by Howie Stalwick

Jason Bay has yet to play a full season in the major leagues, but twice he has recorded eight RBIs in a single game. How impressive is that? Well, the immortal Hank Aaron -- baseball's career home runs and RBIs leader -- spent 23 years in the big leagues and never had more than six RBIs in one game. And some guy in San Francisco named Bonds has never had more than seven.

So, Jason, what's your take on all this?

"I guess," Bay offers, "I got luckier than those guys."

Good to see that fame and fortune -- a little bit of fame and fortune, anyway -- hasn't changed the unassuming Bay since his days at Gonzaga University and North Idaho College. Of course, it's probably easier for a fellow to stay grounded when NIC, a junior college that doesn't even play baseball anymore, was the only school that recruited him out of the baseball hotbed of Trail, British Columbia.

Oh, and Bay says he might not even be the best athlete in his family.

"I'd have to say it's probably Lauren," referring to his sister, a former Oklahoma State All-American who now pitches for the Canadian Olympic women's fastpitch softball team.

With all due respect to Lauren, big brother is being rather modest. Bay is a prime candidate to become the Pittsburgh Pirates' first-ever National League Rookie of the Year. Despite missing the first month of the season due to shoulder surgery, Bay led all major league rookies through Sunday with 13 homers, 40 RBIs in just 51 games. His .644 slugging percentage easily led the rookies, and his .306 batting average was second among rookies behind the .316 mark of Colorado second baseman Aaron Miles.

"His numbers are unbelievable for the amount of time he missed," Pirates hitting coach Gerald Perry says.

Bay was sensational in two seasons at both NIC and Gonzaga, then enjoyed continued success in the minor leagues (.300 average, 53 homers, 227 RBIs in 377 games) after being drafted by Montreal in the 22nd round in 2000. Still, he was traded three times in 17 months, finally landing in Pittsburgh last August.

"The first one stuns you... it's the only organization you've known, and you had all these friends you made on your way up," Bay said during a pregame phone interview from the Pirates clubhouse earlier this week. "After a while, you realize it's a business. It's part of the game.

"I took the attitude everywhere I went that it was better for me. All the teams that traded me had good things to say about me."

The Expos, providing ample evidence of why they're in dire straits, traded Bay to the New York Mets for the eminently forgettable Lou Collier. Five months later, during his rock-solid 2002 season in the minors, the Mets shipped Bay to San Diego for two marginal pitchers (Steve Reed and Jason Middlebrook) who barely stayed in New York long enough to get mugged.

Then, last August, the Padres -- desperate for a proven slugger with their impending move into a new ballpark -- reluctantly shipped Bay, heralded young pitcher Oliver Perez and another potential major league pitcher (Cory Stewart) to the Pirates for Brian Giles. The cash-strapped Pirates got rid of Giles' giant contract; Bay has been an admirable replacement for Giles in left field; Perez is regarded as one of the best young pitchers in baseball; and Giles is playing well for San Diego.

"It's nice to see a trade work out for both teams," Bay says.

The trade has worked out so well for the Pirates that Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote last weekend that the deal "has the makings of one of the biggest heists in recent baseball history."

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Bay runs well, and he was errorless coming into the week. Unlike the stereotypical Canadian youth, Bay played little hockey and still doesn't like the sport all that much. Baseball was always his first love, even before he played in the Little League World Series and on the Canadian junior national team.

Bay has impressed Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon ("He's been phenomenal") and Perry with his hard-nosed play, mental toughness and ability to hit with power to all fields.

"He does swing a live bat, where the ball really jumps off his bat," Perry says. "After the trade last year, we were watching him in the cage, and after just three or four swings, we noticed the ball was really jumping off his bat."

After a sensational start last year with the Padres' Class AAA farm club in Portland, Bay homered in his major league debut with San Diego on May 23. He wound up back in Portland, however, after suffering a broken wrist when hit by a pitch in his third game in the majors.

Bay belted three homers in 27 games with Pittsburgh last year, and eight of his 12 RBIs came in a Sept. 19 game against the Chicago Cubs. On July 4, he drove in eight more against Milwaukee. For the record, Babe Ruth's career best was eight RBIs in a single game.

"It's something I can't explain," Bay says. "You can't do it without having men on base. You can't do it by yourself."

Speaking of which, the 25-year-old Bay has decided he can't live by himself anymore, so he's decided one last trade is best for him. On Nov. 6, Bay plans to trade in bachelorhood for marriage when he ties the knot with Kristen Beaulaurier -- his girlfriend since they attended Gonzaga together -- in Beaulaurier's hometown of Kirkland.

Publication date: 07/22/04

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