Sunday, October 5, 2008

Going, Going, Gone

He patrolled left field at PNC Park since the late days of 2003 in All-Star fashion, except for his hobbled 2007 season. He provided a solid middle of the order presence and twice represented Pittsburgh in the mid-season Classic as one of the NL's premier outfielders. And, of course, he was the man that replaced Manny Ramirez.

He is Jason Bay, and his too-brief stay in the Steel City was plenty long enough to establish himself as one of Pittsburgh's, and baseball's, top guns.

Who woulda thought that when the Bays welcomed Jason Raymond into the world on September 20, 1978 in Trail, British Columbia, that a MLB star was born?

Those Bays must have had a ball-playing gene lurking somewhere in their make up. Jay's sister, Lauren Bay Regula, is a pro softball player who represented Canada in the 2004 & 2008 Olympics.

Bay went through the usual Canuck childhood. He played hockey as a youngster, but eventually quit in favor of baseball. He's still friends with fellow Trail native and Edmonton Oilers center Shawn Horcoff.

Like many Canadian ballplayers, he grew up idolizing Larry Walker, also a B.C. native. He rooted for the Mariners as a kid.

Early on, Bay showed his baseball skills, playing on a Trail team that reached the 1990 Little League World Series. He was eventually drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 22nd round of the 2000 draft from Gonzaga University, and marched his way from short-season A ball through the ranks in double time.

Other teams recognized his talents, and he began a nomadic stretch as teams vied for his rights. He was dealt to the New York Mets on March 24, 2002, for Lou Collier. The Mets shipped him to the San Diego Padres for Steve Reed at the 2002 trading deadline.

He debuted with the Padres on May 23, 2003, and his first major league hit was a ninth-inning home run. He was plunked by a pitch two days later, and shelved with a broken wrist.

On August 26, 2003, Bay was traded to the Pirates, along with Óliver Pérez and Cory Stewart, in exchange for Brian Giles. Not every Dave Littlefield deal was a dud.

He finished the season with a .287 batting average, four home runs, and 14 RBI in 30 games. Bay began the 2004 season on the DL after shoulder surgery, and didn't join the team until May.

But even though he missed several weeks in the field, he still produced the best offensive numbers of any NL rookie. He hit .282 in 120 games, leading all first-year hitters in home runs (26), RBI (82), slugging percentage (.550), extra base hits (54) and total bases (226).

His 26 homers broke the Pirates rookie record of 23 set by Johnny Rizzo in 1936 and matched by Ralph Kiner in 1946. Bay was NL Rookie of the Month three times. He won the first of his pair of Tip O'Neill awards, honoring Canada's best ballplayer.

It was topped by his NL Rookie of the Year award. Bay was the first and only Pirate so honored. And it only got better.

In 2005, Bay was selected to his first MLB All-Star Game as a reserve outfielder, and appeared in the Home Run Derby. He finished the season with a .306 average, 32 home runs, and 101 RBI, leading the Pirates in every major hitting category.

He was a pretty disruptive guy to have on base, too. Until he was picked off in the last week of the season, he had tied the MLB record for most consecutive steals in a season, at 21.

Bay started 2006 en fuego. He had a kick-butt May, when he hit .321 with 12 dingers (a team record for HRs in a month) and 35 RBI. From May 22 to May 28 he hit home runs in six straight games, two shy of the MLB record held by ex-Pirate Dale Long, Don Mattingly, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Bay hit 10 homers in ten games, but he didn't go yard during the seventh game of the streak. He made up for it by mashing two bombs the next day.

With a big push by the Pirate PR staff and some impressive hometown plunking (a whole lotta Democrats in town must be Pirate fans, hehe), Bay led all NL outfielders in the All-Star voting. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder even shouted out for rockers to vote for Bay during a Mellon Arena gig.

Bay became the first member of the Pittsburgh Pirates voted into the All-Star game as a starter since Andy Van Slyke in 1993. To add a little sugar, the game was held at PNC Park, where he was greeted by a thunderous roar from the Pittsburgh faithful. He finished the year hitting .286, with 35 HRs and 109 RBI.

But 2007 was to be his year from hell. Playing on one good wheel - and he never used his bum knee as an excuse - he was tentative in the field and hit full-season lows of .247, with 21 long balls, 84 RBI and a .418 slugging percentage.

Pirate fans shook their heads, and many wondered if the golden child had lost his magic. The new Bucco suits couldn't find a taker for him in the off season, or at least one willing to bet that 2007 was an off-year, not a career trend.

But the quiet Bay proved his doubters wrong. He spent the off-season resting his knee and clearing his head, and came back with a vengeance. He was the Jay Bay of old.

In 106 games as a Pirate in 2008, he hit .282 with 22 HR and 64 RBI, and was once again solid defending PNC's cavernous left field. Bay had extra-inning walk-off hits in back-to-back games, and got his third walk-off of the season (and his career) with a 13th-inning home run against Tampa Bay. He was Pittsburgh's Mr. Clutch.

Bay would be rewarded for his performance in a way, when at the deadline, Pittsburgh shipped him to Boston, where he could play for a contender in front of packed houses instead of the orphanage PNC Park had become for hapless nines over the years.

Tampa Bay had their shot at him, too, but wouldn't give up enough young talent. Looks like they'll get to meet him next week and find out if it's better to have Jay Bay with you or against you.

Pirate fans were understandably left in a deep, dark funk by the deal. While time will tell if Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris will eventually help right the floundering Buc ship, early returns sure make it look like Pittsburgh has sprung another leak or two in its corsair.

Meanwhile, Bosox fans, weary of the Manny melodrama, have welcomed Bay into the Beantown brotherhood. Why wouldn't they?

He told the Boston media that his dad was a die-hard Red Sox fan who had bought him a BoSox onesie to wear when he was a baby. Bay thought the outfit was still in his parent's Trail cellar, along with his two childhood bedroom posters of Boston greats Jim Rice and Yaz. Nothing like getting off on the right foot, hey?

More importantly, Bay also gave them a glove and effort rarely shown by Ramirez, and smacked the horsehide around pretty well, hitting .293 with 9 HR and 37 RBI in 49 games as a Red Sox. And two homers in two playoff games put to rest any questions about Bay being a money player.

So to Jay Bay, his wife Kristen, and two daughters, Addison and Evelyn, we wish continued success and good fortune. Bay's a class act and deserves some love on the national stage.

For long suffering Pirate fans, they hope the Jason Bay trade eventually ranks up there with the Brian Giles deal, and that it doesn't join the Aramis Ramirez give-away in the annals of Pittsburgh sausage-making.

The future of a franchise, at least short-term, may be decided by the answer.

No comments: