The Ballot: Jason Bay
Hitting: 145 points.
Fielding: -30 points
Baserunning: 10 points (he was a good baserunner)
Getting a shoutout at a Pearl Jam concert: 5 points
Grew up in tiny Trail, B.C., where hockey is everything: 5 points
Quit hockey at 11 because he didn’t want to wake up early to get ice time: 5 points
Fell apart after getting huge Mets contract: -20 points
Represented Canada in Little League World Series: 5 points
Super nice guy: 10 points
Race to 400 Hall of Fame points: 135 points
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You probably know that there are all sorts of unwritten rules in baseball. Don’t step on the foul line. Don’t steal bases when up five runs or more. Don’t glance back to steal the catcher’s sign. Ceremoniously hand over the baseball when you're a pitcher getting pulled from the game. And so on.
Jason Bay broke one of those unwritten rules, which is as follows:
Don’t play the decline period of your career for the New York Mets.
You might also call this the George Foster Rule. George Foster was a great hitter. It took him way too long to convince anyone of this — he made his major league debut at 20, but he didn’t get a regular job until he was 26, when he hit .300 and slugged .518 for the 1975 Big Red Machine.
Once he got that regular job, though, he was a masher. He hit .303 and slugged .569 from 1976 through '79, led the league in RBIs three times, was the only hitter in the 1970s and 1980s to hit 50 homers in a season, etc. Foster played like a Hall of Famer from 1975 to '81. His R2-400 score would look something like this:
Hitting: 241 points
Fielding: 10 points (he had no arm and was stuck in left field, but he was actually quite a good fielder in his prime)
Baserunning: -10 points
League leaders: 35 points for leading league in seven major categories (runs, RBIs three times, homers twice, slugging)
MVP bonus: 20 points.
Postseason bonus: 10 points. Made famous throw to send Game 6 into extra innings. Yankees couldn’t get him out during 1976 World Series.
General coolness for hitting 50 homers in a season: 5 points
Hall of Fame Race to 400: 311 points.
The trouble: Foster made the horrible mistake of playing his decline years with the New York Mets. To be fair, no one knew much about decline years then ... Foster went to the Mets at age 33, exactly when you would expect him to start falling off. And he did fall off — hit hit just .255 and slugged .421 in his four full seasons with the Mets. He popped enough home runs (he averaged 22 homers in those four seasons) to keep up a somewhat respectable appearance, but by then his defense was gone, and anyway he had come to represent overpaid awfulness to Mets fans, who can be (this might surprise you) sarcastic and caustic. They beat him up continuously.
The Mets released Foster in the middle of their magical 1986 season, and it’s fair to say that after those rough years, nobody saw Foster quite the same way.
And the rule since then has been: Don’t play your decline years for the New York Mets. Because if you do, your Hall of Fame essay will mostly end up being about George Foster.
[caption id="attachment_23849" align="aligncenter" width="435"] Bay's three years in New York were an unfortunate final act to a fine career.[/caption]
In a way, ANYONE getting to the big leagues is a miracle. But it was particularly a miracle for Bay. He grew up in a tiny Canadian hockey town called Trail, which is a seven-plus hour drive due East of Vancouver. Bay was always very funny talking about why he played baseball instead: EVERYONE in his town played hockey, and there was like one main hockey rink, so in order to get any ice time he would have had to get up at 5 a.m.
Bay decided that playing baseball was a better plan than getting up at 5 a.m.
He played college ball at North Idaho College and Gonzaga, and he’s obviously the best big leaguer to come out of either one of those schools. Well, he’s the only one to come out of North Idaho. He’s the only All-Star from Gonzaga, too, though there are some pretty good players, such as Mike Redmond and Lenn Sakata, who played there.
He was a 22nd-round pick by Montreal, probably because he was Canadian. Nobody expected anything, but he hit like crazy in the minor leagues and made himself into a prospect. Thing is, nobody trusted that he was REALLY a prospect, and so he was traded three times between March 2002 and August 2003 — Montreal to the Mets for Lou Collier, Mets to the Padres for the ubiquitous Steve Reed, Padres to the Pirates for Sluggin’ Brian Giles.
And for five years with Pittsburgh, Jason Bay was pretty much all that is good about baseball. He was limited defensively, but he played hard, he played every day, he was alert on the bases, he walked a ton, he hit with power, he treated everybody with respect, he was on everybody’s “great guy” list.
“They’ve lost a friend, a teammate, a brother,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said when the Pirates traded Bay to Boston. “He’s what we hope all future Pirates aspire to be, a real model.”
“I’ve always been happy here,” Bay said.
Bay basically replaced Manny Ramirez for Boston, and he was terrific for the 2009 Red Sox, hitting .267/.384/.537 with 36 homers, 103 runs and 119 RBIs; he got MVP votes. It was a peak moment. And, because he was a free agent, and because he was turning 31, and because it was quite likely that he was about to decline significantly, the George Foster trap was just waiting for him.
And he fell in the trap, signed a huge deal with the Mets, began to break down physically, and, well, you know where all that led. Unhappy times. Injuries. Strikeouts. Boos. In all, Bay hit .234/.318/.369 in what turned out to be part-time work for the Mets because of all the injuries. You wish for a better ending for a guy like Bay. It’s just the way things go when you break the George Foster Rule.