Bay’s up-and-down career comes to an end

Bay, a three-time all-star and the 2004 National League Rookie of the Year, finishes his career with 222 home runs, third among Canadians. (Mitchell Layton/Getty)

TORONTO – Jason Bay’s rapid ascent to stardom in the big-leagues was matched by an equally rapid decline that has him all but officially retired, a sad end to one of the top baseball careers ever enjoyed by a Canadian.

“I haven’t filed papers or anything yet, but I don’t really see a scenario where I would play this year or beyond, really,” the 35-year-old from Trail, B.C., told Saturday. “I had some offers, and an offer to play in Japan, actually, which could be fun for a life experience. I talked to Kevin Youkilis who’s doing it, but taking the whole family over there defeats the purpose of being at home and doing the family thing.

“The writing has been on the wall, I just haven’t made it official, per se. This is probably the end of the road.”

Bay, a three-time all-star and the 2004 National League Rookie of the Year, finishes his career with 222 home runs, third among Canadians all-time behind Larry Walker (383) and Matt Stairs (265). Justin Morneau is one back of Bay and will presumably move past his friend next season, but that won’t diminish his standing among Canucks.

Baseball Canada honoured Bay on Saturday during its annual awards banquet, making the longtime left-fielder the sixth inductee to its Wall of Excellence. The accolade offers a reminder of the type of elite, middle-of-the-order hitter Bay was at the beginning of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and for a season and a half with the Boston Red Sox.

Things started to go backwards for him after he signed a $66-million, four-year contract with the New York Mets, who last November agreed to terminate his contract a year early. Bay then signed with the Seattle Mariners, posting a .204/.298/.393 slash line with 11 homers in 68 games until his August release.

“I’ve been on the back-end side of the curve for a couple of years and have seen this coming,” said Bay. “I got a chance to play at home last year which was nice. I got let go and it ended up being a really good thing because I got to spend the latter part of the summer with my family, and notice that I didn’t miss baseball as much as I thought I would. That was the tell-tale sign for me; I told my wife it was a blessing in disguise, rather than getting let go in the off-season and wondering if I want to do it again.

“The decision gets made for you sometimes, and I’m actually pretty happy with it. The consolation of not playing is getting to be a dad. … It was time.”

Bay’s time with the Mets was marred by a pair of concussions around some sub-par play, making him a lightning rod for frustrated fans. Often described as a bust, he remains unsure why things changed so dramatically for him once he left the Red Sox as a free agent following a huge 2009 season, which included 36 home runs and a .921 OPS.

“I don’t really feel like the injuries depleted me to the point I couldn’t perform at a high level,” he said. “I’ve had the question a lot, and maybe that was just my time. I don’t know. I hate to leave it to chance, but it wasn’t anybody else’s fault but my own.

“The ballpark wasn’t a great fit, and it was really the first time I had struggled. If you haven’t struggled before, you just keep doing the same things you were doing to come out of it, now all of a sudden those things aren’t working, at some point you have to make a change – I made every change in the book – but I didn’t know what I was trying to change to. Everyone’s got an opinion, which is great, because you’re open to anything, but you’re chasing your tail getting nowhere and years go by.”

While his experience in Seattle, playing a veteran mentorship role, was a positive one, no longer being the player he was wore him down.

As he put it: “You can only keep telling yourself ‘I’m better than this,’ for so long. When you’re not doing it ultimately you have to look in the mirror and make a decision. I played in Seattle in a different role and I enjoyed that, it was different and it was fun, but I’m used to performing at a certain level and I can’t do it anymore. It’s a grim reality.”

The season and a half he spent with the Red Sox – he was acquired from the Pirates in the three-way trade that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers – included two trips to the post-season that rank among the highlights of his career.

He broke through with the Pirates after he was acquired from San Diego in a trade for Brian Giles and remains grateful to then-GM Dave Littlefield for giving him an opportunity, but most cherishes his time in Boston.

“I’d been in Pittsburgh for six years and we’d toiled towards the bottom – it was great to see what they did this year, good for the city – so it was nice for me to be with a contender overnight,” said Bay. “I got traded, it was a plane flight and boom, there was no easing in, it was trial by fire. Pittsburgh was good, they gave me a shot when nobody else would, really, but as far as baseball, my time in Boston was probably the best.”

Originally a 22nd round pick of the Montreal Expos in 2000, Bay certainly made the most of his chances during an unusual path to the big-leagues. He was traded by the Expos and Mets before he debuted in the majors with San Diego, and was then promptly moved to the Pirates.

Once in Pittsburgh, he put himself on the map with a pair of eight RBI games in his first two seasons, and ended up with 11 years in the majors, with a .266/.360/.481 slash line and 754 RBIs to go with his 222 home runs in 1,278 games.

“My road was not easily paved, there were a lot of stops and roundabouts,” said Bay. “I wouldn’t change it, that made me who I am, I’m very proud to be Canadian, very proud to be from Trail and represent them. That’s the biggest thing, getting to the majors and sustaining it. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do so. The accolades aside, it’s not easy to get there, harder to stay.

“I had a great career, it didn’t end as well as I wanted, most don’t, and it probably happened a little quicker than I wanted it to. But that’s the reality.”

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