By Bob Elliott
DUNEDIN, Fla. _ He sits two lockers from the wall.
On the concrete behind him is a massive, wall paper-like, mural of the post, post-game celebration from Camden Yards in Baltimore on Sept. 30.
Players are wearing eye goggles around their necks and heads that they wore during the clubhouse celebration, holding up bottles of Bud Light, Coors, Genuine Draft and fine Maryland champagne.
Underneath a red Maple Leaf on the wall and atop the picture of absolute joy and accomplishment are the words:
“Players win games
Two lockers away is a man who put the ‘E’ in first-place TEAM last season.
“I want to stay here,” Edwin Encarnacion said Saturday morning after rains chased the Jays inside. “I’m really disappointed that nothing has happened, but it’s not my decision.
“They don’t have it in their plans for me to stay here.”
He was not angry.
He did not raise his voice.
He did not stomp his feet.
Like always the man who carries a big stick was speaking softly. He was talking slowly sounding sad and resigned to the fact he will be moving to a different team in 2017.
“I tried to do the best for my team, I feel as if I have done all I can do for my team,” said Encarnacion, who turns 34 next January. “I want to be here for a long time.”
His agent, Paul Kinzler, said at the winter meetings opening day would be a deadline for the impending free-agent to sign. The Jays made a two-year offer.
Encarnacion has not had an at bat missing time due to having a tooth pulled and then a strained oblique. Does his contract situation have anything to do with him not playing?
“No,” Encarnacion says scrunching up his face as if someone asked him he wanted to play shortstop and bat left-handed. “I want to be 100%. The oblique pain is minor, but I want to be ready for opening day. I don’t want to aggravate it, miss two months.”
Manager John Gibbons told reporters Saturday that Encarnacion is improving but he can’t tell a return date yet.
“They have a program for him, he’s following that,” said Gibbons. “He’s feeling better. Hopefully, it’s not too much longer. We can’t afford it to be too much longer. We have a couple of weeks remaining. He needs at-bats and to feel healthy. We have to get moving pretty quick, I would think.”
As the legendary Mike Flanagan used to say “only starting pitchers need six weeks of spring, hitters can get ready in two weeks.”
“Edwin has a short, compact swing,” Gibbons said, “there’s not a lot to it, so that is a benefit from that end. They all need at-bats, to see some breaking balls, get their timing, see different pitches. He’s not going to have that luxury.”
Over the previous four seasons Encarnacion is second in RBIs (423) to Miguel Cabrera (461) of the Detroit Tigers, and home runs (151) behind Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis (159) and eighth in OPS (.919) behind Cabrera (.986).
Upper management can talk all it wants about the future draft compensation for Jose Bautista and Encarnacion if they walk. Yet, it is not going to make Jays fans feel any better if the Nos. 3-4 hitters, the filet mignon of the order, waltz into free-agency wonderland and all they hear on draft day is:
“Blue Jays select I.D. number ... from Tulane University ...”
Or “from Lewis and Clark College, the Blue Jays select I.D. number ...”
Encarnacion says he will play this season and not think about 2017, just “play the game, have fun, help my team win.”
Like he did way back on Sept. 30, the night picture was taken. He singled and hit a two-run homer in the 15-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles clinching the AL East, sat in the nitecap, an 8-1 loss and then celebrated.
Eventually after the clubhouse celebration ended someone suggested moving outside for a team picture.
Beer cans up.
Champagne bottles up.
And 1-2-3 spritz!
For once the photographer -- Jon Cram -- did not have to say smile.
Everyone in the shot is beaming, the way teams do when they reach post-season for the first time in 22 years.
Everyone is in blue and black “The East is Ours” t-shirts, which Major League Baseball hands out after divisions are clinched ... all the better to sell at The Jays Store.
In the 8 1/2-by-5 1/2 foot picture Encarnacion is surrounded by a smiling Dioner Navarro, Dustin Smoak and Ryan Tepera.
It is a great picture.
Encarnacion can turn to his left and I.D. everyone -- goggles on or off -- from September call-ups Matt Hague and Jeff Francis, to video replay man Ryan Mittleman to MVP Josh Donaldson and Kevin Pillar to his pal Bautista.
Only Bautista sits closer to the wall.
Yet on this dreary day in Dunedin, the two seated closest to the picture for the ages from last September in MAryland, Encarnacion and Bautista, seem to be moving farther and father away from the 2017 team photo.