Aug. 1, 2008
By Alan Siegel
The Eagle Tribune
Trail, a city of 7,237 nestled in the mountains of British Columbia, takes care of its athletes. The Home of Champions monument, located on Farwell St., is covered with notable names.
Etched among NHL players such as Adam Deadmarsh, Ray Ferraro and Dallas Drake, is Jason Bay. The newest member of the Boston Red Sox is the least likely sports hero Trail has ever produced.
"It's the biggest and best feat by far for any of us," said Edmonton Oilers center Shawn Horcoff, Bay's childhood friend. "I know what it takes to make the NHL. To make the majors from Canada? That's impressive."
Despite the fact that he's a Yankees fan, Horcoff is thrilled.
"I'm so happy for him," he said. "He liked his time in Pittsburgh. He just wants to win."
To those who know him best, the 29-year-old left fielder is quiet, unassuming and determined. Steve Hertz, his coach at Gonzaga University, said Bay is ready to step in for Manny Ramirez.
"I think it's great he's going to get a chance to play on a team that has some people to hit in front of him," Hertz said. "I don't think we've seen the best of Jason Bay."
Bay, a two-time All-Star who hit .282 with 64 RBIs, 22 home runs and an on-base percentage of .375 for the last-place Pirates this season, is not a complainer.
"He was really committed to Pittsburgh," Hertz said. "He didn't try to whine out of it. He's just not made up that way. His dad would probably kick his (expletive) if he did that. Or his sister. One of the two. And me."
Lauren Bay Regula was no pushover. Two years younger than Jason, she played softball at Oklahoma State, pitched on the 2004 Canadian Olympic team and went 17-2 in two seasons in the National Pro Fastpitch league. She will be representing her country again in Beijing this summer.
Somehow, the talented Bay siblings stayed grounded over the years.
"He was always a level-headed guy," Horcoff said of Jason, who in 1990, led Canadian champion Trail to its fifth Little League World Series appearance. "He never really strives for the spotlight. It's just a credit to him. He has that quiet confidence about him."
But even after starring at J.L. Crowe Secondary School, big-time college programs weren't biting. Trail, located about 51/2 miles from the British Columbia-Washington border, couldn't possibly have a big fish.
"It is," Hertz reminds you, "a tiny little place."
Without options, Bay enrolled at North Idaho Community College in Coeur D'Alene. In 1998, the sophomore set school records with a .447 average and 21 homers. Word traveled fast.
"Every where we went," Hertz said, "we kept hearing about this guy Bay who hit a bunch of home runs."
'I think he can play this game for a living'
So Hertz, along with then-assistant coach Mark Machtolf, drove 30 miles in snow from Spokane, Wash. to Coeur D'Alene.
In a small gymnasium batting cage, they watched Bay hit.
"The kid's got your classic power swing," Hertz told Machtolf on the ride back. "What do you think?"
"The ball just jumps off his bat," he said. "I think he can play this game for a living."
Machtolf, who took over from Hertz in 2003, looked like a genius. In 1999, Bay hit .360 with 20 homers and 74 RBIs. In 2000, he hit .388 to win the West Coast Conference batting title.
Still, Bay's ego didn't match his gaudy statistics. Current Gonzaga assistant coach Danny Evans, who played a season with Bay, first met him at a team barbecue in the fall of 1999.
"I didn't even know that it was him," Evans, then a freshman, said. "I thought he was new. He was kind of quiet. I finally figured out, 'this must be Bay.' You'd never know how good he was."
Evans found out soon enough, at the season's first practice. Steve Bennett, a hard-throwing righty who reached the Double-A level in the Mets organization and is now Gonzaga's pitching coach, was Bay's adversary that day.
After putting Bay in an 0-2 hole, Bennett uncorked a high fastball. Bay, Evans recalls, flinched but didn't swing. Bay hit the next pitch, a hard slider away, over the scoreboard for an opposite-field homer.
"This kid's special here," Evans said to himself. "It was the first at-bat of his I ever saw. The game was easier for him."
As serious as Bay was about the game, he wasn't afraid to let loose. He and five teammates lived in "The 303", a house near campus named for its street address. In the backyard, they built a Wiffle ball field, complete with lights, bleachers, walls (with dimensions painted on) and statistics.
"They'd go to school, go to practice and come home and play Wiffle ball," Hertz said. "Their girlfriends would come over to root for them."
When diamond maintenance was necessary, they got creative.
"I remember going to practice one day, we had to do some work on the mound," Hertz said. "I couldn't find the wheel barrow. Now I'm getting mad, yelling out, 'Bay, where the hell is the wheel barrow?' He just took off running to his car and drove back to The 303."
A few minutes later, Bay returned, wheel barrow in tow. No harm, no foul, Hertz said. At the end of his senior season, Bay gave Hertz a framed picture of "The 303" boys dressed up in suits and ties.
"That's the kind of sense of humor he had," Hertz said.
Finding his way
What happened next wasn't so funny.
Bay, who went undrafted in 1999, stayed on the board a long time in 2000; the Montreal Expos eventually selected him in the 22nd round. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound outfielder may not have been a bonus baby, but he helped put Gonzaga baseball on the map.
"Bay's kind of opened the door for a lot of guys," Evans said.
He made an immediate impact at the minor-league level.
In 2001, he hit .369 with a .449 OBP for Class-A Clinton of the Midwest League. In March 2002, the Expos traded him to the Mets. At the trade deadline that year, the Mets sent him to San Diego, where he made his major league debut on May 23, 2003. Two days later an Elmer Dessens pitch broke his wrist.
In August, after he had successfully rehabbed the injury, San Diego sent him, along with Oliver Perez and Cory Stewart, to Pittsburgh for Brian Giles.
Finally, he had a home.
He won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2004 (.282, .358 OBP, 82 RBIs, 25 HR) and had big years in 2005 (.306, .402 OBP, 32 HR, 101 RBIs) and 2006 (.286, .396 OBP, 35 HR, 109 RBIs) before struggling in 2007 (.247, .327 OBP, 21 HR, 84 RBIs).
This year, he's bounced back. That bodes well for Boston.
"He's a blue-collar guy," Evans said. "He goes out and takes care of business. You don't hear from him much."
For better or worse, Bay is nothing like the man he replaced.
"He's the antithesis of Manny," Hertz said.
It's time to see what the kid from Trail can do here, his new Home of Champions.