By KARL LINDHOLM
When he hits a home run, he drops the bat, begins running immediately, circles the bases quickly, head bowed, then accepts the congratulations of his teammates with a modest fist bump or two, takes his seat on the bench, and the game goes on.
Jason Bay, the anti-Manny.
He came to the Sox in that blockbuster three-way deal with the Dodgers and Pirates last season after Manny’s sit-down strike (to be fair, Manny’s left knee hurt, or was it his right?). He quietly assumed the historic left-field spot at Fenway (after Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Jim Rice, and Manny) and has quietly put up some of the best numbers in the game today.
Last season, with the Pirates and the Sox, Bay managed 32 homers and 124 RBIs. Nonetheless, it was heard far and wide that Manny’s departure would leave a huge hole in the Red Sox line-up. Not so. Even with Papi’s collapse, the Red Sox have shown a productive offense this season, led by Bay’s consistent excellence. He is among the American League leaders in many batting categories, with 15 homers (third), 49 RBIs (second), and a slugging percentage of .649 (third).
He plays left field capably, without flamboyance or misstep. He doesn’t tumble and dive, like Coco, nor does he throw the ball in the stands to a fan after the second out, or duck into the scoreboard during a break in the action to take a leak, like Manny, his hirsute predecessor. His lifetime fielding average is an excellent .986.
Not every Bay at-bat is preceded by elaborate rituals (Youkalis), nor is his every success punctuated by wild gestures of elation (Papelbon). The man just goes about his business.
It’s unlikely that his slender body (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) has been enhanced by illegal substances. He’s durable. In the last four years, as a regular player, he has played in an average of 155 games per season, despite having bad knees (he had knee surgery in 2004). So far this season, he’s had just one day off.
He’s a good baserunner, though not extraordinarily fast. Since 2005, he has stolen 51 bases and been thrown out four times. He runs hard on every ball he hits, even the ones that go over the fence.
“How can you not like the guy?” his teammate, Justin Masterson said last year in Sports Illustrated. “He’s Canadian.”
Now 29, Jason Bay was born in a town about the size of Middlebury — Trail, British Columbia (population 7,237). Ten boys from Trail have played in the National Hockey League, but Bay is the only Major League Baseball player from there. He took his Trail team to the Little League World Series in 1990.
He may not even be the best ballplayer from Trail: his sister, Lauren Bay Regula, is one of the best softball pitchers in the world. She played for Canada in many international competitions, including the Olympics in 2004 and again in 2008, when Team Canada finished just off the pedestal in fourth place.
Their dad, David, was a fierce Red Sox fan, despite the distance from Boston to BC, and as a boy, Jason had posters of Yaz and Jim Rice on the wall of his bedroom. David Bay has worked for over 30 years at the Teck Comico smelter in Trail, which employs 1,500 of Trail’s citizens, and refines iron ore and zinc. All four of Jason’s grandparents worked in the refinery.
The high school in Trail didn’t have a ball team so Jason drove over the border to play ball in Idaho. He played college ball for two years at North Idaho College and then for two more years at Gonzaga in Washington state before being drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 22nd round in 2000. He was the 645th player drafted and received a whopping $1,000 signing bonus.
Jason Bay deserves to be the favorite player of Vermonters. After all, we’re almost Canadians, often mistaken for them (“Is Vermont in the United States?”). Bay even has history in Vermont. He played his first season of pro ball right here in Burlington for our own Vermont Expos. In 35 games in 2000, he batted .305.
No question he should be our local favorite too: He has a two-year-old daughter named Addison!
He was traded from the Expos to the Mets to the Padres to the Pirates before breaking into the Majors in 2004. For the Pirates that year, he exploded for 26 homers and 82 RBIs in 120 games and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. He was named to the NL All-Star team in 2005 and 2006, and he proudly represented Canada in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009.
Those of us Yankees in New England who abhor pretension and ostentation have a hero of our own now, a denizen of the northern climes, like us here in Vermont, who avoids the limelight and whose performance is consistency and competence personified.
“There’s not a whole lot of maintenance with him,” his manager, Terry Francona, told a Boston Globe reporter earlier this year. “Just kind of put him in the lineup and let him go.”
J-Bay comes to play, every day.