“The fact that I was too overwhelmed by New York is the biggest farce I’ve ever seen. It had nothing to do with it. It had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
The education of Jay Bruce began in the earliest days of his big-league career, what he calls “the Cinderella stage.” This was in 2008, when he was the top prospect in baseball and couldn’t do anything wrong. This was years before his trade to the Mets, when he was booed for much of a pennant race and couldn’t do anything right.
Bruce debuted at 21. He was not far removed from being the kid from Beaumont, Texas, who once called the Kingdome and asked to speak with Ken Griffey Jr. Now Bruce didn’t need a switchboard operator to reach his idol. All he had to do was turn to his left.
In his first game in the majors, Bruce patrolled centerfield. In rightfield stood Griffey, whom the fans no longer saw as a future Hall of Famer but as an injury-prone liability.
“People were hoping that this guy was getting traded out of Cincinnati,” Bruce said, a realization that became clearer over time. “He was one of the best players to ever step on the field, and they didn’t care. No one is immune.”
For Bruce, those boos for a childhood hero served as an eye-opener. They would be behind the first steps in an ongoing journey toward emotional detachment.
It is a strategy born not from bitterness but from pragmatism. The method may be cold. But the years have taught Bruce that to endure the wild swings of this game, it is necessary.
“First of all, and this is with all due respect to everyone reading this, how the fans think I feel — or how they create to themselves how I feel or how I look — could not have less of an impact on my day-to-day life. Someone the other day was like, ‘Oh, I could see it.’ No, they couldn’t. They assumed. They assumed that because I had a bad stretch, it’s ‘Oh, the market, New York City is too big.’ Oh, like I’m not able to perform under this pressure. Well, they’re lying to themselves.”
Dusty Baker is entering his 22nd season as a manager, his second with the Nationals. His previous stops included stints with the Giants, Cubs and Reds, where he first met a hotshot prospect whom he’d befriend through the years.
“He raised me as a ballplayer,” said Bruce, whose first six seasons were spent with Baker.
Before all of that, Baker was a player who would come to know the wrath of frustrated fans. It was a lesson he’d pass along to many of those he’d shape years later.
In 1976, a trade sent Baker from Atlanta to Los Angeles, a deal that was expected to push the Dodgers over the top. Baker homered on Opening Day. He didn’t do it again until July 15.
After one game, Baker arrived at his car to see that it had been keyed. After another, he reached his front door to discover that the sconces had been smashed out. He heard jeers when he took warm-up swings in the on-deck circle. For much of the season, he took his practice cuts in the dugout, out of view from his tormentors.
Baker saw that familiar enmity last September when the Nationals visited Citi Field. Jonny Gomes, who mentored Bruce years ago with the Reds, wondered if it had all become too much.
“Going to a new team, you really can’t help it,” Gomes said. “Every single game is like a job interview. Just imagine going to work every day with the boss looking over your shoulder, asking you every single question and breaking down everything you do.”
“I would be completely lying to you if I told you that I didn’t feel it some. Of course. I’m a human being. But what good does it do me to let it determine how I proceed with my game and my life? These people don’t know me.”
Every night, it was the same: 30,000 bosses, 30,000 pink slips, all of them made out to employee No. 19. Bruce didn’t even have any sconces for fans to smash.
The trade had uprooted his life. While his wife and infant son remained in Cincinnati, he lived as a nomad in New York. He bounced between five hotels and one apartment.
On the morning of Aug. 1, baseball’s trade deadline, Bruce led the National League with 80 RBIs. He hit 25 homers for the Reds. The production had been relatively steady, an important distinction for a player who has been notoriously streaky.
“In my mind, I’m bucking this narrative, I’m getting rid of it,” Bruce said. “This was improvement.”
The banged-up Mets needed help, and they thought they got it in Bruce. Instead, he became a part of the problem. By the end of his first week, the chants of “Bruuuuce” had morphed into boos. By the end of his fourth week, he had been pinch hit for and benched.
The worst stretch of his season had come at the worst time. After one month with his new team, Bruce was hitting .196.
By year’s end, with Michael Conforto waiting in the wings, the Mets made no secret about their desire to trade Bruce. And the fans made no secret about their desire to see his $13-million salary spent on just about anything else.
“I believe that teams care about their players to the extent that they are required to, essentially. I believe that every team, every smart team, should always be looking to improve upon what they have. And if trading me helps you improve your roster, then I say go for it. I don’t care, I really don’t.”
Emotional detachment allows Bruce to speak of himself with unusual objectivity. So he admits it’s an oversimplification for him to say he doesn’t care if he’s traded away. Of course he cares.
But that concern can go only so far, because he’s learned that emotion only gets in the way. When the trade rumors reached Cincinnati in the offseason, he figured a new locale was simply a foregone conclusion. It made sense.
“I’m a man of logic,” Bruce said. “I try to apply logic wherever it’s possible in my entire life. When I was younger, it was much different, man. I had a much different view. I was much more emotionally attached and invested.”
There was a time when Bruce derived his self-worth from the reactions in the stands. His friend Gomes remembers when “that’s all he cared about.” But that kid disappeared long ago. He now sits at his locker, reaches for his blue uniform top and holds it up as evidence.
“This is a business,” Bruce said recently. “My name’s on the back of this jersey right now. But somebody else is going to be wearing No. 19 for the New York Mets relatively soon. I played in Cincinnati for nine years. But somebody’s going to be wearing No. 32 in Cincinnati very, very soon, if they aren’t already.”
Logic reigns now. It’s why he devours advanced statistics, even those that don’t paint a rosy picture of his play. Only through detachment can Bruce honor a process he believes will bring results. Only through results can he help the Mets win a World Series. Only through victory can he change the narrative.
“I don’t want it to be mistaken for the fact that I don’t care about the Mets. I am 100 percent in. I am so happy to be here. I think our opportunity is so rare and this is a great group of guys . . . I would argue that I’ve never been in a better situation in my entire career. This is the best opportunity I’ve had to win a World Series.”
Every offseason, Bruce has the right to adjust the eight teams on his no-trade list. When he reviewed the list in the winter of 2015, he knew his name already had been tied to the Mets. But while he kept the Yankees on the list, he did not add the Mets. This does not add up for a player who supposedly wanted nothing to do with New York, a city he calls “one of the greatest in the world.”
This offseason, the Mets did not find a suitor for Bruce. On Opening Day at Citi Field, his 30th birthday, he will be standing in rightfield for the start of his 10th big-league season. There is a chance he will hear the same chants that dogged him in spring training.
Part of the Mets’ motivation for exploring a trade was to clear a spot for former first-round pick Conforto, a name that Bruce often heard chanted when he came to bat.
But if anyone knows how this could play out, it is Baker. When he looks at the Mets and he looks at Bruce, he insists that “this is probably one of the best trades they didn’t make.”
Back in 1976, Baker hit just .242 in his first year with the Dodgers, who finished second with 92 wins. A year later, he hit .291 with 30 homers, one of three players in the lineup to break that barrier. The Dodgers won 98 games and the National League pennant.
Suddenly, the narrative was changed. This is a story that Baker tells to this day.
“They were booing the hell out of me my first year in L.A.,” he said. “Then after that, the more you perform, the more your team wins, then the more people end up loving you. I think they’re going to end up loving Jay Bruce.”
Though 37 players have worn No. 19 for the Mets, only 5 had it for four seasons or more:
Bob Ojeda (1986-1990)
Ron Gardenhire (1981-1985)
Roger Cedeno (1999-2003)
Lenny Harris (1998-2001)
Hawk Taylor (1964-1967)