He listens to opera before games. He reads wine magazines. His passport says “American” even though he was born in Canada. Like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, the New York Mets outfielder came to baseball as the quintessential “nobody from nowhere”—way too talented to have gone unnoticed for so long. Yet three of the game’s smartest general managers refused to believe that Jason was as good as he looked. Now each must find a clever way to hide that blunder on his résumé. So what exactly do all of Jason’s solid seasons in Pittsburgh and Boston prove? New York fans are finding out what opposing pitchers have known all along—ignore Jason at your own risk. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Jason Raymond Bay was born on September 20, 1978, in the Canadian town of Trail. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) Jason's parents, Dave and Kelly, both worked. His dad was employed by Teck Cominco, a zinc smelter that also mined for gold. His mom was a federal employee.

The Bays had good sports genes. A family member on Kelly’s side had competed in the pole vault and decathlon in the 1964 Olympics and 1972 Olympics. Another on Dave’s side had been a pro baseball player in the 1950s. And Jason’s little sister, Lauren, was almost as good a ballplayer as he was.

Jason played every sport he could as a kid, including soccer, basketball, volleyball and skiing. He also showed early promise in curling. His favorites, however, were hockey and baseball.

Despite hockey's mass Canadian appeal, Jason’s father was a big baseball fan, and he made sure his son got into the sport as soon as he was old enough to join a T-ball team. Dave's favorite team was the Red Sox. As an infant, Jason wore a Boston onesie (which he claims the family still has). On Jason’s bedroom walls were posters of Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski. Getting to Fenway was not realistic, but the Kingdome in Seattle was. Dave took Jason and his sister to Mariners games, where they rooted for Mark Langston, Alvin Davis, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson.

The town of Trail, home to roughly 9,000 in British Columbia, lies just across the U.S. border from Spokane. Its heritage pushed Jason toward hockey. Indeed, Trail is best known for its talent on the ice. Adam Deadmarsh and Ray Ferraro grew up there, as did Barret Jackman, the NHL’s top rookie in 2003.

The pull of baseball was too much for Jason. He decided to give up hockey when he started playing for Little League. His coach, Andy Bileski, had been teaching baseball in Trail since the 1950s, and over the years the little town had produced four national champions. Still, baseball was mostly something most kids did until the ponds froze and they could start skating again.

In 1990, the Trail Little League team won its fifth national tournament and earned the right to represent Canada in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. They split their two games in the tournament, upsetting Mexico before getting creamed 20-1 by Taiwan. Jason went 2-for-5 with two walks, three runs and one RBI. He got a hero’s welcome when he returned from Williamsport, and from that moment on, all he thought about was becoming a professional baseball player.

It would not be an easy journey. Jason enrolled in J. Lloyd Crowe secondary school in 1992. The school did not have a baseball team. In order to continue playing, Jason had to join an American Legion team across the border in Idaho. Trudging to out-of-the-way tournaments in a region not known for its baseball, Jason just let his natural ability flow and steadily became the best player around.

Not that anyone noticed. Jason went undrafted after his senior year and did not receive any major college scholarships. He was selected for the Canadian Junior Olympic team, but that did little to raise his stock. In 1997, he was a member of North Idaho Community College—the only place to offer him anything like a scholarship. NICC, however, was not one of those powerhouse JC baseball factories. In fact, the baseball program there is now defunct. Jason came to the attention of the school on a tip from bird dog Lou DeRosa, who worked for the Atlanta Braves. DeRosa had a feeling about Jason and just wanted to make sure he stayed in the game.

Jason made First-Team All-Scenic West Athletic Conference as a freshman and sophomore. In his second year, he set school records with 21 homers and a .447 average. His play in Idaho put him on the radar and drew a recruiter from Gonzaga University. Jason was offered a partial scholarship. He scraped up the extra cash he needed and headed for Washington. Thoughts of following in the footsteps of hero and fellow Canadian, Larry Walker, danced in his head.

ON THE RISE

Jason joined the Zags in 1999, and proceeded to tear up the West Coast Conference with 20 homers, 74 RBIs and a .360 average in 52 games. He ranked in the NCAA Top 20 in RBIs per game and was 26th in home runs per game. A First-Team All-WCC selection, he was invited to play in the Cape Cod Summer league. There he continued to rake enemy pitching.

