The pandemic has given us Major League Baseball like we’ve never seen it, on the field and off. No fans in the stands, extended dugouts for social distancing and pitchers carrying their own rosin bags to the mound are among the abnormalities of the 2020 season.
One other everyday aspect of the game that COVID-19 has taken away is celebrating — not just on the field but also off. Significant milestones by players are often met with festive nights out on the town with teammates.
Jon Jay might not be a star name that jumps out when you think of current big league ballplayers. He’s in his second spin with the Arizona Diamondbacks, having moved through six organizations and been traded twice. Since reaching free agency, he has played on four consecutive one-year contracts signed with four different teams, the latest a split deal in which he wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the active roster.
But Jay is about to join an exclusive fraternity on Wednesday. That’s the day he will reach 10 full years of major league service time, something only about 6% of the nearly 20,000 players who have worn a big-league uniform have achieved, according to the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“When you look at the history of this game and the names who have played and to be able to play for 10 years, the numbers are against you, so to reach that number is a huge accomplishment,” Jay said. “This is going to be the first individual accomplishment I’m very, very proud of. Winning the World Series is all about the team. Going to the playoffs is all about the team. But this is personal, and I will definitely cherish this.”
Players need 172 days on an active roster to register a full year of service time. Jay entered this season with nine years, 134 days. During the shortened 2020 season, MLB is using a formula of 2.72 service time days for every calendar day. Aug. 5 marks 14 days since the season started. Using the formula, it is Jay’s 38th service time day, pushing him to 172 days in his 10th season.
That translates into a full major league pension, which is $230,000 per year starting at age 62. Making this achievement more remarkable is that Jay hasn’t always been an everyday player. He isn’t the type of player who wows most fans. But fans aren’t the ones whose opinions matter most.
“From the opposing side, he’s just a solid major league player,” former Padres and Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “There’s not one tool that stands out, but he does everything well. He can play anywhere in the outfield. He’s a tough out at the plate. He’s hit around .300 so many times. He can bunt. He runs the bases well. He’s a solid addition to any team. If he didn’t start, he was so valuable off the bench as a pinch hitter or any way you wanted to use him. I didn’t like him up there against us. He rarely would strike out, and he put the ball in play. You couldn’t shift on him because he goes the other way so well. Without a doubt, guys like that are so important to a ball club. I’m very happy for him to reach 10 years.”
Jay, 35, was born and grew up in the baseball hotbed that is Miami. His parents share a story with many other Cuban families who made their way to the U.S. They emigrated from the island in the early 1960s — after the communist takeover — for the family’s next generation to have a shot at the American dream.
Jay was mostly raised by his maternal grandparents, who sacrificed and made sure Jay was at practices and games on time. He made his way from Miami’s Columbus High School to the University of Miami and then was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006.
“I always think about the sacrifices my entire family made so that me and my sister could have a new and different life from what they had,” Jay said.
Jay credits many former teammates and coaches for his reaching 10 years in the bigs. Tony La Russa, Jose Oquendo, Dave McKay, Skip Schumaker, David Freese, Edwin Jackson, Cris Carpenter, Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran are a few of the people in the game who Jay says played roles in his advancement.
“When I think back and look at this journey, the first thing I’m grateful for are the people that really helped me to get to where I am,” Jay said. “From my grandparents to my parents to the life they gave me as a kid. I reflect on all the things that had to come together for me to have accomplished everything I have. Looking up now after quarantine and to say, damn, 10 years in the big leagues.”
Jay might be somewhat representative of a dying breed. As Bochy said, Jay doesn’t possess jaw-dropping tools. But his intellect and intangibles have put him in this rarified company. Even so, analytics and a new way of judging players might keep guys such as Jay from being valued in the future.
“When you try to explain what an outstanding player he is, well, those are words,” said La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager. “But when you accumulate 10 years of major league experience, that’s a credential that not many guys reach. Another point — and I’m not taking a cheap shot — but if we’re not careful in this current environment of disrespecting scouts and coaches and teaching and how important the mental qualities are — how does your heart beat, how tough are you. People that are using formulas tend to disrespect and don’t find uses for guys like Jon. Those guys are invaluable to a roster.
“Jon has one of the highest baseball IQs of any player I’ve had on a team,” La Russa continued. “He brings it to all phases of the game. And once he got past a few years in the game, he became one of the leaders in the clubhouse, and that was one of the real strengths of our Cardinals teams. Having a voice in the clubhouse has everything to do with respect and trust and how sincere you are about embracing the team’s objectives. Everybody makes it a point to be accountable to everyone else. If you’re going about your business every day and getting ready to come off the bench, and when you play, you play with intensity — you don’t sit around hoping someone gets hurt or someone plays poorly — that’s when you gain that respect and trust. It doesn’t have to do with how many at-bats you get or how many innings you pitch. It has everything to do with earning the respect and trust of your teammates.”
Six times Jay’s clubs have reached the postseason. That, several baseball people said, is not a coincidence.
“He’s not going to put up glamorous numbers,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon, who had Jay on his 2017 Cubs club. “He’s not the fastest runner. He’s not going to be the guy you want to be your centerpiece to build a team around. He’s better served on really good teams because he’s that piece that helps get you over the top.”
In any other year, teams would recognize how special a moment such as this is. The Giants have a special-edition double magnum of wine made for a player, and every player signs the bottle, and they have a clubhouse-only moment before the game in which the player gets to the magic number. Other clubs have champagne celebrations postgame.
That can’t happen this year, but it takes nothing from Jay’s achievement in getting there.