson, the whole universe knew it was gone. The screaming home run sent the fans into a frenzy, which clearly swept up Bautista. As a statement of both exuberance and defiance, he tossed his bat at home plate.
Throughout this season, the act of flipping bats after slugging a home run has become a bit of a hot-button issue. Baseball has all kinds of archaic unwritten code rules: thou shall not show up a pitcher is one commandment. But in what sacred text, exactly, are such fusty statutes written? In South Korea, for example, they just roll with it: flipping bats are a pastime in itself. “We laugh about it because we can’t imagine a player doing that in America,” Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter, a Korean bat flip aficionado, told the New York Times. “In America, it would be considered so disrespectful that the next time he came up to the plate, he’d get hit right in the neck, guaranteed.”
Yes, in America, an adrenaline-fueled bat toss is considered bad form; but throwing a 90-mph baseball at another player, as retribution, is virtuous.
The Rangers took exception to Bautista’s bat flip.
From Rangers pitcher Cole Hamels, who started the game:
Dyson, who served up the home run to Bautista, said, “Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more.” The first time Bautista faces the Rangers in 2016, he ought to watch his back.
All this bat-flippin’ criticism is ridiculous. Guess what: competitive athletes get caught up in moment. When they do something amazing in the face of unbearable tension, instinct tells them to let loose. In basketball, how many times have we seen LeBron James and other starts pound their chests, or howl, after making a big play? Football players dance after reaching the end zone. Soccer players, on all ages, airplane around the field after scoring a goal. And this is fine. They’re happy, they should celebrate. Sports are supposed to be fun.
So bravo, Jose Bautista. And if a Little Leaguer wants to imitate him? Good for you too. The kids will be all right. Flip those bats. You deserve it.