It began in late 1984. The cold and calculating front office, what was in all ways a corporate empire, launched—in an attempt remake itself—a campaign to get rid of one of its own. He had been loyal. He had been productive. He was the epitome of affablity, standing there, tall and well-coifed, wearing his familiar red and white uniform. He was, in many ways, the face of the franchise. They asked fans on the street before discarding their old friend. The answer to their question, “Should the Big Boy stay or should the Big Boy go?” came echoing back in resounding fashion:
Thirty-some odd years later, Jay Bruce would become our Big Boy—always poised, always professional, always affable. Brucie With the Good Hair. He was the player you rooted for because he just oozed likability, as approachable as any golden retriever, any best friend.
The physical space between the seats and the field is tantalizingly close, but in reality is light years away. If it feels like we’d need a NASA rover to bridge the gap between fan and player, some athletes find a way to bridge that gap, like Burt Lancaster stepping over the foul line in Field of Dreams. Jay Bruce did that. Jay Bruce became our Curiosity.
Jay’s considered the ultimate prospect. He was #1 and all that. I really wasn’t considered a prospect at his level. Jay’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders. He’s got a big responsibility. I really can’t compare him and I because we’re three years different. He’s coming up at 21 years old. I came up at 23. It’s two different players. I think he’s going to come up and play well but he has a lot to learn just like us all.” — Joey Votto
All of the conflicted feelings Cincinnati fans have had about Jay Bruce were summed up in Votto’s quote. It was Jay who was projected to be the superstar; Joey was to be the complimentary player. But, Robin became Batman, leaving Bruce — who could never live up to unreasonable expectations — always playing catchup.
Votto taught us to love process. On Base Percentage and Not Making Outs became our new flags, flying high. Yet, deep inside exists a love affair with baseballs that go boom. Our parallel strands of hardball DNA — Home Run and RBI — make up the genome at the heart of the sports fan’s genetic code. The cortex speaks to us. Be honest. Analytical Joey may have our heads. Affable Jay always had our hearts.
Still, we asked much of Beaumont’s finest. And when he didn’t always deliver, some of us were harsh in our assessment. Seasons unwound, filled with inconsistency accompanied by fan frustration. Each year, it seemed April Jay would give way to May Jay, and on and on and on throughout each summer, the tepid starts followed by a raw exit velocity fusillade of baseballs wrecking havoc on the moondeck seats. Even some in the media would turn on him, wondering aloud if “Jay Bruce will ever get it.” Feast or famine though, he was always Affable Jay, earnest and approachable, as honest as his home runs were long.
Bruce’s untimely decline began after a meniscus tear in 2014. The Reds were a M*A*S*H unit in triage early in the season, so Bruce — team player that he always was — played with a compromised knee before giving in to surgery. He came back in a ridiculously short 19 days — of course — and paid for that decision, watching his production crater. And although he was healthy in 2015, his opposite field power didn’t return, a sign that playing on a bum knee led to some lingering poor swing mechanics.
Oddly enough, those days were when I began to appreciate Jay the most. Votto was in the midst of his worst season, a quad injury sidelining him for 100 games. Bruce knew he couldn’t disappear from the lineup for long, knew he had to shoulder the weight of the offense in Joey’s absence. He sacrificed. Never complained. He punched the clock every day, put in the work, gave his team and the fans everything he had, even at the expense of his own numbers.
All I remember about the painful divorce with the Reds, the only professional family he had ever known, was the day-by-approaching-trade-deadline-day, the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute wait—the Roman couriers that are the baseball writers, dispatched—breathless and staggering—into the media room one after another with yet another update: “JAY BRUCE TO THE DODGERS. JAY BRUCE TO THE GIANTS. JAY BRUCE TO THE %$&#[email protected] NEW YORK METS.”
As the clock ran down on the 2016 non-waiver deadline, the baseball gods blew their own trade-winds across the tri-state, raining tears on the Greater Cincinnati area on a hot, August night at GABP as Scott Schebler and the Reds were about to walk-off the Cardinals, while Bruce’s fate was being finalized with the Metropolitans of Queens, New York.
Make no mistake, it was hard living in New York, watching Jay pull on that tacky blue and orange uniform. I remember a Sunday sitting in left field, quietly smiling as Bruce circled the bases after a Citi Field home run against the Padres, the lady in the seat to my left making sure to inform me that Met fans weren’t booing Jay, they were saying, “Bruuuuuuuuuuuce.”
Thanks, Mrs. Met.
Ever the accidental tourist, I would find myself in Jay’s company one more time. Having long ago secured tickets to a 2019 Reds/Phillies game, I settled into a box seat down the third base line in Citizens Bank Park the night Jay made his debut with the Phillies after having been traded by the Seattle Mariners earlier in the week. He would hit his 4th home run in 4 games off Tyler Mahle:
While watching the Reds lose in an enemy ballpark at the hands of Bruce was tough to swallow, it felt like a worthy price to pay for the good feelings welling up inside me for Jay, considering everything he had given to the Reds—and fans like me over the years. Baseball is a funny game, an eccentric game, even; a game that tugs at your heart in the most unexpected moments. No more so than on that night, as I trudged back up the steps to my Philly hotel room.
Although Cincinnati remembers Clinchmas first and foremost, there were other Jay Bruce nights, moments when the kliegs were turned up in intensity for a nation to see what Cincinnati knew long ago. He would get a walk-off hit for the Cleveland Indians in 2017 that extended a September winning streak to a remarkable 22 games:
How could you not rise from your sofa and cheer?
I have to confess, I died a little bit when Jay signed a minor league contract with the Yankees — Baseball’s Wall Street. Everything about the franchise is an overstuffed turducken of greatness, greed, and grandiosity, best captured by the cloying retirement of #2, which threatened to become a never-ending pasta bowl of east coast adulation. All of it, from the new, antiseptic Stadium, down to the pinstripes, reeks of nothing so much as cold commerce. But, I knew he was hanging on, as all professional athletes do who just want one more season in the sun.
And who could begrudge him that? Certainly not me.
Time steals everything and calls it purchase. It seems only yesterday that we watched Jay Allen Bruce burst upon the scene with all that promise. What he gave us was so much more than that.
There are days when the actions of tightwad owners, clueless commissioners, and the greedy television blackout rules of the corporate monster make a fan wonder if professional baseball is worth it anymore. Then, a player like Jay Bruce comes along.
And we line up at the turnstiles once more.