PITTSBURGH — The Seattle Mariners’ Jason Bay stood on the infield grass of PNC Park looking at the breathtaking backdrop behind the outfield wall, the reinvented skyline of Pittsburgh’s downtown rising out from behind the Allegheny River.
“In a lot of aspects, nothing has changed,” he said. “It still feels like I could have walked down the hallway and just kept going to the home clubhouse. But I’m five years removed from here. And it’s obviously a different progression in my career.”
This was the place where his baseball career truly took off. He went from a promising prospect acquired in a trade to an all-star in with the Pirates in just four seasons. His success in Pittsburgh led to a trade to Boston, where even more success followed. And that production with the Red Sox earned him a $66 million contract with the New York Mets in 2010.
What followed were three well-documented years of frustration, disappointment and failed expectations that necessitated an amicable departure this past offseason.
And now he was back in Pittsburgh wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform as a part-time player, who had to fight to make the team in spring training, and is now just trying to earn consistent playing time in hopes of prolonging a career that seemed to be ending prematurely.
“I still feel in a lot of aspects I am that kid,” he said of his first years with the Pirates. “I’m still trying to figure out a lot of things I was trying to figure out then.”
For fans in Pittsburgh, who remembered what a dominant player Bay was in a Pirates uniform, it had to seem like such a fall from success.
Bay, always honest and self-aware, doesn’t look at it that way.
It’s not a fall. It’s just baseball.
There were injuries and bad luck that sidetracked and slowed him, but he won’t use it as an excuse.
“At this stage in my career, it’s a good place to be,” he said. “When I’m done playing, it will be a better time to reflect more on everything that has happened.”
Bay is hoping that won’t be any time soon. He signed with the Mariners in the offseason just looking for a chance to play and prove himself.
The Mariners have given him that chance. He made the team out of spring training mostly as a part-time starter and a bench player. But one of the reasons he made the team over Casper Wells was on the premise that if the Mariners lost Franklin Gutierrez to one of his annual trips to the disabled list, Bay would be a better offensive producer than Wells if called on to play five days a week.
And of course that happened.
Gutierrez went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, and Bay has become the de facto left fielder as Raul Ibanez has struggled.
Bay’s playing time wasn’t completely by process of elimination. He’s earned it by playing well.
“If I’m playing, it’s probably because I deserve to be,” he said. “And if I’m not, then that’s on me.”
It’s that type of attitude that impressed Wedge.
“He’s been very consistent since day one, even since meeting him this winter,” Wedge said. “He’s been a very even-keeled guy. He knows himself well. He knows the game well and he understands why he is or isn’t playing.”
His numbers aren’t eye-popping. He’s hitting .243 on the season, but since Gutierrez was injured Bay is hitting .294 (10-for-34) in 11 games with two doubles, two home runs and seven RBI. He’s also walked seven times for an on-base percentage of .390.
But Wedge believes Bay could get better.
“It’s still in there,” he said. “The bat speed is still in there. The strength is still in there. He’s in great shape so. That’s been the biggest difference for him and it’s allowed him to be more consistent for us and to get big hits for us.”
Bay has also made a few adjustments to his approach at the plate to maintain that bat speed in case he wasn’t playing every day. He’s cut down on the movement to initiate the swing. The trigger to the swing is less complicated.”
With Gutierrez’s return still weeks away and no one pushing for playing time in AAA Tacoma, Bay will likely see the bulk of the games in left field for the foreseeable future.
“Wedge has been pretty good to those of us who don’t play every day, to say, ‘hey you’ll be in there tomorrow or the next day,’” Bay said. “The mindset is different. When you play all the time, you come in every day knowing you are playing and prepare the same way. It’s a little easier getting ready.”
Baseball is a little easier for Bay right now. There are no lingering questions about expectations. There have been no injuries. He just goes out to play and has fun.
It also helps that on home games he goes to his own house and family in Kirkland. He gets to drive his kids to school in the morning.
“The little things of the normal life have been big,” he said. “It’s something that baseball players don’t always to get to experience. And I really look forward to it each day.”