Not only is Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jason Bay enduring the worst season of his major-league career at the plate, the B.C. native has also experienced tendinitis in his right knee for most of the campaign. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)
Q and A
Jason Bay takes it on the knee
Canadian outfielder gives candid take on patchy season
Last Updated Mon., Sept. 17, 2007
As Jason Bay prepares to miss another game with right-knee tendinitis, the Canadian outfielder reflects on a baseball season full of ups and downs.
"It's not a typical year for me but it's not a total disaster, either," Bay told CBCSports.ca by phone from Pittsburgh, Pa.
"It's been a learning year. In the long run, it'll make me a better player. You have to struggle some time."
Bay, 28, has endured the worst of his four full major-league seasons with the Pirates, hitting .252 in 139 games with 21 home runs and 83 runs batted in through Sept. 16.
When asked about his struggles in June and July when Bay averaged .200 with eight homers and 28 RBIs in 49 contests, the native of Trail, B.C., recalled one of the more trying times in his athletic career.
It was 2001 and Bay, a Montreal Expos draft pick the previous year, skipped low-A ball and reported to Clinton, Iowa, to play high-A ball for the Lumber Kings of the Midwest League.
"I was there for about a month and a half, and hit 160 before I was sent to low A [and the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League]," said Bay. "I was devastated. I thought my career was over.
"But things eventually clicked and I went on to win the Midwest batting title [with a .362 average]."
Bay toiled in the minors for two more seasons before he was traded from the San Diego Padres to Pittsburgh on Aug. 26, 2003. In 2004, Bay was named National League rookie of the year after hitting .282 with 26 home runs and 82 RBIs.
CBCSports.ca spoke with Bay about his injury woes, this year's midseason slump and the Pirates' struggles to attract big-name free agents.
Coming off surgery on your left knee, what did you find encouraging — mentally and physically — about your game as you left spring training in March?
The biggest thing is you want to leave healthy. The last thing you want to start the season is a nag here or there. When I left Florida, I probably wasn't 100 per cent because of the knee. It was more of a strength issue, getting into baseball shape. But it turned out good and the first couple of months went well [.314 average, eight homers and 39 RBIs]. Then I had a two- or three-month reminder that it's not an easy game. It's still the big leagues. It's still tough.
There was excitement surrounding the off-season acquisition of former Atlanta Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche. What made you feel that his addition to the lineup could make you a stronger player?
We never had a bonafied guy in the lineup. It was usually Bay, [Freddy] Sanchez and some other guys. Rochy had done it in the past [with a .285 batting average and 32 home runs in 2006]. We always had guys that could hit but they never proved it in the big leagues. Adding Adam changed the perception of our lineup.
You were hitting .314 through May, but quickly found yourself struggling at the plate to the point that your average dipped to .249. How confident are you that the slump in June and July coincided with the start of the soreness in your right knee?
I've declined to say that was a factor. The knee didn't affect me when I hit, only when I attempted to steal bases and the first two steps as I tried to get some drive running in the outfield. Maybe on some subconscious level, I was guarding it. The doctors told me it's tendinitis and there is no surgical option. Rest is the best thing. I can't do any more damage to it, so I play with some pain, tolerate it and I'll have to work at strengthening the joint around the knee in the off-season. There are no guarantees but this is something 100 million people deal with. I just don't have the luxury of being able to shut it down for two weeks to let it heal.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper has reported that Pirates management has discussed moving you from left field to right field, which is much less spacious at PNC Park. How much thought have you given on such a move?
It's been more the writers and newspapers kicking around that idea. Nobody has talked to me about it. There is some sense to it but the whole reason I've had a problem with the right knee is because of the left knee I hurt last year. I over-compensated and got overuse on the right leg. It doesn't matter where I play as long as I'm in the field.
Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto has said you'll look back some day on your performance in June and July and view it as a crucial stepping stone to your growth as a hitter. What do you learn about yourself and the game of baseball when you have to battle such adversity
I try to be the same guy. You learn about the character of a person when things are not going well. I don't want to walk around pouting and for the most part, I think I [achieved] that. In the first years, I would show up [at the ballpark] and put in a lot of extra work. You learn a lot more why things are going the way they are. When I wasn't hitting, I tried a new [batting] stance, everything I could because I wasn't comfortable. But after a while, you just revert back to what you know and what your body is telling you.
Since Aug. 9, you have hit only four home runs in 31 games. Have you simply been getting behind in the count or are pitchers getting the better of you with off-speed stuff?
I'm just not feeling comfortable in the [batter's] box. Even batting practice is tough. I'm just trying to get hits but it really sticks with me when I put pressure on myself. I start thinking about too many things. But I go home to a wife [Kristen] and 10-month-old daughter [Addison], and I'm dad. I try to forget about baseball for the rest of the night and keep battling the next day. Slumps happen to everyone now and then. I don't want to just sit back and say it happens. You try to battle through it. I haven't lost confidence that I'm a good hitter.
Pirates manager Jim Tracy has batted you anywhere from third to sixth in the lineup. Canadian Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins says he is happiest and most productive staying in a set position in the batting order. Where do you prefer to hit and with what players hitting in front and behind you?
At one time I thought it was a big deal for me, but I realized whether you're hitting fourth, fifth or sixth, it's all the same after the first inning. It's hard to discount what LaRoche and [Xavier] Nady have done. They have had good years, so it's nice to have them hitting in front or behind me. I think everyone would like to have a set position, but at the same time it's not like we're talking about the difference between second and ninth [in the batting order].
You signed a four-year contract in November 2005. What vision did former general manager Dave Littlefield have then for what he wanted the team to look like during the life of your deal?
He had a vision but with a lower payroll - the Pirates rank 27th among 30 teams this season at $48 million US - he had to work with a lot of young guys and was relying on them to do extraordinary things at the big-league level. It's tough to rely on just young guys. It's hard to ask guys who are 23, 24 and 25 years of age to be 10-year veterans. But at the end of the day, it's all about winning. Dave would have hoped to have done better.
Pirates principal owner Bob Nutting spoke recently of creating a "culture of success" that begins with the hiring of a team president and general manager. On Sept. 13, he named a new president, Frank Coonelly, who served for the last nine years as senior vice-president and general counsel for Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. What type of people should fill these positions?
I don't know a lot about what [general managers] are out there, but the Nuttings are very good business people. They are people that sit back and decide what they would like to do. You need to have good communication [between the front office and players]. It's important to have some type of rapport with the two sides.
Free agents Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa, Roberto Hernandez and Tony Armas didn't help the Pirates get over the hump the last two seasons. Is that enough to put more emphasis on drafting players or is it time to increase payroll to attract bigger-name players like Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter in the upcoming off-season?
I think every year even the New York Yankees would want to increase payroll. Sometimes it's about your scouting. Would I like us to spend more money? Sure. I think there are times this season when we played really good baseball and other times not. It's about consistency. We're not in over our heads at this level. I think we need to add one or two veterans to tie everything together.