PITTSBURGH — Jason Bay stood on the infield grass at PNC Park looking at the breathtaking backdrop behind the outfield wall — the re-invented skyline of Pittsburgh’s downtown rising from beyond the Allegheny River with the Roberto Clemente Bridge seemingly connecting it all.
“In a lot of aspects, nothing has changed,” he said. “It still feels like I could have walked down the hallway and just kept going to the home clubhouse. But I’m five years removed from here. And it’s obviously a different progression in my career.”
Pittsburgh was the place where the former Gonzaga standout’s baseball career truly took off. He went from promising prospect acquired in a trade to an All-Star in a Pirates uniform in little more than two seasons.
His success in Pittsburgh led to a trade to Boston, where more success followed. And that production with the Red Sox earned him a $66 million contract with the New York Mets in 2010.
What followed were three well-documented years of frustration, disappointment and failed expectations that necessitated an amicable departure from New York after the 2012 season.
The past few days, he was back in Pittsburgh wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform as a part-time player. He had to fight to make the team in spring training and is trying to earn daily playing time in hopes of prolonging a career that seemed to be ending prematurely.
“I still feel in a lot of aspects, I am that kid,” he said of his first years with the Pirates. “I’m still trying to figure out a lot of things I was trying to figure out then.”
For fans in Pittsburgh, who remembered what a dominant player Bay was in a Pirates uniform, it had to seem like such a fall from success.
Bay, always honest and self-aware, doesn’t look at it that way. It’s not a fall. It’s just baseball. There were injuries and bad luck that sidetracked and slowed him, but he won’t use them as an excuse.
“At this stage in my career, it’s a good place to be,” he said. “When I’m done playing, it will be a better time to reflect more on everything that is happened.”
Bay, 34, hopes that won’t be anytime soon. He signed with the Mariners in the offseason just looking for a chance to play and prove himself.
The Mariners have given him that chance. He made the team out of spring training mostly as a part-time starter and a bench player. But one of the reasons he made the team over Casper Wells was on the premise that if the Mariners again lost Franklin Gutierrez to the disabled list, Bay would be a better offensive producer than Wells if called on to play five days a week.
And of course, that happened.
Gutierrez went on the disabled list because of a strained hamstring, and Bay has become the de facto left fielder while Raul Ibañez has struggled.
Bay’s playing time wasn’t completely by process of elimination. He has earned it by playing well.
“If I’m playing, it’s probably because I deserve to be,” he said. “And if I’m not, then that’s on me.”
Bay’s attitude has impressed Mariners manager Eric Wedge.
“He’s been very consistent since Day One, even since meeting him this winter,” Wedge said. “He’s been a very even-keeled guy. He knows himself well. He knows the game well, and he understands why he is or isn’t playing.”
His numbers aren’t eye-popping. He’s hitting .243 this season, but since Gutierrez was injured, Bay is hitting .294 (10-for-34) in 11 games with two doubles, two homers and seven RBI. He also has walked six times for an on-base percentage of .390.
Wedge thinks the numbers could get better.
“It’s still in there,” he said. “The bat speed is still in there. The strength is still in there. He’s in great shape. That’s been the biggest difference for him, and it’s allowed him to be more consistent for us and to get big hits for us.”
Bay also made a few adjustments to his approach at the plate to maintain that bat speed in case he wasn’t playing every day. He has cut down on the movement to initiate the swing. The trigger to the swing is less complicated.
“It was a conscious mindset that because you aren’t in there every day, there was a need to eliminate some things,” he said. “If there are five steps to starting it, maybe keep one and two, and eliminate a few things because more things can go wrong. When you are in there all the time, it’s easier to maintain it. When you are not, it’s harder to create that feeling. You hear all the time, simplify and do less. It’s easier said than done. I got some quick results with it, and it’s kind of a build from there.”
With Gutierrez’s return still weeks away and no one pushing for playing time in Triple-A Tacoma, Bay likely will play the majority of games in left field for the foreseeable future.
“Wedge has been pretty good to those of us who don’t play every day, to say, ‘Hey, you’ll be in there tomorrow or the next day,’ ” Bay said. “The mindset is different. When you play all the time, you come in every day knowing you are playing and prepare the same way. It’s a little easier getting ready.”
Baseball is a little easier for Bay right now. There are no lingering questions about expectations. There have been no injuries. He just goes out to play and has fun.
It also helps that on home games, he goes to his own home and family in Kirkland. He gets to drive his kids to school in the morning.
“The little things of the normal life have been big,” he said. “It’s something that baseball players don’t always get to experience. And I really look forward to it each day.”