SEATTLE — Jason Bay didn’t have very far to go in order to make his first appearance as a member of the Mariners outfield.
The onetime Gonzaga star and longtime Kirkland resident endured just a 10-minute drive from his home to Safeco Field on Monday afternoon to meet members of the local media. But Bay has much further than that to go if he hopes to restore the baseball reputation he lost the past three seasons with the New York Mets, who let him out of his $66 million deal a year early after rarely seeing the player they paid for.
Now looking at a one-year contract that guarantees him only $500,000 plus another $500,000 if he makes the team, Bay hopes a fresh start in Seattle can get him back to playing the way he once did.
“It was tough, obviously, I’m not going to say it wasn’t,” Bay, 34, a native of Trail, B.C., said of his concussion-plagued time in New York. “But I learned a lot about myself as a person, as a player. I tried to be the same guy, the same dad and the same husband.
“It’s not always easy ... Anybody can be a good guy when everything is going great. But when it’s not, you learn a lot about yourself. You can go in one of two directions. And I was very proud of myself that I kind of stood up, I owned it and I didn’t point fingers.
“I just put my head down, kept going and I ended up here.”
The Mariners had Bay checked out extensively after the two concussions he suffered in 2010 and again last June. He visited with team physicians Dr. Edward Khalfayan and Dr. Mitch Storey, as well as a neurologist before the Mariners signed off on the deal, which has up to $2 million in incentive bonuses attached.
Mets manager Terry Collins had previously suggested the concussions were behind much of the poor performance by Bay, who hit just 26 homers in three years with New York after clubbing 36 the season before his big contract. Last season, Bay hit just .165 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .536.
Still, Bay says it was more his time off and not the post-concussion effects that caused the free fall in his numbers.
“Maybe 15 or 20 years from now, they’ll come out with a study that says it does A, B, or C,” Bay said of the concussions. “I don’t feel like it did. All it really did, I felt, is that I lost more time. It was never, ‘Man, before I had that I was faster’ ... none of that. I had played every day for the first six years of my career. And I think that was the hardest part. Understanding that. It had nothing to do with that (concussions). It was just the time away.”
Bay said the treatment protocols for concussions have changed since the first time he got one and should help him get back on the field quicker if another occurs.
“For the first time, I missed quite a bit of time because it was really new and we didn’t know what we were doing and we weren’t really proactive about it,” Bay said. “We were just kind of waiting and waiting and waiting. When we kind of figured out how to attack it and look after the neck and stuff, I felt great instantly. And the second time, that’s what we did.”
The Mariners aren’t saying much about how Bay will be used, other than as a left fielder and right-handed bat. If all goes well, he’ll likely share time in left with the left-handed-hitting Michael Saunders and be used as an occasional designated hitter.
Quietly, the Mariners hope Bay’s outfield defense benefits from the fences in left and left-center being moved in at Safeco Field. Bay had the reputation as a below-average outfielder the last time Seattle pursued him as a free agent in December 2009.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said the main reason for getting Bay was his leadership ability and right-handed bat.
“Here’s a player that’s had a really nice career,” Zduriencik said. “He’s had a few struggles the last couple of years, there’s no question. There’ve been injuries attached to that and other factors. Who knows what it is?
“I think when you just look at it, it’s a comfortable environment for a guy that’s looking for a bounce-back year. He lives here. He’s from basically the Northwest, went to college here. All the arrows point that if anybody’s going to bounce back, this would be a good place for him to be able to do that.”
Interestingly, Bay has never met Saunders, his fellow B.C. native and future left-field partner, though he looks forward to doing so. Bay said he’s not a “rah-rah” type in the clubhouse and looks mainly to lead by example.
Now, it’s a matter of providing more of that example on the field. He was asked why he feels 2013 in Seattle will be different from the last three in New York.
“I think it’s just the fresh start,” Bay said. “I’ve had a few really good hitting coaches and sometimes with just a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh perspective, you kind of wipe the slate clean. Regardless of where I was going, whether it was here or anywhere else ... that was kind of the number one thing I was looking forward to — starting over. You’re just kind of swimming upstream for so long that you’re not getting anywhere. And that’s basically it. Just trying to start fresh.”