Commentary

Bay thriving in Boston's limelight

In less than a year with Red Sox, cleanup hitter making his presence felt in a big way

Originally Published: June 15, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Boston left fielder Jason Bay is so wholesomely All-American, in a British Columbian sort of way, it's hard to envision him snapping over a wasted at-bat. But the people who watch him daily confirm that he has occasional temper flare-ups in the heat of competition.

In contrast to, say, Gregg Jefferies or Paul O'Neill, Bay is discreet enough to vent his emotions in the dugout runway or the clubhouse, where there isn't a notebook, camera, blogger or Tweety bird to be found.

"He's got a little Canadian red-ass in him,'' said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan.

[+] EnlargeJason Bay, left, and Kevin Youkilis
AP Photo/Tom MihalekBatting behind Kevin Youkilis in the Red Sox's lineup, Jason Bay, left, leads the majors with 61 RBIs.

Hey, nobody's perfect. During Bay's relatively brief time in Boston, he's even learned to say no to autograph seekers and media requests on occasion because he has more pressing items on his agenda. These include batting cleanup for one of baseball's marquee franchises, spending time with his wife and two little girls, and breathing.

The attention never wanes for stars in Boston, and it's evident in obvious and subtle ways. Consider the amount of time that media outlets spent analyzing David Ortiz's head, wrist, eyesight and birth certificate when he was homerless in May. Or the number of fans who've approached Kevin Youkilis this season and told him they loved his recent cameo appearance at the Eagle's Deli on the Travel Channel show "Man vs. Food.''

Shortly after Bay's arrival in Boston from Pittsburgh by trade in July, he got a hint of the mania that might be in store for him.

"When I got traded over, my wife talked to another wife on the [Red Sox], and she said, 'I don't know what it's like in Pittsburgh, but the guys are like rock stars here,'" Bay said. "We were like, 'Yeah, we get it.' But you don't really get it until you're in the middle of it."

If the attention is a bit unnerving for an unpretentious, former 22nd-round draft pick out of western Canada and Gonzaga University, you wouldn't know it from his statistical breakdown.

Bay leads the majors with 61 RBIs this season and ranks among the American League's top 10 in homers (17), total bases (135), slugging percentage (.595), extra base hits (34), average with runners in scoring position (.354), on base percentage (.404) and outfield assists (five). He has also missed one game, which means that nothing short of a disabled list visit will prevent him from appearing in at least 155 games for the fourth time in five seasons.

There's high-maintenance, low-maintenance and the kind of dependability that makes a manager feel secure dozing off in the dugout, and Bay personifies category No. 3. Boston manager Terry Francona considered him "the perfect guy in the perfect spot'' from the moment he stepped in as Manny Ramirez's left field replacement.

"He plays the game as hard as he can,'' Francona said. "He tries to get a hit. He tries to run the bases right. He tries to play left field right. And if it doesn't go right, he tries to do better next time. That's what he is. Just come up with any adjective you want and put my name to it.''

It's been 11 months since Boston acquired Bay in a three-way trade with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, and life has changed for several of Bay's new teammates and the other principals in the deal. Dustin Pedroia won an American League MVP, Youkilis snagged a Hank Aaron Award and Ortiz keeps answering questions about whether he's finished, in his twilight years or just stuck in a marathon rut.

Terry Francona [Jason Bay] plays the game as hard as he can. … Just come up with any adjective you want and put my name to it.

-- Red Sox manager Terry Francona

In Los Angeles, Ramirez has 16 games left in his suspension for violating baseball's drug policy. And in Pittsburgh, baseball remains the only blight in an otherwise thriving sports market. The Pirates, heading toward their 17th straight losing season, made waves for all the wrong reasons two weeks ago when they sent outfielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta for three prospects less than four months after signing McLouth to a three-year, $15.75 million contract extension.

Bay, like most people, was stunned by the trade. He created a stir in January 2008 when he questioned the Pirates' lack of offseason activity. In hindsight, those comments were tame compared to Adam LaRoche's rip job in response to the McLouth deal.

Bay, true to character, declines to use the latest opening to tee off on the Pirates. He actually defends club president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington for doing the sensible thing under difficult circumstances.

"After being around them, I know they're smart enough people that they're not going to trade away the next face of their franchise without getting more than they think is fair in return,'' Bay said. "They're trying to grow from the bottom up. I know a lot of people, players included, have a tough time seeing that. But long-term-wise, it's got to be the right way to go.''

Bay's future in Boston is currently partly cloudy. He's eligible to become a free agent in November, and negotiations broke off in spring training and have yet to resume. In the meantime, the only certainty is that the price keeps rising.

Some Boston media outlets recently speculated that the Red Sox would like to lock up Bay with a multiyear deal in the $10-11 million annual range. But if Bay hits 35 homers and drives in 120 runs, it's hard to foresee his landing anything less than four years and $60 million or a J.D. Drew-caliber, five-year, $70 million deal. Yes, the economy is soft, but the Red Sox are also closing in on their 500th consecutive sellout.

"It's kind of been a hot topic in the Northeast,'' Bay said of his contract. "Everybody wants to know if there's anything new. But we haven't revisited it, and it's not something that's weighing on my mind right now. It hasn't affected anything I've done."

To the people who watch him play every day, Bay's reliability and across-the-board skill set are his greatest assets. He has an accurate throwing arm and decent wheels, does a solid job in left field and is a diligent and attentive baserunner. He doesn't appear to have explosive bat speed, but good luck trying to sneak a 95 mph fastball past him.

"He lets the ball get deep and has real quick, strong hands,'' Youkilis said. "The ball looks like it's by him, and the next thing you know he's hitting a line drive to left field or over the wall. It's pretty impressive to watch.''

In 2003, a generally flattering Baseball America scouting report took note of Bay's baseball smarts and instincts, deceptive speed and "gap power.'' He has evolved into a slugger, says Magadan, because of his "hands-y'' approach and the additional power he generates from his strong thighs and abdominal muscles.

True, Bay strikes out at least 130 times a year, and he'll chase breaking balls out of the zone. But he also has a knack for contributing in some way no matter how he's swinging. Bay is hitting only .261 in June, but he's reached base every game this month by hit or walk.

"He's just a real good hitter,'' Magadan said. "When he's in pressure situations, whether it's at the beginning of the game or towards the end, he has such a good idea how guys are trying to get him out. He tends to lay off pitches that give him trouble, and he pounds the pitches that he knows he can drive.''

So what's not to like? Consider a story Bay tells about adjusting to the crush of interest in his new home in Boston.

"I live a half a block from Fenway, as a lot of guys do,'' Bay said. "The first couple of weeks last year, I put my head down and walked to and from the ballpark. I did it at the start of this year, too.''

By the third homestand, after several stop-and-go commutes, Bay finally relented and decided to get to work by alternate means.

"There are six or seven guys who live a half a block away, and we all drive,'' Bay said. "Otherwise, it's very hard to get that half a block.''

So now it can be told that Jason Bay isn't the most fuel-efficient guy around. As long as he makes it to the park for the national anthem, the Red Sox don't care how he arrives.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer