Jason Bay's sudden departure was a fitting conclusion to another chapter in the Mets' lengthy book on free agent busts.
Jason Bay and the Mets amicably parted ways on Wednesday. Their relationship ended quietly and was announced in a manner that seemed calculated to attract as little attention as possible, the news leaking on an afternoon when much of the nation was still suffering a post-Election Day hangover. (I wonder what odds Nate Silver would have given for Bay's departure before spring training.) It was a fitting conclusion to another chapter in the Mets' lengthy book on free agent busts.
Normally in baseball, when contracts are torn up, it is because the two parties wish to negotiate a longer and more expensive deal. The case of Jason Bay v. Mets is more like a peace treaty, where both sides' aim is to leave the bargaining table with their dignity intact and not have to deal with the other ever again if they can help it. There are many instances of teams releasing players outright, even when they're owed tons of money--the Mets did that not too long ago with Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo--but they're usually unilateral decisions on the part of management. I can't think of another example where a team and a player sat down for a negotiated settlement like this. That Bay would be open to such an arrangement speaks both to his character (he had little to gain financially from deferring money owed to him) and to how badly things went for him in New York.
After the disastrous 2009 season, a year marred by an almost Biblical plague of injuries, general manager Omar Minaya reacted as he normally did: with retail therapy. The Mets had used stop-gap measures in left field for the last few seasons (Gary Sheffield, Fernando Tatis), but the 2009 offseason brought two prime players at the position on the market: Jason Bay and Matt Holliday. Both were said to want five-year deals, and a debate raged over who would be the better value over that period. Many people sided with Bay, since he had done an admirable job of taking over Manny Ramirez's spot for the Red Sox. Thriving in Boston spoke well of Bay's potential ability to do the same in New York. Holliday had gaudier numbers, but he had them while playing his home games in Colorado, and no one knew for certain how he'd perform when playing the majority of the time at sea level.
As usual, Minaya telegraphed his moves; it was clear from day one of the offseason he was targeting Bay over Holliday. Bay's interest in the Mets, however, seemed tepid at best. It was suspected that Bay really wanted to stay in Boston, although not so much that he couldn't reject their initial offer of four years and $60 million. Spurned, the Sox spent their money on John Lackey and Mike Cameron instead.
So even though Peter Gammons insisted Bay would "rather be playing in Beirut than Queens," he chose New York over Lebanon on December 29. Bay's introductory press conference was a clinic in awkwardness, including the clumsy gesture of presenting him with a Rangers jersey for some reason. ("You're Canadian, so I got you some hockey stuff!") The fact that Bay had to say "This is where I wanted to be" demonstrated how little people believed it.
If Bay truly didn't want to be in Queens, it was never reflected in his effort. His frequent outfield wall collisions suggested that if anything, he needed to tone his game down a little. He also never took out the frustrations he must have been feeling on teammates, the press, or fans. Admirable as this is, his effort and positive attitude never translated in results.
The player who smacked 36 homers for Boston in 2009 took 20 games to hit his first longball as a Met in 2010. He then took another 25 games to hit homers 2 and 3--against the Yankees, of all teams. That was pretty much his high watermark in orange and bluet. His offensive production after that point ranged from spotty to non-existent, and the one-time home run derby participant would go on to hit a measly 22 longballs in a Mets uniform.
Only a few weeks into Bay's Mets career, the team's play-by-play crews wondered aloud if/when Bay would finally break out. It soon became a mantra for Gary Cohen and Howie Rose, one repeated more for rhythm than feeling. It was said only because not saying it seemed too cruel.
As profound a disappointment as Bay turned out to be for the Mets, he never received the lion's share of fans' wrath. When he first came to New York, that was reserved for Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. Later, it would be inexplicably directed (by some fans, anyway) at the team's biggest stars, like Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright. Bay wound up spending so much time on the DL, he didn't have much of a chance to be hated by fans because he wasn't seen often enough to earn their hate. Even as a failure, Bay was a failure.
His endless series of injuries, particularly the concussions, may have been to blame for his struggles. However, they wouldn't explain his first miserable Mets season: only 6 home runs and a paltry .402 slugging percentage through July 25, when a collision with a wall at Dodgers Stadium brought his year to a painful end. Perhaps the rumors about Bay's health that followed him out of Boston (psst, knee issues, shoulder issues...) were more than a sour grapes whisper campaign from the Sox' vengeful management. Perhaps he was damaged goods before he even reached New York. He received a physical prior to signing his contract as a matter of course, but it's not hard to imagine the Mets' doctors misdiagnosing him.
Or perhaps it's as simple as this: It just wasn't meant to be. Perhaps there was never any spark for him here because his pairing with the Mets was never anything more than a marriage of convenience: the Mets needed some player, any player, to quiet the back pages, and Bay needed some place, any place, to go.
The arrangement quickly outlived its usefulness for everyone involved. His signing smacked of the desperation and aimlessness of the latter Minaya years, a signing made because the GM had to sign somebody big and expensive. By the time Bay took the field in a Mets uniform in 2010, the state of the team's finances began to fully reveal themselves, making his deal seem even more pointless and shortsighted. He was a reminder of those days of old, when the Mets would spend wildly to no good affect, but at least they would spend, which in New York was considered a virtue unto itself.
During his futile Mets at bats, Bay never failed to look just as befuddled as his observers. He'd shake his head as he slumped back to the dugout, no doubt wondering why he could no longer hit like he used to. It made no sense, perhaps because his presence here made no sense to begin with.
The best you can say of Bay's time with the Mets is that at least the team wasn't very good. It would have been a shame if Bay's ginormous, wasted contract had prevented a Mets team close to big things from signing someone else more productive. As luck would have it, his years in Queens coincided with a fallow period when the money spent on him, even if distributed elsewhere, probably would have made little difference. It's the only instance of Bay's timing being right while in a Mets uniform.
Jason Bay seems like a decent human being, so I wish him the best in the future. He certainly doesn't deserve any worse than his time in Queens. Perhaps this time, he can marry for love.