SEATTLE – The lineup card went up Tuesday afternoon on the board outside the manager’s office in the home clubhouse at Safeco Field. Jason Bay’s name wasn’t on it.
Most days, it won’t be.
There may not be a proper way to portray just how he feels about this. Resentful? Not even close. Accepting? That’s not quite right, either.
Resigned? Indifferent? I’ll show you? It is what it is?
Well, that’s a start.
“I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career,” said Bay, still settling into what was once Jay Buhner’s locker at Safeco. “This place, this situation has a ton of appeal.”
Bay is 34 now, 13 years removed from knocking down fences at Gonzaga University – and, before that, North Idaho College, when there were still baseball fences to be knocked down. In a decade in the big leagues, he has been:
A.) Franchise savior,
B.) A solid middle-of-the-lineup guy,
C.) An All-Star three times and, most recently,
D.) A pariah.
So, yeah, outfield cameos with the Seattle Mariners, the ballclub in the city he calls home, might look pretty comfortable.
“There were other places where I talked to people and maybe had a chance at more playing time,” he said. “But ultimately, I wasn’t going into this year worried about – well, a lot of guys are looking to up their value for the next year.
“I wanted to come to a place and have fun playing baseball again.”
Accessible, thoughtful, sensible – Bay might seem to be the last major leaguer who would find his equilibrium rocked by a bad episode in an otherwise exemplary career. But there’s no denying that he arrived in Seattle with some fresh scars.
After the best power/production career in 2009 with Boston (36 homers, 119 RBIs), Bay signed a four-year, $65 million free-agent contract with the New York Mets – part of the club’s strategy to fill its new park with some pop.
It didn’t work, and it especially didn’t work for Bay.
The expectations that came with the contract were enormous, and being in New York made them even bigger. Citi Field’s dimensions proved troublesome. And then came the injuries: a concussion that cost him half of 2010, rib cage injuries and then another concussion crashing into the wall at Citi last June.
When the sophisticated New Yorkers taunted and hooted their approval that he had to be removed from the game.
He’d been a bust, and now he was meat.
In three seasons, he hit just 26 homers and batted in 124 runs playing barely half-time. Last year, his average plummeted to .165.
“When the game started, he would have a tight, hard, muscly swing,” hitting coach Dave Hudgens told the New York Post. “He wanted to do so well for his teammates.”
And in the end, there was only one solution.
“We talked to the team,” Bay recalled, “and we both kind of looked at each other and agreed that regardless of the contract or anything else, it was probably better to part. I felt terrible that it didn’t work out. I haven’t shied away that I didn’t play as well as I wanted to.”
The Mets bought out the remainder of his contract – $21 million. And Bay set out looking for a place to resurrect his career.
Seattle was on the list – he and his wife Kristen and their three children have made Kirkland home since 2007. And eventually, “It became the only place I wanted to play.
“I slept in my own bed last night, which is kind of weird in baseball season.”
But signing – for one year and $1 million – was only part of it.
He had to make the team.
“In a weird way, I enjoyed that,” Bay said. “All of a sudden, you have to sing for your supper. If I hadn’t made the team, it wasn’t going to be a numbers crunch, it wasn’t going to be an options thing. It was going to be because I didn’t deserve it. And barring something unforeseen that was totally falling on me.”
He hit .321 in the spring with a couple home runs and beat out Casper Wells, a player manager Eric Wedge probably was looking for an excuse to cut anyway. And inserted into an ugly blowout loss to Houston on Tuesday night, he delivered the Mariners’ first home run in the re-fenced Safeco, a shot off the upper-deck facing above the new Edgar’s Cantina in left.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still want to play every day,” he said. “And I know I’ll get my chances and if I do well, maybe more. But I know where I stand here. More than anything else, I wanted to start fresh and enjoy playing baseball again.
“It’s just kind of an evolution of a career.”
And a comfortable one.