Munenori Kawasaki had Toronto sports folk hero written all over him from the very first time he put on a Blue Jays uniform. That was back in Kansas City in mid-April, one day after the irreplaceable Jose Reyes was left writhing in agony with a severely sprained ankle and forced onto the disabled list.

A daunting situation you might have thought, especially given the difference in the two men’s respective résumés. But Kawasaki wasn’t fazed. Right from the get-go, he put his unique brand of baseball – and his irrepressible personality – on full display.

In his debut at bat, he hit a sacrifice fly. The second time up he walked, worked his way to third on a grounder and a wild pitch, then trotted home on Jose Bautista’s homer to help the already-listing Jays earn a vital victory and give RA Dickey his first win.

When the team came home two days later, Kawasaki had fans chanting his name before the night was out, hitting his first career triple and scoring what would prove to be the decisive run in a win over the White Sox. It was the birth of one of the most unlikely legends in Blue Jays history.

What nobody really knew back then, of course, was how much that legend would grow before Reyes returned and it was time to say sayonara. A little bit of curiosity and some mild adoration were always to be expected for the first Japanese position player in Blue Jays history. But the heights of Muni-mania proved far giddier – and way more entertaining – than anyone could have reasonably expected.

By the time his inevitable departure arrived this week with a ticket back to Triple-A, Kawasaki’s name was being cheered before every home at bat, and he’d become the subject of a write-in campaign for an All-Star berth. A full-blown discussion on whether he deserved his demotion played out in the media and on call-in shows. When manager John Gibbons announced the move after Tuesday’s loss to Tampa, he called the team together to express their collective fondness for a beloved ballplayer. Pitcher Mark Buehrle, among the Blue Jays’ biggest earners at $11 million, even offered to take up a collection around the clubhouse to pay Kawasaki’s more modest $500,000 salary.

Bear in mind that this outpouring of emotion was aimed at a player of limited ability whose batting average at the time of his demotion was a paltry .225. As ballplayers go, he’s hardly Hall of Fame material. But Muni-mania was always about much more than any statistic. It was about the little brushstrokes that add up make the big picture look better. More importantly, it was about the sheer, unbridled joy he brought to the ballpark every day, delighting fans and teammates alike with his indecipherable speech but unmistakable emotion, a love for baseball that could not be contained.

Whether it was his habit of performing handstands before batting practice, the way he sang along to “O Canada”, the bows he traded with teammates, his adoption of the ‘Lo Viste’ salute, the time he played catch with traveling Jays fans in the stands before a game in Chicago or just his hilarious dance moves, there was never any shortage of Muni moments that would make you smile.

Anyone who wasn’t already swayed by Kawasaki’s cult of personality surely had their mind changed by the events of May 26, when he beat Baltimore with a two-out, two-run double in the ninth inning, then delivered one of the most epic post-game interviews in Toronto sports history. The on-field, televised portion soon became a viral video, while the inside-the-clubhouse exchange was no less amusing, with Kawasaki reading from a Japanese-to-English phrase book and telling a crush of chuckling reporters to “give me a hug.”

There were more hugs, high-fives and louder-than-ever cheers for Kawasaki last Friday after he helped prolong Toronto’s season-changing winning streak with some surprise power, torching the Orioles again with a game-tying homer, the first of his career.

But the end was always nigh, and everyone knew it. With Reyes’ return looming, grateful Jays fans spent the rest of the homestand serenading Kawasaki with cheers each time he stepped to the plate, showering him with one last dose of love before he was sent back to Buffalo to ride a bus around the minor leagues.

He’s sure to be back in September, if not before.  ‘Til then, Jays fans will be wowed once more by Reyes, arguably the most dynamic player on the roster. But in the stands and on the bench, no one will soon forget the man known as Muni, his glowing smile and his galvanizing passion for the game.

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