Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, hero or villain?

There was a time when Jose Bautista could be quite pleasing. While in Kansas City many summers ago, he was young and polite and used to wave in acknowledgement of the Right Field Rowdies, a group of diehards who came to every game despite the fact that the Royals were not very good.

A member of the Rowdies, Sabrina Gray, liked Bautista so much that in the moments of boredom that come when your team loses two-thirds of its games, she joked about changing her name to Sabrina Bautista.

"I liked the ring," she says fondly of that time in 2004. "He was always nice when he played for us."

Sometime in those right-field stands, the wedding was called off. Bautista was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays last fall in a heated Game 1 of the American League Championship Series in Kansas City. He secured the final out of the fifth inning, pretended to throw the ball into the crowd, then stuffed it back in his glove and trotted off the field.

Gray is convinced she saw him smirking on his way to the dugout.

"Why would you do that to a fan?" she says. "Why would you do that to a kid? He just turned into this jerk, instantly, to all of us.

"In bad words, he's just an ass. That's the perception that he gave to all of us on that day on that grand stage."

Bautista and the Blue Jays are back in the postseason. They clinched a wild card on the final day of the season and will face the Baltimore Orioles tonight in Toronto. Prepare to be offended.

Bautista flips bats, stops to admire his home runs much longer than the nanosecond allowed in baseball's unwritten rules, and quibbles over balls and strikes like an obsessive shopper picking through bruised fruit.

"I'm not going to rip the guy," says recently retired MLB umpire Tim Welke. "He sometimes wears his emotions on his sleeve. He's probably an aggressive personality. He treats umpires and opposing teams the same way."

He is possibly the most hated man in baseball, stirring such visceral emotions that Texas infielder Rougned Odor fiercely clocked him in the jaw in May for a bat flip that happened seven months earlier. Bautista, to the dismay of his detractors, did not fall over.

Bautista even had the chutzpah, during spring training, to announce that he had a number in mind for his new contract and wouldn't budge on the price -- reported to be $150 million, though Bautista has denied that.

"I can't necessarily say he's a well-liked guy around the league," Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons says. "Now, when he's a teammate, you feel totally different.

"He's a very proud guy. If he thinks he's getting wronged, he stands up for himself, and he stands up for his teammates."

Bautista has to love being the villain, right? Canada is known as such a nice country, and Bautista gives it a little edge. Say this, he knows how to fire up his teammates. The bat flip that so enraged Odor and the Rangers sent the Blue Jays -- and the entire country of Canada -- into a tizzy in October 2015.

Toronto second baseman Ryan Goins still gets chills when he thinks about it, Game 5, winner-take-all, tied at 3. The frustrations of a franchise that hadn't seen the playoffs in 22 years were coming to a boil. Beer bottles had been tossed from the stands after the Rangers scored on a controversial call, and the seventh inning had reached the 40-minute mark when Bautista stepped to the plate with two runners on and two out. He crushed a 1-1 pitch to deep left, and the cameras shook. The stadium nearly exploded.

Goins says he "blacked out" as he jogged around the bases. For his part, Bautista remained stone-faced, but was so fired up that when he got to the dugout he slammed his batting helmet twice.

"They should build a statue for that moment," says Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur. "To this day, I bet if you ask people where they were when it happened, they'd be able to tell you 100 percent. Part of it is pure defiance. The Jays, for 22 years, were about anything but defiance.

"Jose Bautista is kind of the antithesis of that. He made himself good, made himself great. He took a 90-mph fastball and hit it to the moon."

His home runs, the towering ones, are almost like a Hallmark card with the image of a middle finger sent to various doubters over the course of his life.

He wears the look of a man who plays angry, possibly because he was forced to play for five teams in one year, or perhaps because of a childhood coach in the Dominican Republic who didn't pick him for a team that went on a trip to Mexico in the mid-1990s, one of those trips that seem so big when you're 13 or 14.

Bautista was small and skinny with awkwardly large ears back then. According to a 2011 story on him in Yahoo, kids called him "El Raton," or the rat.

ESPN asked sports psychologist Tracy Shaw to analyze Bautisa's body language in that iconic ALDS game.

"I don't think he's angry," says Shaw, who's worked with NFL players and Olympians.

"He is what we would call an alpha male, someone who is extremely confident in himself."

So Bautista loves being cast as the bad guy, right? Hatred, in sports, is a form of flattery. "People don't boo nobodies," Goins says.

The answer will not come from Bautista. His team of publicists says he will not be doing an interview for this story.

It's been a long season since the incident with Odor, and Bautista drifted out of the headlines. He injured his toe in June after crashing into the right-field wall trying to chase down a fly ball; shortly after he returned, he caught his cleat in the turf on a throw and hurt his knee. The layoffs affected his timing. His batting average now hovers around .235.

On a mid-September day, he was lying on a yoga mat on the drab carpeted floor in Anaheim's visitors clubhouse.

Young men around him bantered about swag, and Bautista stretched his toes and back, his bearded face shifting from the ceiling to a game on TV between the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Bautista loves to stretch. He does it in the outfield during games, too. In a few weeks, he'll be 36, and he is ultra-conscious of his fight with time. He stretches and obsesses and hires a chef in the offseason to cook him healthy meals. Gibbons says he's probably the most disciplined player he has ever had.

