News of the blockbuster quickly swept across baseball just after 2 p.m. on July 31. After discussions with several teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates had unloaded Jason Bay. The talented left fielder would be a crucial part of the pennant drive by the upstart Tampa Bay Rays.
The report filtered into Fenway Park, where Red Sox officials had been working around the clock to acquire Bay so that they could move Manny Ramirez. A moment later, a member of Boston’s front office offered a soundtrack for the notion that Bay would be going elsewhere in the American League East, going online to play ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.”
The report, of course, proved erroneous. The Rays and Pirates proved unable to agree on the prospects that would go from Tampa to the Bucs, and so the door remained open for the Red Sox, Dodgers and Pirates to consummate the three-way haymaker that shipped Bay to Boston and Ramirez to Los Angeles.
Last night, the consequences of Bay’s move to the Northeast rather than Tampa Bay came into sharp relief. It was Bay’s two-out, two-run homer in the eighth—a rope that just cleared the shelf atop the Wall in Fenway Park’s left field—that gave the Sox a 4-3 lead over Tampa and nearly propelled them into first place.
The Rays, however, came back to score two runs in the top of the ninth to claim a 5-4 win that increased their division lead to 1.5 games. All the same, it is hard to deny the central role that Bay is playing in the A.L. East drama. Rather than bolstering a Rays lineup that has scored 26 runs (3.25 per game) over a recent 2-6 skid, he has become a force for the Sox.
“The bottom line is that he’s an impact player on any team. If he was with the Rays, he would have been a huge impact for them—no doubt about it, flat out,” said Sox first baseman Sean Casey. “They’ve struggled with offense. You’ve seen what he’s done to our offense. He hits bombs, he hits for average, he’s a great player—all around.
“I can imagine, if he’d gone to Tampa Bay and we’d known he could have been here, it would have been, ‘That stinks,’” said Casey. “I’m glad the shoe’s on the other foot. I’m glad we don’t have to have that conversation about, ‘Hey—we don’t have that guy Jason Bay.’”
In the days leading up to the deadline, Bay tried to tune out the whirlwind of rumors that surrounded him. Reports had linked him to roughly half the teams in baseball, and so he took a detached approach to the deadline.
Still, there was enough consistent noise surrounding the Rays rumors that Bay viewed it as a legitimate possibility. It was not unwelcome.
“I didn’t really put a ton of stock into any of (the rumors),” Bay said before last night’s contest. “(Tampa) was a possibility. They were a first-place team, so it definitely wouldn’t have been the worst scenario in the world.”
But Bay heard nothing as the trading deadline passed at 4 p.m., and prepared to board a team bus that was scheduled to leave for the airport 30 minutes later. But moments before that departure, Bay found out that he would not be traveling with the Pirates to Chicago.
“At 4:25, I was kind of like, ‘Well—all that for nothing. Nothing happened.’ And then the manager got me, and I kind of said, ‘No way,’” Bay chuckled. “I figured I would have known before that.
“When they called me into the office and told me that I’d been traded, Boston or Tampa were the two places, I thought, that I had a chance to go to,” he continued. “When they immediately said Boston, I never really thought anything else of it. I never really thought what it would be like over there. It’s hard to speculate. It feels like I’ve been (with the Sox) forever.”
Perhaps that sentiment reflects his gaudy production since joining the Red Sox. Less than six weeks into his residence at Fenway Park, Bay is hitting .314 with a .370 OBP, .562 slugging percentage, seven homers and a remarkable 33 RBIs in 34 games.
Such production would have surely been a boon to Tampa, particularly as the Rays try to withstand an astounding glut of injuries. Most notable has been the absence of both Carl Crawford (season-ending finger surgery) and third-base phenom Evan Longoria (right wrist fracture) since the early days of August.
The Rays were interested in Bay, and after they failed to acquire him, continued to look for offensive reinforcements through a waiver trade in August. (Tampa reportedly wanted to acquire Brian Giles from San Diego, but the outfielder was claimed by the Sox.)
Though Bay is now in Boston, however, the Rays refuse to play the what-if game. The team went 21-7 in August, setting a franchise record for most wins in a month.
“I’m not frustrated. I know we tried to (improve through trades) and it just didn’t happen,” Tampa manager Joe Maddon said of the absence of a trade for a bat. “The thing is, if you dwell on (trades that didn’t happen), then you’re denigrating the group that you have. That’s going to be felt (by the players).
“People that reflect on moments like that, I don’t understand. It’s basically useless. Reflection is useless. (A trade) is not going to happen. It’s not happening. It’s not real. To waste mental energy on what could have been, there’s not one positive thing that can be extracted from those thoughts.”
Instead, it is the Sox who can celebrate the fruits of their acquisition. Despite last night’s loss, Boston is all but a certainty for the postseason, and still has a strong chance to catch the Rays in the division. Bay has played an enormous role in helping his club get to such a point.
“If (Tampa) would have got him, he would have helped them—especially now that some of their players are down,” said injured Sox infielder Julio Lugo. “Any lineup that can get Bay, he’ll make it better. It’s good that we got him.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.