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 %$&#$@ 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.

19 Responses

  1. Scott C

    Well written Richard. Well written.

  2. Dwelling in Cards Land

    Very nice and yes Jay Bruce was one of the easiest players to root for. I hated seeing him in other uniforms.

  3. Gary Clements

    Jay went with pitches, hit the ball the other way…..had all the markings of a great hitter when he came up. It was only after he reached the big leagues that he became strict pull hitter. The Reds wanted the long ball and Jay became what he was. He still had a solid, not great career. It’s a shame because he could have been a hall of famer imo. Jay never trusted his bat speed and his pitch recognition was horrible. He was purely a guess hitter. If he had taken the approach of not trying to hit homeruns, I believe his career would still be going and that .249 career avg would be much higher. Jmho

    • Richard Fitch

      That’s simply not true, Gary and his spray charts prove otherwise. As Fangraphs’ August Fagerstrom wrote in 2016:

      “Used to be that one of Bruce’s greatest strengths was his ability to hit for power to the opposite field. Lately, that power’s disappeared.

      Don’t get it twisted — Bruce is still powerful. The isolated slugging percentage was up over .200 last year, he slugged 26 homers, and when he turns on an inside pitch, he can still drive it with plenty of authority. As far as pull power goes, Bruce still has it with the best of them. It’s just that, he used to be able to cover the whole plate, and that’s what made him a dangerous at-bat. Now, the plate coverage is limited; he’s a liability on the outer-half.”

      • Gary Clements

        Spray charts for all hits or just homeruns? There has to be a reason they deployed a shift on him. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say your right and you have data that backs up that Jay used the whole field like Tony Gwynn…his pitch recognition was just bad. I’ve never seen a hitter that could be a more automatic out than Bruce was when he was on one of his many, many, many zero production months. I watched thousands of his at bats. He was the anti-Votto in that his lower half was moving always. Where Votto was quiet with his legs, Bruce was not. He committed to pitches far earlier than Votto did. Pitchers knew this. Bruce would get so wrapped around his own axle it was painful to watch. His offensive production was never consistent. He would have a huge month, then as if a spigot was turned off, he was like having a pitcher hitting in the middle of the lineup. He never had to worry about being out of the lineup because he was birth righted 600 at bats a year. I’m not alone in my opinion that his career was a disappointment. It’s impossible not to compare approaches between him and Votto. They are connected at the hip. Votto worked at his craft and had a plan. Bruce never had a plan. If Bruce had worked as hard at the craft of hitting, the approach of hitting, pitch recognition, scouting pitchers…..if he had worked as hard as Votto…..I believe his career would have been far different.

      • oklared

        Wow, guy had a 14 year career and helped the Reds for a few of those and you question work ethic really? Maybe he just had some flaws that he could not correct I am sure you don’t reach the Majors with out substantive work ethic. I think you could probably find a better take for what you perceive to be his flaws.

  4. Votto4life

    Really nice article. I was at the game in 2010 when Jay hit the home run to clinch the division. It is one of my most cherished baseball memories.

    I sent an e mail to the Reds Hall of Fame asking them to consider posting a marker where the ball landed. They sent a nice reply. I hope it happens. I also hope the Reds find a place for Jay in the organization.

  5. Gary Clements

    Work ethic for staying in shape was great. I’m talking about the mental grind of not giving at bats away, of working every at bat for all its worth, of studying pitchers. I don’t think he did. I believe he just gripped it and ripped it. Look, by all accounts he’s a great guy. He had a solid, albeit very inconsistent career. I just believe and am in the opinion that Jay Bruce didn’t get the most out of the hitting part of his game. I watched that guy flail at pitches from lefties with 2 strikes on him that everyone on the planet knew were coming down and away outside the strike zone and he didn’t even attempt to have any kind of approach. He just gave the at bat away. I believe he worked very hard to be ready physically. I’m sorry, I just don’t think he worked hard enough on the mental aspects of hitting.

  6. RojoBenjy

    Nice read, Richard! Well-written

    Yes, Bruce had some great times as a Red. And for those that want to kick a guy when he’s down—I will recount to you that a certain 6 year old boy in 2010 fell in love with Jay Bruce NOT for his home runs, but for his outfield defense—specifically robbing home runs from the opposition.

    “32 Crew” was a GABP ticket package in a section down the the RF line that came with a matching T-shirt. Let me tell you what a joy it was for me to take said 6 year old to a game to sit there and wear those shirts together, rooting on our right fielder.

    Thanks, Jay!

    • RojoBenjy

      I read the Verducci article which seems to have compelling evidence about the influence the shift has had.

      It raises a lot of questions.

  7. Frostgiant80

    I am not disagreeing with you completely. I made a special trip to see Bruce play in Richmond when he came though with the Bats to see the next Mickey Mantle or whatever he was supposed to be. He had a good career and gave us some great moments. Saying he didn’t work as hard as Votto is kind of a cheap shot because I don’t think anyone studied hitting as much as Joey Votto. I do believe he became to enamored with the moon deck and in the minors he showed he could have been a more well rounded hitter. He had speed and power to all field and hit for average. I had a ton of fun watching him play with my son, who almost grown now, and to me that still makes his career pretty special.

  8. Ponyboy

    Thanks for that piece Richard. Wonderfully written. I’m going to go off in my backyard and cry a little now.

  9. Wayne Nabors

    Way befor tom verducci wrote his article,I posted here and argued with several people about what the shift did to bruce,I live in cardinal country and a fellow at work ask one day why his avg had gone down and I told him to add 15 hits to his stats and then see what his avg would be,and he was amazed,and I’m sure he actually lost more hits than that that year

  10. KathyB

    Great piece, Richard. I loved the crowd chanting Bruuuuce at the game I attended in Cincy in 2012. The day Barry Larkin entered Reds Hall of Fame. August, hot as blazes as usual, but a birthday of note. Therefore, trek to the ballgame. Like many I anticipated a greatness from that crew that did not come to pass. Will carry many of them in my heart forever. Athletes age and retire. Cycle of life and all that jazz.

  11. ClevelandRedsFan

    Bruce delivered two of the biggest hits in Ohio baseball over the last decade. One for the Reds and one for the Indians. He will forever be cemented in both teams’ lore.

    I remember exactly where I was when Bruce walked off for the Reds and for the Tribe.

    We all remember the Reds walk off, but the streak in Cleveland was amazing. The bartender promised free shots if Bruce got a hit. The whole place yelled BRUUUUUUUUUUCE. Free shots.

  12. HitsLeftThrowsRight

    Jay Bruce was the consummate professional, played the game the right way, with class. Above average defender most of his career with a propensity to hit the long ball. Jay was your typical streak hitter, when he was going good he could carry a team. By contrast, when he was going bad,he looked awful up there. If Bruce only learned to be more disciplined at the plate, we just might have seen a few more post season victories for the Reds. Good luck to Jay Bruce.

    • Gary Clements

      To me, Jay just had to much movement. He was extremely fidgety. His lower half was very noisy. It looked like he didn’t trust his bat speed. He would commit to pitches far to soon. Defensively, he was underrated in my opinion. He had an excellent accurate arm. He never had huge assist numbers simply because guys didn’t run on him. He got decent jumps on balls and never looked foolish on defense. He was a solid baserunner as well.