The song "For Free" by DJ Khaled and Drake plays in the clubhouse, and Bautista busts out one of the verses.

I go on and on.

Can't understand how I last so long.

I must have the superpowers.

Bautista is whip-smart, and went back to college to finish his degree when he was deep in his baseball career. He is unrelenting, and can be found watching winter-league games in the offseason. He is so intense that his minor-league coach in Lynchburg, Virginia, Dave Clark, often had to tell him to calm down.

In 2003, in a road game at Wilmington, Bautista struck out and punched what he thought was a plastic garbage can in frustration. The can was metal, and Bautista broke a bone in his hand.

"I had a conversation with him after the game, and this was the first time I've ever seen him cry," says Clark, now a coach with the Detroit Tigers.. "He hated the way he left the team short by doing something not very smart.

"He cares. He wanted to win, he would do anything and everything it took to win, and he carried it on his shoulders, day in and day out."

Bautista made his major league debut for Baltimore on April 4, 2004, but was there for only two months. Tampa, Kansas City and New York picked him up and discarded him, and Bautista wound up in Pittsburgh at the end of the year.

The five teams in one season was a major league record.

"A lot of people thought that was funny," says John Perrotto, a longtime baseball writer who covered the Pirates during Bautista's time there. "I don't think he found any humor in it."

Bautista had confidence in himself when no one else did. At the end of 2008, before anyone knew who Jose Bautista was and the Blue Jays had no clue what he could do, the club offered him a two-year utility contract. Bautista turned it down. The Blue Jays' front office, which included then-assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos, couldn't believe it, because he hadn't done much of anything yet.

Bautista's reasoning was simple. He thought he was better than a utility player.

"That's the thing about Jose," Anthopoulos says. "Even when he wasn't successful, he still had fierce belief in himself."

Two years later, he hit 54 home runs, the most since Alex Rodriguez in 2007. Still, Bautista wasn't a sure thing. The Blue Jays decided to gamble and give him a five-year, $65 million contract. Anthopoulos was 33 years old at the time, and he knew it was the kind of move that could sink a career.

For days, baseball people called and asked, "Have you lost your mind?" In the quiet moments he had to himself, maybe Anthopoulos wondered the same thing. Bautista and Anthopoulos met during spring training in 2011 to finalize the deal, and Anthopoulos was stressed. "Man, five years," he said to Baustista, possibly even letting out an "oof."

Bautista was nonplussed.

"What are you worried about?" he asked Anthopoulos. "Have you seen this body? I'm going to be fine. I'm going to be playing until I'm 40.

"You don't have anything to worry about."

The people who play with Bautista say to know him is to love him.

"I think Jose is one of those guys if you're in a foxhole, you would want him at your back," says former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. "Because he's there for you."

Perhaps one of the people who knows Bautista best is a guy named Fernando Isa. They grew up together in the Dominican Republic, and later reunited on the Chipola College baseball team in Florida.

There was a gap in communication for a few years between the young men, because Bautista dropped out of sight after he didn't make that team that went to Mexico when they were kids.

"He got so upset that he left the league," Isa says. "At the time, I really didn't think much of it. A lot of people did not make that team. Afterwards, talking to him, I realized that's something that stung him and drove him.

"I don't know if that's why he became who he is, but I think it's one of the many different little factors that pushes him to work harder than anybody I know."

Both Isa and Bautista benefited from the benevolence of Don Odermann, a businessman who helped many Latin American baseball players go to college. When Odermann deteriorated because of Alzheimer's disease, Bautista carried on his work. The nonprofit Bautista Family Education Fund is currently helping 37 young athletes go to college. Isa helps with the foundation.

Bautista is beloved in Canada. Earlier this year, when it was obvious that he and the Blue Jays were far apart in contract numbers, a young man in Ontario took to Twitter and angrily threatened to do harm to the statue of Ted Rogers, a deceased former owner of the team. When word hit that the police had come to question him, Bautista sent the young man some game-worn batting gloves and a hat.

The man, who goes by the handle @TorontoHooligan and asked not to be named, wrote in a message to ESPN that the city would be "gutted to see him go."

In that September series against the Anaheim Angels, Gibbons sat in his office wearing a cutoff T-shirt and chewing Nicorette gum, momentarily pondering the future. His team is on the precipice of change. Superstar slugger Edwin Encarnacion is also in a contract year, and both he and Bautista might be gone next season.

Gibbons wondered, in spring training, whether the uncertainty would be an issue this season. It hasn't been, though Gibbons knows it would be hard for fans to see Bautista in another uniform.

"It would be a totally different team," Gibbons says.

Earlier that afternoon, Bautista had casually walked by the hallway near Gibbons' office. A Canadian TV reporter asked him if his light-blue jeans matched his suit jacket. Bautista, known as a clotheshorse, recently unveiled a Canada Goose X Jose Bautista limited-edition jacket, which goes for $995.

Bautista eyed the TV guy's attire.

"Something's off," he told him. "You need more contrast."

In the final weeks of the season, Bautista began to look like his old self. He crushed a tying home run against the Mariners, and trotted backward as he admired it. He hit two more homers in a series against the Yankees.

Bautista greeted a scrum of reporters after one of the games. He hadn't done that a lot this year. He was asked if he was back, and he didn't agree or disagree. It's typical Bautista, a reminder of his best days, when he was Canada's biggest hero and everyone else's favorite villain.