As a college senior, Jason was unstoppable. In a league that included future high draft picks Dan Haren, Tagg Bozied, Dane Sardinha, Billy Traber and Noah Lowry, Jason hit .388 to win the conference batting title and earn All-WCC honors again.


 


Adam Deadmarsh, 1997 Parkhurst

 

     
 

Without the typical baseball pedigree, though, Jason was too hard to project as a pro. In fact, the draft went 22 rounds before his name was called. The consolation was that he was selected by a Canadian team, the Montreal Expos, where Walker also got his start. He joined Vermont of the New York-Penn League in mid-July and put up solid numbers, batting .304 with 17 steals in 35 games. He logged time in left and right and also was used as a designated hitter.

Jason was truly a natural. In American Legion ball and junior college, the coaching was not very advanced, so he just figured things out as he went. At Gonzaga, he hit from the first practice, so the coaches never tinkered with his swing. In the minors, he began facing stiffer competition. Luckily, he also had instructors to walk him through the adjustments that were necessary to keep advancing. Jason took instruction well. As long as the advice worked, he kept listening.

In 2001, Jason was assigned to the Expos’ High Class-A team in Jupiter. He began the year slowly, and in May he was moved to Clinton of the Midwest League. Jason caught fire and reached base in his first 26 games. He went on to hit .362 and win the league batting title. On the year, he batted .315 with 14 homers and 75 RBIs.

The Expos planned to move Jason to Double-A in 2002. Toward the end of spring training, however, he was traded to the Mets for veteran shortstop Lou Collier. Montreal GM Omar Minaya felt that Jason was approaching his ceiling and decided to sell high.

Jason began the season with Class-A St. Lucie under manager Ken Oberkfell. He homered in his first game. Forming the heart of the order with Craig Brazell and Mike Jacobs, Jason chipped in 22 stolen bases to a lineup that featured four guys with 30-plus steals, including teenager Jose Reyes. After just 69 games, Jason was promoted to Class-AA Binghamton, where he batted .290 in 35 games.

At the end of July, Jason was included in a deadline deal between the Mets and San Diego Padres. Big leaguers Bobby Jones and Steve Reed changed uniforms, and New York also picked up pitching prospect Jason Middlebrook. Jason joined Mobile of the Southern Association, where he hit .309 with four homers in 23 games. All told, his 2002 line included a .283 average, 39 steals, 17 home runs and 85 RBIs. After the season, San Diego placed him on their 40-man roster and invited him to the major league camp for spring training in 2003.

The Padres were impressed with Jason’s no-nonsense approach to baseball and his all-around tools. It looked like he could play any of the three outfield positions and hit anywhere in the lineup. San Diego started him at Class-AAA Portland, where his friends and family could watch him play.

They got an eyeful that first month. Jason led the Pacific Coast League with nine homers and 31 RBIs, and his average was well above .300. He was thriving at Triple-A, even though pitchers had better control. Time and again, he was able to work the count in his favor and get a pitch he could drive. Jason’s manager, fellow Gonzaga alum Rick Sweet, was particularly impressed with his ability to hit to the opposite field with power.

The Padres called Jason up on May 23, and he started his first game against Arizona. A couple of hours later, he was rounding the bases after belting a homer off D-Backs closer Matt Mantei. Two days later, Elmer Dessens came inside on Jason and fractured his wrist, sending him to the DL. The injury healed in July and Jason went back to mashing Triple-A pitching with Portland.

On August 26, the Padres decided to take advantage of a fire sale being held by the Pirates and traded Jason and lefty Oliver Perez to Pittsburgh for All-Star Brian Giles. Jason was inserted in the lineup the next day and hit safely in his first four games for the Bucs


Larry Walker, 1993 Studio
     
 

In a mid-September contest, Jason homered twice and collected eight RBIs—the most by a Pirate since Ralph Kiner turned the trick 53 years earlier. Jason’s victim was Carlos Zambrano, one of the National League's toughest young pitchers. Jason went on to reach base in his final 14 games, despite an aching right shoulder, which was later diagnosed as a torn labrum. It was repaired surgically after the season.

MAKING HIS MARK

Jason’s shoulder was not fully healed when the 2004 season started, so he missed the campaign's first month. He was back in the lineup in early May, and after taking an oh-fer his first night, he went on a 10-game hitting streak.

