TORONTO – On July 2, 2011 a crowd of 44,078, more than twice the season average to that point for the Toronto Blue Jays, came out to fete Roy Halladay in his first visit to Rogers Centre after his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. Nostalgic fans stood and applauded when Doc walked out to warm-up in the bullpen, when he was announced in the starting lineup, and when he finally took the mound. It was emotional and fitting, straddling the fine line between thanking a former player and gushing over a rival.
Edwin Encarnacion went 1-for-4 as the DH that day, his tenure with the Blue Jays just beginning to steady ahead of a breakthrough 2012 season. The all-star campaigns, steady climb up the franchise’s home run chart and iconic wild-card walk-off shot that few envisioned back then were all still to come.
Six years later, his return to Rogers Centre on Monday for the first time since signing with Cleveland in a difficult and dramatic parting struck some similar chords to Halladay’s return. Encarnacion’s free agency remains a touchy matter for fans still struggling to reconcile how the Blue Jays made the high bid for a player who wanted to stay, but a deal didn’t get done. That’s why the slugger, owner of a place in team history just like Halladay, wasn’t sure if he’d get the same type of reception as the future Hall of Famer.
“Supposed to be, but I don’t know if the fans right now are thinking in a different way, that it’s my fault that I didn’t come back here,” Encarnacion said in a brief interview before a 4-2 Blue Jays win. “I hope they react the same way they did with Roy Halladay when he came back to Toronto, because it’s not my fault that I’m not here. I want them to understand that. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
He needn’t have worried, as fans cheered him before batting practice, during BP and again when a tribute video was played before the game, prompting him to tip his cap and touch his right hand to his heart several times. A crowd of 40,014 then gave him a long standing ovation before his first at-bat, too, although a small smattering of boos could also be heard.
That speaks to the contentious way things played out, as during the GM meetings last November the Blue Jays tabled Encarnacion an offer of $80 million over four years, with the potential for an option of a fifth year at $20 million more. When it wasn’t accepted, they quickly signed Kendrys Morales for $33 million over three years, general manager Ross Atkins making sure to get his team a middle-of-the-order bat. Eventually, Encarnacion signed a three-year deal that guarantees $60 million with Cleveland.
“After (Atkins) signed Morales, he called and said, ‘The door is still open.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going to continue the free agency and see what’s going to happen,’” said Encarnacion. “Then, when we tried to come back to those guys, he said they’re not going to have the same money available. I said, ‘If you’re not going to have the money available, I’m going to continue to move forward.’”
Move forward they both have.
Worth remembering is that when Halladay was traded away after the 2009 season, the Blue Jays were headed into a teardown after a series of unsuccessful runs did little but extend their post-season drought. The right-hander was one of the few bright spots from that fruitless era and he was uncomfortable being the bright light fans clung to. “I think it’s important for the organization to be able to move forward, take the players they have and have this identity,” Halladay said after beating his former teammates 5-3 in his memorable return. “I feel like they’ve done a good job of moving forward. I don’t want to be the guy that is always trying to bring back the glory days. It’s nice to come back and I think that’s over. I know the fans here will always appreciate you, (but) it is in a way, a way to turn the page.”
Encarnacion will always be a symbol of glory days for the Blue Jays, too, but real ones. The post-season run of 2015 that stirred a city and a country’s passion for baseball. The walk-off homer against the Baltimore Orioles in the 11th inning of last year’s wild-card game will live forever in franchise lore.
When he first arrived at the field Monday, “that was the first thing that came to my head,” said Encarnacion. “It was something unbelievable, you never think you’re going to hit a homer to go to the next round. I had the opportunity to do it and I really enjoyed it.”
For seven and a half years fans had the opportunity to watch it and they really enjoyed it. Now it’s over, there’s a present to watch without Encarnacion, and for better or worse, it’s time to turn the page.