Pursuit (Baseball): Bay watch

The pride of Trail, B.C., has slugged his way to the top.

Some people just can’t seem to do things the easy way. Take Jason Bay. Unlike most young Canadian boys with professional sports intentions, he chucked his skates and stick at a young age, and opted to make it with his bat and glove in a sport that those north of the 49th parallel don’t tend to have much luck with.

Oh sure, there was fellow British Columbia native Larry Walker, one of baseball’s brightest lights during the 1990s. But professional baseball players of Walker’s pedigree who hail from Canada are few and far between. Let’s face it: just how many Canuck kids do you see walking around with Stubby Clapp jerseys? (Don’t remember Clapp? He had 25 at-bats for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001, but also played for Canada at the 2004 Olympics.)

Today, Bay, 30, plays left field for the Boston Red Sox, one of the most followed teams in North America. There is no escape from the spotlight, which is a big change for someone who has played in relative obscurity throughout his career.

Indeed, the odds were stacked against Bay even making the major leagues, never mind developing into the all-star player he has since become. High school players from his neck of the woods in Trail, B.C., aren’t exactly highly scouted by the big collegiate baseball programs. But in 1998 Bay ended up at Gonzaga, a university in Spokane, Wash., after spending two years at North Idaho College. Gonzaga was relatively close to home, but is far better known for developing basketball talent than baseball. Nevertheless, Bay enjoyed a strong enough collegiate career to be drafted by the Montreal Expos, but only as a senior, which didn’t bode well for his major league prospects. Worse still, he was taken in the 22nd round, where only the true long shots are picked.

In his first full season in the minors, Bay faced a new obstacle. He was failing for the first time. He began 2001 at high Class A, but scuffled so badly that the Expos had to demote him a level. “I was there for about a week and I was struggling really bad again,” Bay recalls. “I called home and I was talking to my dad and I said, ‘You know, I think I might just quit.’”

Bay figured that as a late-round pick who was already 22 years old, he didn’t have the same length of rope reserved for high-draft picks with seven-digit bonuses. “I thought they’d probably just ship me home soon,” he says, “So I thought I’d take the honourable route and go out on my own.”

Bay’s father reminded him that the ultimate decision was his, but also told him that he might as well try to see it through since he was already there. “And sure enough, the next couple of days, I had a hit one day, and the next day and the next, and ended up winning the batting title in that league that year,” Bay says. “That was probably one of the best learning experiences of my life. Everything up to that point had been pretty easy for me, or gone pretty well, I should say.”

Bay had cemented his status as a prospect, but still had a long road to travel before reaching the majors, with plenty of more pitfalls along the way. The following spring training he was traded to the New York Mets, and by mid-2002, four months after joining the team, Bay was again sent packing, this time to the San Diego Padres. He had played for three organizations, been traded twice and still hadn’t risen above Double-A ball.

When Bay finally made it to the Show in 2003 with the Padres, his first major league hit was a home run. The kid was in the majors to stay, right? Wrong. Two days later Bay broke his wrist, and he would never play for San Diego again, since he was soon one of the key components in a trade for Pittsburgh Pirates star Brian Giles. A virtual unknown, Bay was being asked to replace the Pirates’ top hitter, which didn’t sit well with the local fans.

“He did get booed on his first at-bat as a Pirate because no one knew who he was, they just knew that he came in and replaced their favourite player,” says Lauren Bay Regula, Jason’s younger sister and, as a former Olympian and former member of the Canadian National Softball team, a pretty darned good ballplayer in her own right. By the end of the game, Bay had two hits and turned those jeers into cheers. And despite shoulder surgery that gave him a late start on the 2004 season, Bay turned in a campaign good enough to win National League Rookie of the Year honours.

As a star on the lowly Pirates, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1992, Bay made two All-Star teams, including in 2006, when he got a little help from Pearl Jam’s lead singer, Eddie Vedder, who urged fans at a concert in Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena to cast their votes for him.

But Bay wasn’t destined to stay in Pittsburgh long, either. The perennially rebuilding Pirates, mired in yet another losing season and facing the prospect of losing their star as a free agent the following year, dealt Bay last year, marking the fourth time in his career he was traded. Only this time he was heading to baseball-mad Boston, where he was being asked to replace legend Manny Ramirez.

There was nowhere to escape the glare of the spotlight now. Think being a Maple Leaf is hard in Toronto? Try being a Red Sox player in Boston. How would Bay react to being thrust into an intense playoff race under constant media and public scrutiny? “Clearly, he reacted pretty well,” says Bay Regula. “But the one thing about Jason, and I’ve said this a million times, is he really is like a chameleon. He’s very good at adapting to his surroundings.”

Bay fit in well in Pittsburgh’s working-class atmosphere, which mirrored that of his hometown, and admits the move to Boston was a bit of a culture shock. “It took some getting used to, but, like anything, you kind of find your way to deal with it,” he says. “Once you do it enough, regardless if there are two reporters or 200, it just becomes normal. As simple as that might sound, it becomes a job, and you adjust accordingly.”

A standing ovation before his first at-bat with Boston certainly helped, and it didn’t hurt that Bay excelled down the stretch with the Red Sox, helping them reach another post-season. The fact that he was the most dangerous Red Sox hitter in the playoffs — despite having never experienced playoff pressure before — further ingratiated Bay with Red Sox Nation.

But dealing with pressure has never been a hardship for Bay. “He’s one of those even-keeled people — I wish I could be more that way,” says Bay Regula with a laugh. “Whatever’s thrown at him that day, he just takes in.”

Sports fans have all heard about Manny being Manny, referring to the controversial Ramirez, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But what is Jason being Jason all about? “Jason being Jason is extremely boring,” Bay says. “I’m very quiet, I like to do crosswords. I’m just introverted, I guess you could say. That’s the polar opposite [of Ramirez]. You probably won’t read anything about me.” You can’t get more Canadian than that.