THE $66 MILLION MYSTERY

What happened to Jason Bay?

This is what the New York Mets were expecting: a middle-of-the-lineup right-handed power hitter who’d hit 30+ home runs and drive in 100+ runs; an above-average defensive left fielder with a strong throwing arm; a clubhouse leader and team player.

That’s who Jason Bay was — in 2009. In 151 games as a Boston Red Sox, Bay hit 36 home runs and knocked in 119 runs in his only as a starting left fielder in the American League. The Mets expected more of the same when they plucked Bay out of the free agent market and signed him to a four-year, $66 million deal.

Over three seasons and 288 games, Mets return on their $66 million investment: .234 BA/26 HR/124 RBI/258 strikeouts.

What happened to Jason Bay?

He is still the $66 million mystery.

The morning after crashing into the left field wall at Citi Field which would lead to a trip to the seven-day concussion disabled list, I was listening to the Mets flagship radio station WFAN. No one could explain why Bay has failed to perform up to expectations. Not WFAN host Evan Roberts. Not Ron Darling. Not a single caller. No one could provide an answer — and no one ever will.

You could point to the night Bay slammed into the left field wall at Dodger Stadium suffering a concussion. The side effects kept him on the disabled list the final two months of the season. But there were already whispers Bay was not the same before the concussion. In 95 games and 348 at-bats he struck out 91 times and hit a career-low six home runs. A cavernous Citi Field, the injury-shortened season, playing in New York with high expectations, those were the most notable theories for Bay’s decline. 2011 would give everyone — including Bay — a fresh start, a full season and a renewed hope.

Bay’s 2011 comeback season never happened. He started on the season on the disabled list. By mid-June he was batting .207 and his power was sapped. The boo birds were in season. Bay batted a career-low .245 in 123 games. He also chalked up career lows in the home run (12) and on-base percentage (.329) columns. Something didn’t feel right. Was it the Citi Field dimensions? Maybe there were lingering effects from the concussion?

Bay played in 218 games between 2010 and 2011 and hit 18 home runs, one-half of his 2009 single season total (36) with Boston. Frustrated, Bay never blew up; he never attacked the media who pressed for answers who were already calling his $66 million contract one of the Omar Minaya era busts.

A new new Citi Field was born with modified dimensions (moving the walls in and shortening the fences), designed to create a hitter-friendly park. Bay was healthy and his new manager and hitting coach were completely convinced Jason Bay would be the starting left fielder and, more importantly, he’d be back to his old self this season.

Bay batted under .200 the first two weeks of 2012. In fact, he did look like his old self, playing a lot like he did his first season as a Met. Terry Collins was one of the last few people in Flushing who still believed Bay would turn his fortunes around. Bay’s “all out” style of play led to another trip to the disabled list after he fractured his ribs diving for a ball in April.

One week after coming off the disabled list, Bay slammed head first into the left field wall, diving after a ball. He wobbled off the field and back to the disabled list, as a precautionary measure.

“Since he has had it in the past, this becomes a pretty serious thing,” Collins said.

Bay’s injury changed the entire conversation. When Collins publicly confessed he was worried, not about Bay’s swing or batting average but his personal health, so was I.

“It didn’t matter what he did, if he didn’t hit 40 homers, he wasn’t going to be the same guy everyone thought he was going to be,” Collins said. “It didn’t matter how he played the game. It didn’t matter anything else. He had to be a home run hitter. Jason Bay is a fine baseball player. When you hit 45 home runs, you get paid. That is the nature of the game. It doesn’t mean he has to hit 45 every year, but that is expectation. Jason Bay is one of the finest people that I’ve ever had on my team. I just hope he gets out of this and recovers, because I’m pretty concerned about it right now.”

Read Collins comment again.

Read it one more time.

Collins was right. He wasn’t going to be the guy everyone thought he was going to be.

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