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Long way home

Bay is happy to finally be in this position

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By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / April 6, 2009
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The smelter in Trail, British Columbia, rises over the town's streams and green rolling hills and hovers above its 7,500 citizens, 1,500 of whom it employs. It refines as much lead and zinc as any factory on the planet. "It's the only reason that the town exists," Jason Bay said.

The smelter accepted Bay's application for a summer job following his senior year of college. On June 7, 2000, the first day of Major League Baseball's draft, that seemed like a good and necessary thing. The draft's opening 20 rounds elapsed. Six-hundred and ten players were chosen. Bay was not. He thought, "Maybe I'm just not good enough." To make his living, Bay assumed, he would wear overalls and shovel slag into a kiln.

How many ballplayers can claim this as their career launching point, let alone one who ascends to the uniquely focal position Bay now occupies? Weather permitting, Bay will trot to Fenway Park's left field shortly after 2 p.m. today, the first Opening Day since 2001 a Red Sox player other than Manny Ramírez will inhabit left. The notion of playing in a Hall of Fame slugger's wake, in the three months Bay spent here last season and now, has preoccupied everyone save Bay himself, who presses forward with the same stoicism that steeled him on his improbable path from Trail to the major leagues.

The trade at last year's deadline that brought Bay from Pittsburgh to Boston never daunted Bay, because he had built a career on his ability to discard failure and adapt to testing conditions. The Montreal Expos chose him in the 22d round. Teams traded him three times before he became established in the major leagues. The draft was not the last time he considered a career other than baseball.

"There were times along the way," said his mother, Kelly Bay, "where he was thinking, 'I'm going to walk away gracefully before they kick me out.' "

How many players start their careers at North Idaho College? After high school, Bay wanted to keep playing baseball. Scouts didn't attend the American Legion and Babe Ruth games Bay played in, and NIC was the first junior college team that would take him.

Bay played at Gonzaga for two seasons after his time at North Idaho, and he excelled in the West Coast Conference, a league that produces a few elite prospects each year. He figured scouts had noticed. Looking back, Bay realizes he was naïve; he didn't bother talking with scouts or filling out many evaluation cards.

On the second day of the draft, Bay went fishing by himself. "He disappeared for a while," said his sister, Lauren. After the draft's first day, he wondered if any teams even knew who he was.

The Expos, with the 645th selection, finally offered relief. Bay's father informed their neighbor, the woman responsible for hiring at Teck Cominco, that Jason would be heading south to play baseball. "They gave me $1,000 for a signing bonus and a plane ticket and said, 'Here you go,' " Bay said.

Bay arrived late with his short-season high Single A team because of a visa issue. Few people in the organization had seen him play and his scouting report was sparse and vague. "He came with absolutely no fanfare," said Tim Leiper, Bay's first manager in the minors.

Four outfield prospects blocked his way when he got there, but when one of them was injured, Bay settled into a rotation. He carried the momentum to spring training the next season. Leiper still never has seen anyone, from the minors or majors, so utterly destroy spring training pitching.

"I was Babe Ruth," Bay said. "I was like, 'Jeez, I'm not this good.' "

The Expos, at Leiper's urging, decided Bay would begin his career with a high-A affiliate in Jupiter, Fla. From the beginning, it was a disaster. His swing, so perfect in spring, fell apart. Bay struck out 26 times in 123 at-bats. He batted .195 in 38 games.

The Expos demoted Bay to low-A Clinton, "and I stunk even worse," he said. In his first game, he struck out in all four at-bats. His girlfriend Kristen, whom he later would marry, had just moved to stay with him. He was surrounded by players who had come straight out of high school. He sensed the organization's incentive to keep him wane - why, he figured, would they waste time and money on a 22-year-old who couldn't play at the game's lowest rung? Bay called his father.

"I'm thinking about just packing it in," Bay said.

David Bay asked why.

"Because they're going to release me," Bay said. "I mean, I'm terrible."

David helped convince him to stay - he was already there, so he might as well finish out the year. Bay persevered, instilled with his hometown's blue-collar ethics.

The Teck Cominco smelter in Trail is one of the world's largest refiners of raw materials, responsible for turning the truckloads of lead and zinc from mines in northern Alberta into commodities. The smelter supplied so much steady work that Trail blossomed around it.

Italian immigrants poured in and settled, including Kelly Bay's parents. She was the first one in her family born in Canada. David Bay moved with his parents to Trail at 6. All four of their parents worked at Teck Cominco. They met in high school and married shortly thereafter.

The smelter employs roughly 1,500 people, and David Bay guesses that he knows 1,400 of them. He has worked there for 32 years, since a week after he graduated high school. He worked seven-day weeks, day shifts, and night shifts, like everyone else. He has a desk job now, but he still wears overalls and a hard hat to work.

"It's become the essence of the community," Kelly Bay said.

And so a slump was not going to make Bay quit. A few days after the talk with his father, Bay knocked a couple hits. His swing started feeling good again. By the season's final day, Bay led the league in hitting, but he needed four at-bats to qualify. He took five. Bay finished the season at .362 and won the Midwest League batting title.

Dealing with trades
Bay had found comfort and felt a part of the team. Several of his close friends from Clinton would be promoted with him to Vermont, another high-A team, to start the 2002 season. Within a month, the Expos traded Bay to the Mets.

