Jason Bay, who grew up in Trail, B.C., played at Gonzaga and lives now in Kirkland, had the Mariners high on his list, but signed as a free agent with the New York Mets.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Some assumed Jason Bay would wind up back in Boston, because the Red Sox couldn’t, and wouldn’t, let a bat like that get away. No matter what issues they had with his health and his glove.
Even more assumed Bay would wind up in Seattle, because not only did the Mariners need a slugger and a left fielder, they had the home-field advantage: Bay is from Trail, B.C., attended Gonzaga and lives in Kirkland.
But Bay had a surprise: He wound up with the New York Mets, confounding those who assumed the low-key Canadian would never voluntarily cast his lot in New York.
Bay signed a four-year, $66 million contract that was ironed out over Christmas. He brings much-needed stability to a team that has careened out of control in recent years.
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Bay on Monday seemed very much at ease in a clubhouse cluttered both with media and high-profile players — as was the case in Boston, where he thrived during his season-plus with the Red Sox.
Bay confirmed he “absolutely” had the Mariners high on his list as he headed into his first crack at free agency. But he said the M’s never pushed hard enough to pre-empt the aggressive Mets when they swooped in for the kill.
“The Mariners would have been a natural fit,” said Bay. “They had said they were interested, and they had a few other moves to make first. Ultimately, nothing ever materialized.
“Seattle was kind of there the whole time, but never really anything super formal. It was always, ‘Hey, keep us in mind,’ but nothing formal. There was some mutual interest, but once the Mets came heavy, we got it done in two days.”
Bay said he went into the process open-minded, not wedded to playing at home or returning to the team he had helped lead into two playoffs.
“I mean, I get to do this one time in my life,” he said. “If I’m at the end of my career and I want to play on a team close to home, or this team or that team, I think it makes a difference. But when I’m in the middle of my career, I couldn’t limit myself geographically.
“Seattle’s going to be my home, regardless. When this is over, I’ll be back there. But I definitely couldn’t limit myself to just having to say I want to play in one spot, whether it be Seattle or any place else.”
Whether the Mariners will regret not making a stronger play for Bay remains to be seen. For all the exciting moves they made this winter, they still find themselves with a potential hole in the middle of their order. Bay led all American League outfielders last year with a .537 slugging percentage, and has hit at least 30 homers in five of the past six years.
Critics will counter that Bay’s defense does not hold up to the high standards the Mariners are seeking, and that at age 31, with his declining years ahead, Bay wasn’t a prudent long-term investment.
To the defensive doubters, Bay says, “I understand they have metrics for everything now. Some paint me in a good light, some not so good. I’m comfortable with the player I am. I know I’m not a Gold Glover out there. I have no illusions that I am. But I’m definitely not a liability. I feel I get to the balls I’m supposed to. I get the ball in.
“For the things I can’t do, I try to make up with the things I can do. And I understand that. At the end of the day, I definitely don’t think I’m a phenomenal outfielder, but I still think I’m more than adequate. I don’t think I’m going to hurt a team out there, put it that way.”
And then there were the health concerns, emanating primarily from the Red Sox and squashing his chances of returning to Boston. Peter Gammons of New England Sports Network broke the story that Bay and the Red Sox had agreed to a four-year, $60 million extension last July, only to have the Sox pull the offer over concerns about Bay’s knees and shoulders.
That was news to Bay, who still doesn’t believe he has any health issues. He says that subsequent exams from other doctors didn’t find any problems — including the Mets’ physicians, who cleared him to be signed.
The Red Sox reportedly made a requirement of their extension offer that Bay agree to have knee surgery after the 2009 season. He refused. The Red Sox later backed off that demand, according to published reports.
At the winter meetings in December, according to The Boston Herald, the Red Sox put forward a new offer: three years guaranteed, plus a fourth year that could be voided if Bay spent a certain amount of time on the disabled list due to pre-existing conditions identified by the Red Sox. J.D. Drew and John Lackey agreed to such provisions.
But not Bay, who has played in 150 or more games in five of the past six seasons — and in the odd season out, 2007, he played in 145.
“The health issues were another thing I had to overcome, with everyone’s opinions,” he said. “It kind of bothered me that I go out there X amount of times per year, and all of a sudden I’m being told, ‘But you are hurt.’
“I said, ‘Well, no, I’m not.’ I see three other medical professionals that disagree. I saw these guys (the Mets) and they said, ‘You look fine.’ Great, because I feel fine. It worked out.”
Bay obviously has a strong affinity for the Northwest. While playing youth baseball in Trail, his American Legion team had no nearby opponents so it was placed in an Idaho district.
“It was us and Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene, Kellogg, teams like that,” he said, smiling. “They’d come up and play us, we’d go play them. That was our league. I spent most of my growing-up natural baseball life in Washington and Idaho.”
So was there disappointment when the Mariners never stepped up? He shakes his head.
“Would I have like to have played there? Yeah. But I would have liked to have played in three or four other places as well — this being one of them,” he said.
“Like I keep telling people, I had a list of teams. There were teams on there for different reasons. Seattle was on there, definitely. Geographically. But I guess you could say, it is what it is.
“I’m happy I ended up here. So I’m not disappointed, no. Honestly, it didn’t really cross my mind. I mean, I thought there was a chance, but once this started picking up here with the Mets, I never really thought I’d be going anyplace else.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org