June saw Jason hit seven homers and knock in 17 runs to earn Rookie of the Month honors. He won the award again in July with a .338 average and also had his second career eight-RBI game. In a mid-September game against the Houston Astros, Jason belted his 23rd home run of the year to tie the team record for rookies, set by Johnny Rizzo in 1939 and equalled by Kiner in 1946.

Jason ended the season with 26 homers, 82 RBIs, a .282 average and a .550 slugging mark. He led all rookies in homers and RBIs and was tops among NL newcomers in slugging, total bases and extra-base hits. He was an easy pick for Rookie of the Year, garnering 21 of the 28 first-place votes (and seven second-place votes) to finish far ahead of San Diego’s Khalil Greene.

Jason's '04 accomplishements were all the more impressive given the fact that the Pittsburgh lineup offered him littel support. Craig Wilson and Jack Wilson had career years, but they were hardly stud players. Perez pitched beautifully, but the other young Bucs failed to live up to their promise. The team, now in a continual rebuilding mode, managed to win just 72 games.

Jason was the centerpiece of the Pirate offense. Needless to say, this was not one of the more coveted jobs in baseball. In fact, he received even less help in 2005. Yet he still managed to boost his stats and improve his level of play.

Jason hit consistently all year, with a power surge in May and a little slump in July. He was named to the NL squad for the All-Star Game and represented Canada in the International Home Run Derby. He didn’t go deep once in the competition, but he loved every minute of his All-Star experience nonetheless.


Ralph Kiner, 1952 Red Man
     
 

Jason’s power stroke returned by the end of July. In a mid-September game against the Cincinnati Reds, he homoered off Aaron Harang to become the 13th player in Pittsburgh history to reach the 30-home run plateau.

At season’s end, Jason’s stats were truly eye-opening. Naked in the Pittsburgh lineup, he still batted .308 with 44 doubles, 32 homers, 110 runs and 101 RBIs—this despite the fact that no other Pirate scored or drove in more than 63 runs. Jason did everything—literally. He was the only player in the majors to eclipse 40 doubles, 30 homers, 20 steals, and 100 runs and RBIs while hitting .300. He was also the first player in team history to accomplish this feat. The Pirates rewarded him by tearing up his contract and inking him to a four-year $18 million deal.

Pittsburgh's plan was to make Jason the centerpiece of a rebuilding program which, ultimately, would rely on a group of young pitchers that included Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Malholm, Oliver Perez, Matt Capps and Mike Gonzalez. The staff went through the expected ups and downs in 2006, with Snell and Gonzalez having breakthrough years. Meanwhile, utilityman Freddy Sanchez surprised everyone and won the batting title.

The extra tablesetting provided by Sanchez helped Jason reach triple-figures in runs, RBIs and walks. He hammered 35 homers and batted .286 with 11 stolen bases. Still, a poor start paralyzed Pittsburgh under first-year manager Jim Tracy. However, the team rebounded and played winning baseball after the All-Star Break—this despite dealing Perez and the recently acquired Sean Casey. Nevertheless, in the topsy-turvy NL Central, some had the Bucs making a run at the division title in 2007.

That hype helped increase the expectations faced by Jason. He met those early on, as he powered the club to a winning record in April. Gorzelanny was throwing strikes and winning games, Snell had a second solid season, and Capps stepped into the closer's role created by the off-season trade of Gonzalez. Overall, however, Pittsburgh’s hitting was inconsistent. Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson and Sanchez all finished with decent numbers, but the batting order never hit on all cylinders. A losing stretch at mid-season and again at the end of the year doomed the Pirates to back-to-back-to-back 90-loss seasons for the first time since the early 1950s.

A big part of the problem was Jason’s inability to maintain his high level of hitting. He slumped through the middle of the season, and his numbers crashed. For the year, he hit a lowly .247 with 21 homers and 84 RBIs. The fans had come to expect much more from Jason. He was unable to give them what they wanted.

The 2008 Pirates seemed to be going nowhere fast again. But unheralded centerfielder Nat McLouth practically carried the team through the first three months with his bat. Unfortunately, the young arms were not maturing at the rate the organization had hoped. With some hefty contracts coming due, the Pirates resigned themselves to becoming sellers as the trade deadline neared.

