PEORIA, Ariz. – Jason Bay doesn’t remember a time when he had to try out for a team, certainly not like this. Not at 34, without a contract to protect him, without a presumption of productivity.
Weeks ago Eric Wedge had him into the manager’s office and told him he would have to make the team, to earn it in February and March, just like all those guys Bay had seen come and go for practically his whole life.
They’d shaken hands on it.
“I actually kind of like it,” Bay said Monday morning.
He would, of course, because Jason Bay is about the nicest person ever and probably hasn’t for a single moment considered himself entitled to anything more than the next at-bat. Not after his Rookie of the Year season nine years ago in Pittsburgh, or the All-Star Games, or the year he hit .306, or the year he drove in 119, or the many years he hit 30 home runs or more. Not even after the $66 million contract with the New York Mets, a contract that brought to the Mets a .234 average and 26 home runs over three seasons of injury and recovery and, ultimately for the Mets, hopelessness.
So for going on six weeks, Bay has been the veteran element in an extra-outfielder duel between himself and Casper Wells, who, at 28, is out of options and as of Monday morning was batting .188 with 17 strikeouts in 48 at-bats. Bay, who said he no longer suffers from the concussion symptoms that fouled up the baseball in his early 30’s, was batting .310 and had an on-base percentage near .400. Wells is the better defensive player of the two, not inconsequential when your third outfielder is Michael Morse, your fourth is Raul Ibanez and your center fielder, Franklin Gutierrez, has trouble staying on the field.
All of which leaves Bay days or hours from the news he’s made the Seattle Mariners or not, that he’ll be playing for the team in the city in which he lives or just living in the city of the team that cut him. He believes he has some capable seasons left, and yet doesn’t know what he’ll do if the Mariners pick Wells, the perpetual prospect, over him, the Mets washout.
It’s enough for the moment to be playing the game, to have his head clear, to have his ribs whole, and to have the chance to restart. The Mariners will make their choice and Bay will be fine with it, whatever it is. Obviously, he’d prefer to stay. He’s had a good spring. He’s played all over the outfield, including center, and hit all over the lineup, including leadoff. He likes it with the Mariners.
“I’m at the tail end of my career and I’m comfortable with that,” Bay said. “It’s different if you’re battling for your career.”
If Bay already has had his career, then, well, there are worse things. He hurt himself running into an outfield fence, then did it again. His head wasn’t quite the same for a while, but it’s better now, fine now, and should be from here on. (“As far as I know,” he said. “You never truly know.”)
If Bay shortened that career running into a couple walls or diving for a couple fly balls, if those few moments of aggressive hyperactivity led to long periods of stillness, then that’s what it is. He ran into a fence earlier in camp and a teammate looked at him, confused and bemused.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m not meaning to do this,” Bay told him.
The fence was chain link. It, and not Bay, gave.
“I’m comfortable with it, the way things happened for me,” Bay said. “They happened playing hard. I don’t ever rue the results. I play the game one way. Hopefully that means something. If in the end it ends up being part of my demise, so be it.”
He had a paper route when he was very young. Since then, his life’s been baseball. Or family, then baseball. Bay’s given this his best and most honest attempt, because when the Mets released him he believed it was important to keep trying. Without the security of contract or reputation or youth he played well and at least to his expectations. Maybe if the Mariners don’t want him he’ll see if there isn’t something else out there. Then, maybe he won’t.
“I know a lot of guys struggle with that transition,” Bay said. “Hopefully I’m not there yet by any stretch. I know it wouldn’t be easy.”
Bay grinned. He’s happy with the way it’s gone, hopeful for what’s next. He’d come up later that afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds, the bases loaded, time running out on spring training. And he’d line a hard single to left field.
Besides, he said, “I’ve never had a real job.”
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