Thursday, October 9, 2008
Red Sox just fine with 'Jason Being Jason'
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
BOSTON -- Life sure is simpler with Manny Ramirez gone. The Green Monster will no longer be treated like a Mass. Pike rest stop. Pine-tar helmet gunk has been purged from the dugout. And of course, any day that passes without the phrase "Manny being Manny" being uttered is a good day.
Jason Bay, Boston's new left fielder, is the quintessential low-maintenance guy. He runs out every ground ball as if it matters, is more comfortable as a cog than as a squeaky wheel, and seems perfectly content with his $6 million salary. He's about as serene as a British Columbia sunset.
Those attributes come as no surprise to Boston's front office, which did some exhaustive legwork on the fly before trading Ramirez to Los Angeles and plucking Bay from Pittsburgh as a replacement July 31.
"We obviously research guys that we're going to trade future Hall of Famers for," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
Still, nothing beats firsthand experience, and the Red Sox have learned a few things about Bay in the 10 weeks since consummating that three-way deal with the Pirates and Dodgers.
They've discovered that Bay can look extremely bad and very good in the same at-bat, swinging and missing at breaking pitches by a foot before composing himself and finding a way to hit the ball with authority. Bay posted a .370 on-base percentage in Boston and saw an average of 3.90 pitches per plate appearance, so he's in tune with the team mindset of making opposing pitchers work for their outs.
More important, he has a personality that seems tailor-made for big moments.
"You never know how a player is going to respond to a new league, a new clubhouse, a new atmosphere and playing in a pennant race for the first time," Epstein said. "I think the one thing we didn't realize about Jason is how well this guy knows himself. He knows his strengths and his limitations, and that type of player might have the ability to adjust a little easier to new circumstances.
"As a person, Jason never tried to do too much. He understands that he's sort of a grinder and an at-bat to at-bat focus guy. He didn't try to be Manny Ramirez or do anything he wasn't capable of doing."
As the Red Sox and Dodgers compete for spots in the World Series, Ramirez and Bay are destined to be linked like Henry Paulson and home mortgage defaults. So it's only natural that Boston fans will follow Ramirez from afar and grind their teeth when they read about Manny and his suddenly aggressive baserunning and the sense of joie de vivre he's brought to the Los Angeles clubhouse. Never mind that Ramirez hit .396 in 53 games in Dodger Blue and is likely to receive some National League MVP support.
Jason Bay hit .412 with two homers to lead the Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
Amid all those dreadlock-wearing Manny copycats and No. 99 jersey sales in the Dodgers' gift shop, the deal hasn't exactly been a bust from Boston's end. New England's late-season Bay Watch has been replete with emotional peaks and memorable moments, and a few are worth recounting as Boston prepares to play Tampa Bay in the American League Championship Series opener Friday at Tropicana Field:
In his Red Sox debut, Bay received a standing ovation from the Fenway Park crowd as he stepped to the plate for the first time. He later tripled in the 12th inning and scored on a Jed Lowrie single to give Boston a 2-1 victory over Oakland. Talk about an omen.
Bay batted .400 (12-for-30) out of the chute and hit safely in 13 of his first 14 games with Boston. The Red Sox went 10-4 in that stretch and 34-19 overall after acquiring Bay from Pittsburgh. The Dodgers, in contrast, posted a 30-24 record after picking up Ramirez.
While no MVP award exists in the division series, Bay would have been a leading candidate. He hit a two-run homer off John Lackey in Game 1, added a three-run shot off Ervin Santana in Game 2, and doubled and scored the winning run on a Lowrie single in the ninth inning of the series finale.
During the postgame hysteria in the Boston clubhouse late Monday night, Bay found time to duck away from reporters and plant a hug and a kiss on his 22-month-old daughter, Addison. He wore a bandage on his left hand to protect a minor spike wound suffered during his climactic head-first slide.
Bay half-jokingly observed that the cut only hurt when he spilled champagne on it.
"I'm such a wimp," Bay said. "But my buddies back home wouldn't let me live it down if I let this bother me."
Back home is Western Canada, where Bay survived the usual obstacles of limited playing time and a lack of exposure to make it in the pros. He played his college ball at Gonzaga University, and signed with Montreal for $1,000 as a 22nd-round draft pick in 2000.
From the day I got here, these guys treated me like I'd been here five years -- busting my chops out of the gate, which is what you do in baseball. It's been an easy transition.
Bay bounced from Montreal to the New York Mets to San Diego before landing in Pittsburgh, where he averaged 28 homers and 94 RBIs in his first four seasons. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, eclipsed Mike Redmond, Lenn Sakata and Bo Hart as the most accomplished Gonzaga Bulldog in the majors, and even managed to outdo his sister Lauren, a two-time Olympic softball player for Canada.
But once it became clear that Bay's service time and economic trajectory weren't in sync with Pittsburgh's umpteenth rebuilding plan, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington traded him for third baseman Andy LaRoche, outfielder Brandon Moss and pitchers Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris.
Before Bay's arrival in Boston, he received a big endorsement from Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey, a fellow member of the 2006 Pirates club.
"I told everybody here, 'This guy is a great teammate. He goes to the post every day. He plays hard, and he's going to give you everything he has,'" Casey said. "He was a diamond-in-the-rough kind of guy -- a guy nobody knew about just because he was in Pittsburgh. But if you look at the numbers he put up every year, you're like, 'This guy would be a stud anyplace else.'"
Bay credits his quick adjustment to Boston to the welcoming atmosphere in the clubhouse. He recently spoke with Red Sox catcher David Ross, and they compared notes on how comfortable they both felt from the outset. Between Dustin Pedroia's constant chatter and the professionalism of Mike Lowell, David Ortiz and others, it's hard not to blend into the mix.
"From the day I got here, these guys treated me like I'd been here five years -- busting my chops out of the gate, which is what you do in baseball," Bay said. "It's been an easy transition."
Nearly an hour after the Red Sox beat the Angels in the Division Series, Bay stood in the Fenway Park infield with his family and teammates and basked in the afterglow. Moments like this help explain why Kevin Millar, Bronson Arroyo and other former Red Sox maintain that nothing can ever match their days in Boston on the pure exhilaration scale.
"I know that Red Sox Nation is crazy," Bay said. "Everybody tells me there are few places like Boston when you do stuff like this. I guess I'm being spoiled right now."
Celebrations are a two-way street, of course, and Red Sox fans are perfectly content with Jason being Jason. Thus far, Boston's left fielder is giving every bit as good as he gets.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.