TORONTO â€” It was like old times for slugger Edwin Encarnacion on Monday afternoon at Rogers Centre.
He shot the breeze with Blue Jays manager John Gibbons by the batting cage before the game, playfully slung his arm around good friend Jose Bautista, and signed autographs for fans.
The only difference was this time he was wearing a different shade of blue as a member of the Cleveland Indians.
“Eddie did a lot for this town and this franchise, period,” Gibbons said. “And he’s one of the good guys too.”
Encarnacion spent parts of eight seasons in Toronto and expressed an interest in re-signing with the team as a free agent. However, the two sides couldn’t agree on a deal in the off-season and Encarnacion eventually inked a US$60-million, three-year contract with the Indians.
“I’m really excited to be here,” Encarnacion said before Monday night’s game against his former team. “This is a city that opened its doors to me and gave me the opportunity to have the career that I’ve had.”
Encarnacion received a standing ovation before his first at-bat. He reached base on an infield single.
A video montage of some of his top moments with the Blue Jays was played before the game. Encarnacion, who was warming up in the outfield, tipped his cap and tapped his chest with his hand.
Encarnacion made his big-league debut with Cincinnati and spent four-plus seasons with the Reds before being dealt to Toronto in 2009. He had a breakout year in 2012 with 42 homers and 110 RBIs and has been one of the sport’s top sluggers ever since.
“I have a lot of really good memories,” Encarnacion said via a translator. “But what I remember the most is being in the playoffs and our final playoff run.”
The 34-year-old native of La Romana, Dominican Republic, helped kickstart Toronto’s 2016 post-season run with a walkoff homer in a win over the Baltimore Orioles in the American League wild-card game.
The Blue Jays made it to the AL Championship Series for the second straight year before falling to the Indians.
Encarnacion belted 42 homers last season and had 39 the year before, with his familiar ‘Ed-Wing’ home run trot â€” as if a parrot were on his arm â€” always a crowd favourite.
His departure from Toronto was not the one many baseball observers predicted.
The futures of Encarnacion and Bautista were talking points as soon as the Blue Jays were eliminated last fall. Both expected to hit it big as free agents while keeping options open for a potential return.
Encarnacion called Toronto his first choice but declined a four-year deal worth $80 million. The Blue Jays quickly turned to free agent Kendrys Morales instead, signing him to a three-year contract worth $33 million.
The market ended up being surprisingly cool for veteran sluggers and the expected mega-deals were not there.
Bautista would come back to Toronto on an $18.5-million, one-year deal that included options. The Indians, meanwhile, signed Encarnacion to the richest guaranteed contract for a free agent in club history.
“This is a business,” Encarnacion said. “The (Blue Jays) did what they needed to do and I did my part and I went to where the door was open to me.”
Encarnacion’s contract also includes an option for the 2020 season. He admitted it took him a few weeks to understand what happened after the Blue Jays turned to other options in the off-season.
“It was difficult because I was hopeful that the situation would have been different,” Encarnacion said. “But after I took the necessary steps to secure my future, it got easier.”
Now Encarnacion is one of the anchors on an Indians team that made it to the World Series last year and is back on top of the American League Central division this season.
“It’s a team that does their very best in every single game,” he said. “And I’m here to give my best to them.”
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press