It was supposed to be the payoff for years of hard work and production. Instead, Jason Bay’s foray into free agency was nine months of chaos that still leaves the outfielder shaking his head.
The end of the story had Jason Bay standing in the Caesars Club at Citi Field, wearing a tight-fitting New York cap, along with a Mets jersey adorned with the No. 44 he had been enamored with since the days of watching Eric Davis. Just more than a week before — on Christmas Day — Bay had agreed to a contract with the Mets that would pay him $66 million over four years, with a team option for a $17 million fifth season.
Bay was satisfied.
“I was truly happy to put everything behind me and become a member of the New York Mets,” Bay said from his Seattle-area home.
The months leading up to that point were a different story entirely.
As was first reported by Peter Gammons Monday on NESN, Bay did agree to a four-year, $60 million deal with the Red Sox back in July, an offer that was pulled off the table by the club due to the team’s medical concerns.
“That,” the outfielder said, “is just one-tenth of the story.”
In between the time the agreed-upon deal with the Sox was shelved and Bay’s New York press conference, the intrigue proved thick. It was a six-month span that included two more independent medical opinions on Bay’s knees and shoulder (not including the one that the Mets would administer before finalizing the deal), and several revised contract proposals from the Red Sox, all of which included medical contingencies.
ALMOST A RED SOX
Up until late July, it appeared as though Bay was going down a relatively routine path toward staying with the Red Sox.
The two sides had halted negotiations late in spring training given the dramatic difference between the club and the player on the size and length of a deal. But when Bay started heating up in May, a month in which he hit 10 home runs, the Red Sox came back with a proposal that included four guaranteed years, but still not to the level that Bay’s camp believed it should be.
Then, following an All-Star break when the negotiations continued and the offer was upped to four years, $60 million, it appeared as though the momentum had hit a wall. While visiting Toronto for his team’s weekend series, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein declared that nothing could be worked out and further talks would have to wait until after the regular season.
But it was during that same series that Bay had a change of heart, having had a long conversation with his wife, Kristen, which steered him back to the Boston offer. Upon returning to Boston from that road series, Bay told his agent, CAA's Joe Urbon, that he wanted to accept the Sox’ offer.
Urbon proceeded to fly to Boston after the team arrived home for a series against the Oakland A’s to accompany Bay to a physical — a requirement all MLB players must go through before a guaranteed contract can be accepted — and finalize the terms of the deal. That evening, Urbon got a phone call from Epstein asking the agent to come to the GM’s office. It was there that the results of the physical were shared, along with the conclusion by the Red Sox’ medical team that, in their opinion, the condition of Bay’s knees and shoulder had put the deal in jeopardy.
Epstein told Urbon he would be meeting with ownership the next day to discuss what to do next, although that became a bit more complicated when news came out of David Ortiz’ inclusion on a list identifying players who had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
A few days after revealing the concerns of the Red Sox doctors, Epstein called Urbon to inform him that the Red Sox were going to pull the agreed-upon four-year offer from the table.
A WHOLE NEW APPROACH
The team wanted to replace the guaranteed four-year contract offer with a two-year deal — at the same rate of $15 million per season — that included third and fourth years that would be contingent on Bay’s health and productivity. The contract offer also included a requirement that Bay would have to undergo surgery on his knee immediately after the 2009 regular season.
“I was shocked, to say the least, that I was being told to have knee surgery in order to get the contract,” Bay said, “particularly since I wasn’t hurt.”
After digesting the initial shock of that turn of events, Bay and Urbon arranged in late August for an independent orthopedic surgeon to examine the MRIs on both the knees and the shoulder.
"I felt great, so I didn't believe that there was anything wrong,” Bay said. “I felt extremely confident that if I had another doctor look at my films, the diagnosis would be different."
As Bay predicted, the physician came to the conclusion that there was no cause for concern.
Bay and Urbon did not share the results of the second medical opinion with the club until the Red Sox re-opened the negotiations with Bay by making a revised contract proposal in late October.
Although the new proposal still included the medical contingencies in the final two years of the deal, there was one major omission: Bay no longer was required to undergo knee surgery.
“Nothing had changed with me physically since the club’s diagnosis back in July, so I just couldn’t understand what was going on,” Bay said.
After being told of the differing medical opinion, the Red Sox suggested to Bay and Urbon that they seek a third medical opinion by a mutually agreed-upon independent doctor. That physician came to the same conclusion as the doctor Bay had visited in August, writing in his report that there were no concerns with Bay’s knees and shoulder and that “he has an excellent future” and would “be able to continue to play at a high level at his position.”
Prior to the November examination by the independent doctor, the Red Sox, Bay and Urbon also decided to send out the outfielder’s MRI to a company that insured players’ contracts to make sure that there would be no issue trying to secure insurance for any impending deal. The insurance company concluded that there were no physical concerns that would prevent the usual coverage for the kind of multiyear contract Bay was expecting.
On the first night of the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, Epstein presented Urbon with a new offer — three years guaranteed, with a fourth with the medical stipulations the previous proposal had included.
Bay’s fourth, and final, season could be voided if he spent a certain amount of time on the disabled list due to the pre-existing injuries identified by the Red Sox. (It was an approach similar to the one that had already been used in the contract of outfielder J.D. Drew, and that would be used again in the contract of John Lackey.)
Another requirement on behalf of the Red Sox was that Bay pay a substantial amount of the insurance policy.
"Listen, I could understand the club wanting all these medical contingencies if I had spent any recent time on the DL,” Bay said, “but I had no history of being a risk for injuries and I wasn't hurt."
HEADING TO THE METS
Bay and Urbon rebuffed the new deal and focused on the other teams seeking the outfielder's services, with the Mets starting to show increased interest.
Finally, on Dec. 12, Epstein called Urbon to ask for an answer regarding the proposal. The agent said that, as constituted, the Sox’ proposal wasn’t going to be good enough. Bay continued to be adamant about not taking a contract with medical stipulations, leading to Urbon taking the offensive, spending much of that late Saturday afternoon making it known to various media outlets that Bay was moving on from the Red Sox’ offer. A day later, the Red Sox had struck a deal with Lackey on a contract worth five years and $82.5 million.
Three weeks later, Bay found himself in New York undergoing a physical performed by Mets team doctor Robert Altchek. The physician came to the same conclusion as the two previous doctors who examined Bay’s July MRI — that there were no medical concerns — leading to the Citi Field press conference a day later.
“Much like the path of my career, this experience has not been a straight line, but it all ended up working out for the best,” Bay said. “I have no regrets.”