First, Pittsburgh packaged Nady and Damaso Marte to the New York Yankees for a collection of minor leaguers. Then the Bucs swung a blockbuster three-way deal with the Red Sox and Dodgers. The key piece was Manny Ramirez, who had worn out his welcome in Boston and was now relocated to Los Angeles. Pittsburgh got prospects from both organizations.

Jason also changed his address. The Red Sox, now without Manny’s power bat, acquired him to play left field and protect David Ortiz in the lineup. Jason was back on course for a 30-homer, 100-RBI campaign, and Boston felt he would fit nicely in the batting order and the clubhouse. He would assume a key roles as the team girded itself for a stretch-run battle with the Yankees and the surprising Tampa Bay Rays.

Jason endeared himself to the fans at Fenway by stinging the ball in his first week with the team. He tripled and scored the winning run in the 12th inning of a win over the Oakland A's and then blasted his first homer a day later. Against the Kansas City Royals, he went 4-for-5 and collected a pair of RBIs.

Between his 106 games in Pittsburgh and 49 in Beantown, Jason re-established himself as a primetime player. His nine homers, 39 runs and 37 RBIs for the Red Sox helped them snag the Wild Card ahead of the Yankees, who missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1990s.

In the Division Series against the Angels, Jason homered in the first two games, both of which the Red Sox won. They split the next two games back in Fenway to advance to the ALCS. Jason batted .412 during the series. In the American League Championship Series, Tamba Bay’s pitchers were extra careful with Jason, issuing seven free passes to him in seven games. He still hit .292, but it wasn't enough to keep his team from falling to the Rays.

In 2009, Jason had his finest season as a major leaguer. Playing his first full year in the pressure cooker of a pennant race, he powered the Red Sox into the postseason with 36 homers and 119 RBIs. He was a one-man wrecking crew for much of the first half. Jason played in the All-Star game and finished among the Top 10 in MVP voting. Unfortunately, he and his teammates could not solve the Angels’ pitching in the ALDS, as Boston lost to Los Angeles in three games.


Jason Bay, 2005 SI for Kids
     
 

After the season, Jason decided to test the free agent market. The Mets corrected an old mistake by signing him to a four-year, $66 million contract, which they announced a few days after Christmas. Coming on the heels of a dismal, injury-riddled season, the signing was just what Mets fans needed to cure their holiday blues (although some were disappointed that another Holliday would not be manning left field).

The pressure of playing in the Big Apple, plus the cavernous feel to the Mets’ Citi Field, seemed to affect Jason early on in 2010. He finished April with just one homer and eight RBIs. His batting average improved in May, but his power numbers remained pedestrian. With Carlos Beltran on the DL and Jose Reyes also struggling with health issues, the Mets looked to Jason and David Wright to carry the offense. Wright held up his end of the bargain. Jason wasn’t nearly as productive.

The good news for the Mets was the unexpected boost they got from other sources, namely Angel Pagan and rookie Ike Davis. Jason may not have been hitting consistently, but his presence in the lineup and the locker room was helping. Through July, New York stayed closed enough in the National League East and the Wild Card race to give fans hope for a postseason berth.

Jason would have liked to lead Pittsburgh back to respectability. It would have been nice to help Boston win a third World Series. But as a man who has been dealt many times before, he understands that there are realities in baseball one cannot always control. Fortunately for Mets fans, sometimes there are. They are hoping that Jason’s decision to bring his game “back home” and rejoin the organization will be a win-win situation.

JASON THE PLAYER

With his shoulder surgery several years behind him, Jason’s swing is better than ever. He is a hitter who is not afraid to work counts, and he will be encouraged to do so at Citi Field, where the left field wall is far less friendly than it was at Fenway. Jason still strikes out too much, but his maturity at the plate should result in taking what pitchers give him, even if it means dumping balls into right field.

Jason is fast on the bases, but he is not an intuitive runner, especially when it comes to stealing. Still, he could swipe 20-plus bags on quickness alone. Jason also has the wheels to play all three outfield positions, but he's best suited for left because of an average throwing arm.

The real litmus test for Jason will be how close he comes to reproducing the numbers (and fear) that he provided earlier in his career and in Boston. In New York, he faces a different kind of pressure, especially after signing a major deal. If the Mets win, Jason will be off the hook. If they don’t, he could be viewed as a scapegoat.



Jason Bay, 2010 Heritage

 

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