02/19/09 4:03 PM EST
Bay blending in comfortably
In final year of contract, outfielder's Sox future uncertain
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
"Because he made himself so at home, I actually forgot this was his first time here," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He did a good of fitting in in a hurry and being a valuable part of our club."
The pressure of playing in Boston and replacing a future Hall of Famer? Bay hit a crucial triple to set up a walk-off win in his Red Sox debut and then introduced himself to the Green Monster the next night with a towering homer that also led to a victory.
The pressure of the postseason? Bay merely smashed a two-run, game-winning homer against John Lackey in Game 1 of the American League Division Series vs. the Angels.
So while Ramirez is still trying to find a job, his successor is loving life with the Red Sox.
But unlike last season, when Bay and the Red Sox were fighting for their playoff lives from the moment he arrived, the right-handed hitter now has a chance to soak up his environment rather than just thrive in it.
"The first few weeks I don't even remember," said Bay. "I remember two or three games. Where did the time go? All of a sudden we're back in Spring Training. My reflection period seemed to go a lot quicker than I thought it would."
But he knows this much: After all those years of not contending in Pittsburgh, Bay not only proved he could handle postseason baseball, but he wound up loving it.
|"I know what Manny had done and all that stuff, but I never took it as I was trying to replace him."|
|-- Jason Bay|
As he enters the final year of his contract, Bay, 30, doesn't need the benefit of a full season with the Red Sox to know that Boston is a place where he'd be happy to spend the rest of his career. The Red Sox would also like to retain him beyond 2009, but there's no telling when or if that will happen.
But while Ramirez seemed distracted by his uncertain contract status from nearly the moment he arrived at Spring Training last year, Bay sounds as if he's at complete peace.
"There's a lot of factors that go into that," Bay said. "There's definitely a lot of positives for me to stay here. I'm very familiar with it; I love it, as most people do. It's not the end-all, be-all. Until something concrete comes up in that arena right there, I really don't have much of an opinion on it. I'm going out, I'm playing. I've got one more year on my contract, I'm playing that out, and we'll see what happens. If something comes up before that and my agent thinks it's worth it, I'll definitely consider it."
In the meantime, Bay will continue to be a key cog in the middle of the Boston batting order while playing good defense and even being a baserunning threat at times. He won't match his predecessor in hitting heroics or quirkiness, but that suits the Red Sox just fine.
"There's less distractions," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "Jason is a baseball player. He loves playing baseball. He does a lot of things to help us win. Everyone saw it last year. There's certain times during a close game where he'll steal a base or he'll make a great throw to second. He does little things to help this team win. I'm more excited about that then him hitting 30 home runs, because he's a great baseball player."
A year ago, Bay, in his typically steady fashion, produced solid numbers between Boston and Pittsburgh, hitting .286 with 31 homers and 101 RBIs.
But what the Red Sox seemed to enjoy the most about him is the way he always seemed to do something to contribute to a win.
"He's a good player," Francona said. "He plays the whole entire game. He runs the bases. He plays the outfield. He shows up. He doesn't want to not play. Good guy to have around. We can hit him numerous places in the order. He's a very valuable guy."
How did Bay not get overwhelmed by the pressure of replacing a hitter of Ramirez's caliber?
"I know what Manny had done and all that stuff, but I never took it as I was trying to replace him," Bay said. "I kind of took it, as they needed a guy to play left field and a right-handed hitter. I never tried to do anything more."
For the fans of Boston, who grew tired of Ramirez during his last couple of controversy-filled weeks with the team, Bay was the proverbial breath of fresh air. And they let him know it with a long, rousing standing ovation in his first at-bat with the team.
"Coming into a situation like that, with so many unknowns, to be accepted by the fans right away before I had even done anything, it was a big weight off my back," Bay said.
And now he occupies a position that has a special place in Red Sox lore. Left field is where Ted Williams played, and Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, and yes, Ramirez. Now, it's Bay's turn to split his time taking aim at the Monster and standing in front of it.
"I grew up with a Yaz and a Jim Rice poster in my basement because of my dad," said Bay, the son of a devout Red Sox fan. "I was familiar with those portions of it, that's for sure. It's just another position on the baseball field, but it has bigger meaning here than a lot of other places."
Clearly, Boston is a place where Bay fits in perfectly. Now it's just a matter of how long he will be there.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.