The Mets promoted him to Double A quickly. He found comfort again. On the day of the trade deadline, he was traded again, this time to the Padres. He had lasted less than four months with the Mets.

Bay reported to Double A in Mobile, Ala. The Padres allowed Bay three nights in a hotel before he needed to find his own living arrangements. Bay was broke. During his first three days, he asked several teammates for help, but he was too reserved to fully detail his desperation. They said they couldn't help. (Some of them, Bay found out later, were lying.)

On his fourth day in Mobile, a home game, Bay carried a suitcase into the clubhouse. His manager asked him what he was doing.

"I'm sleeping here," Bay said. On the clubhouse couch, he meant.

A prospect named Tagg Bozied intervened and invited Bay to become his fifth roommate. Bay thrived in Mobile. However, he was traded again, this time to the Pirates, in August 2003. The next season, Bay won Rookie of the Year. He made the All-Star Game in consecutive seasons after that. After the 2005 season, Bay signed a four-year, $18.25 million contract. He had become one of the sport's best players.

"I think the whole experience that I had - being drafted in the 22d round, and then getting traded four times, all that stuff - has a huge part in the baseball player I am, the person I am, all that stuff," Bay said. "It definitely wasn't the straight line to the big leagues. It wasn't the, 'If you want to go to the big leagues, this is how you get there.' But I wouldn't change it for anything."

Father an influence
While Jason grew up, David Bay coached the Trail's Babe Ruth team. As a 7-year-old, Bay followed David to practices and took fly balls and played catch, blending in with kids nearly twice his age. He watched his father handle players who chucked equipment or threw tantrums on the field.

"They'd be on the bench for about a month," David Bay said. "I just didn't accept that."

David coached Jason the same way. When he was 11, Bay pouted in the outfield after he dropped a fly ball. David pulled him in the middle of the inning. Striking out still enraged Bay and, during a game when he was 14, Bay slammed his helmet on the ground in the batter's box.

His father sat him down in the dugout. David told Jason, "When you do stuff that makes you look bad, it reflects on me. That's unacceptable." Bay never threw his helmet again. Even now, when he watches his son on TV, David Bay sometimes wishes Jason would reveal more emotion after a strikeout.

"I kind of took that to heart," Bay said. "A lot of people say it's almost like I'm stoic. Just kind of emotionless. It's not meant to be that way. It's just, that's the way it's always been. Whether I'm doing really good or really bad, I try to keep the same look, the same demeanor, be the same teammate."

Bay's attitude meshed perfectly with the Red Sox clubhouse, where he fit in "instantly," third baseman Mike Lowell said. Bay surprised some teammates this spring when he asked how to get around the Sox' spring training complex. "They kind of looked at me like, 'Oh, I forgot you haven't been in spring training,' " Bay said. It felt like he had been part of the team for years.

"There's not a whole lot of maintenance with him," manager Terry Francona said. "Just kind of put him in the lineup and let him go."

Bay's background surfaced during Game 1 of last year's American League Division Series against the Angels, the most important game of his life at that point. John Lackey struck out Bay in his first two at-bats, such feeble attempts that, watching from home in Trail, David Bay almost turned off his television.

But Bay, stone-faced, strode back to the dugout and calmly placed his bat in the rack. In his third at-bat, Bay's sudden, simple swing launched a home run to left, driving in the two runs that eventually would win the game.

"He can look bad with the best of them," Kelly Bay said. "I think he has the ability to recognize he got totally fooled or he looked bad and then make some adjustments, not necessarily dwell on the fact that he looked bad."

Pulling on his Sox
Last year's trade deadline tested Bay's nonchalance. Bay loved Pittsburgh, which with its rivers and factories reminded him of a supersized Trail. Kristen was seven months pregnant with their second child.

The Pirates prepped for a trip to Chicago. Bay had packed his bag and put it on the bus. He sat in front of his locker and held his dormant cellphone as 4 p.m. came. Relief washed over him. Teammates slapped him on the back and said, "Congrats. You missed it."

Bay walked to the training room, and minutes later, manager John Russell called him into his office. "Really?" Bay asked. Russell pursed his lips and nodded.

Bay flew into Boston the next morning. When Bay walked off the plane at 11, an announcement blared: "Bags from this flight will be available at carousel 5. And welcome to Red Sox Nation, Jason Bay." The baggage claim erupted. Travelers asked for autographs and offered Bay help with his bags. On the ride to Fenway, Bay phoned his parents and told them, "I'm not in Pittsburgh anymore."

David Bay grew up a Red Sox fan. He worshiped Yaz and Dewey. At Bay's wedding, David made a speech about his dream for Bay to hit two home runs in a World Series Game 7 against the Red Sox - and for Pittsburgh to lose, anyway. When Bay visited Fenway Park with the Pirates, David attended. Tears pooled in his eyes when he saw his son standing where Carl Yastrzemski once did.

"I never would have guessed he would be where he is now," David said. "Not in a million years."

David and Kelly Bay watch Jason's games from their home, not far from the smelter where Jason once thought he would work. Every once in a while, Kelly said, they'll realize what, exactly, their son is doing and where he came from.

"We'll look at each other and say, 'Wow. Do you believe it?' "

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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