From now until the start of the 2015 West Coast Conference Basketball Championships, #WCChoops columnist John Crumpacker will be profiling the WCC Hall of Honor Class of 2015. Batting leadoff is former Gonzaga standout and 2004 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Bay.
Growing up in a small town in British Columbia with a love for baseball, not hockey, Jason Bay never harbored any dreams of one day playing in the Major Leagues. His dream was to simply play again the next day.
That simple outlook took Bay from Trail, B.C. (home of the largest smelter of lead and zinc), to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and North Idaho College ("The baseball program is now defunct.") to Spokane, Wa., and Gonzaga and, what do you know? the Major Leagues.
"I didn't know any different. I just kept playing baseball,'' said Bay, now 36 and retired following an 11-year career in the bigs, most notably with Pittsburgh, Boston and the New York Mets. "I got drafted. I was running the baseball thing until the end of the line. I was going to keep playing until they said we don't need you anymore.''
Bay is being honored next month as Gonzaga's 2015 representative to the West Coast Conference's Hall of Honor. The ceremony will take place on Saturday, March 7 at the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas in conjunction with the WCC men's and women's basketball tournament.
The 10 members of the 2015 class, one from each member institution, will be feted at a brunch to be held in the Mardi Gras Ballroom at the hotel and later during a halftime ceremony at the tournament.
"It's humbling and exciting,'' Bay said. "There's a storied history with most of the schools in the conference. There's a lot of people to choose from. I'm honored to be one of them.''
To further his baseball career, Bay knew he would have to play in the U.S. The logical choice for someone at first base who never looked beyond second until he got there was North Idaho College in the state's panhandle, not far from his home in western B.C.
After two years at North Idaho, Bay moved on to the comparatively big city of Spokane to play for coach Steve Hertz at Gonzaga. In the 1999 and 2000 seasons the hustling center fielder batted .374 and hit 35 home runs. Both totals rank among the top 10 in school history; his 20 home runs in '99 rank third and his 15 a year later is fifth.
"There wasn't much he couldn't do,'' Hertz said. "With that kind of speed and power, he had a lot of things going well for him. He was terrific for us. He always had a lot of power. He hit around .375 both years and had 70, 75 RBIs. He was a stats-filler and could really run. He was a stolen-base guy also.''
Given all that, did Hertz think he was coaching a future big leaguer?
"I did,'' said Hertz, head coach of Gonzaga's baseball program from 1981-2003. "I thought he had a chance. In baseball you never know but what couldn't he do? He could hit for power, hit for average. In the big leagues he did it as well.''
As he progressed in the sport to all-conference status in 1999 and 2000, Bay still didn't allow himself to dream of earning big-league paychecks.
"The Major Leagues was a pipe dream,'' he said. "I didn't ever think it was actually going to happen.''
With his ability to run, steal bases, hit and hit for both power and average, Bay ended up playing in 1,278 Major League games with 1,200 hits and 222 home runs, most ever for a Gonzaga product. He was National League Rookie of the Year in 2004 with Pittsburgh and was named to the All-Star Game three times, two with the Pirates and once with Boston.
Bay said he enjoyed his time at Gonzaga, both for the baseball and the opportunity to live in a place considered a big city compared to where he came from. He remains in contact with Hertz, the coach who saw Major League potential in his center fielder.
"I loved it in Spokane,'' Bay said. "When you're in Trail and want to go shopping, Spokane is the closest big city. It was a big city to me without the traffic and a lot of things that come with big cities. It was close enough to home where my family could come down and visit if they wanted.''
At Gonzaga, Bay played on teams "that weren't as good as they are now. We were probably about a .500 team. Definitely out-gunned by most of the California schools. A lot of things at the university have gotten a lot better, and basketball is the reason.''
Which makes Bay's addition to the WCC's Hall of Honor all the better for this devoted alum. He'll get to watch his Zags make an expected run to the conference championship game on March 10 on the way to the NCAA Tournament.
"I think this is going to be the year to make some noise,'' he said. "That's what everybody is waiting for.''
Bay now lives in the biggest city in the Northwest, Seattle, with his wife Kristen and their three children, daughters Addison, 8, and Evelyn, 6, and son Garrett, 3. Go ahead and call Bay "Mr. Mom.'' He doesn't mind.
"Those three names I gave you (his children) occupy most of my time,'' he said. I spent a lot of time being gone for baseball. Now that I have some time, I coach a lot of T-ball and soccer. I spend a lot of time being a chauffeur. I'm kind of enjoying it. I get a chance to be around. It's pretty cool.''
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.