Remembering Jay Bruce and how our opinion of his time here is more complicated than it should be

Jay Bruce never complained about not making enough money. He didn’t show his ingratitude by calling the team’s owner a liar. He didn’t dictate the Reds play him in a certain position or bat in a preferred spot in the batting order. He never criticized a teammate or the training staff. He didn’t act out when he got pulled for a late-inning replacement or get into a locker room fight with a teammate or his manager. He never blamed an injury for his lack of production. He didn’t draw attention to himself.

Jay Bruce never choked a woman, was never arrested for non-payment of child support, a concealed weapon or for DUI. He’s never done time for tax evasion or fined for driving 93 mph. He was never sued for rape. He was never suspended for gambling or PED use. He never attacked a beat-writer with profanity or personal insults. He didn’t refuse to talk to the local media out of spite. He was never vulgar on a radio show and didn’t send angry, petulant messages to fans. Jay Bruce didn’t even get caught shoplifting t-shirts.

And thank goodness he never committed the unforgivable sin of walking too much.

The only thing Jay Bruce was guilty of was being affable. Yesterday, he called his first big-league manager, Dusty Baker, to let him know he was retiring from baseball.

Jay Bruce did announce his retirement today.

The former Reds outfielder had played in 10 games this year for the New York Yankees. His statement marked the conclusion of a 14-year career for the three-time All Star. Even though Bruce suited up for five other clubs after leaving Cincinnati, the vast majority of his playing time came in a Reds uniform.

Jay Bruce was the heartbeat of those 2010-2013 teams that won two NL Central championships.

The Reds drafted the 18-year-old Bruce out of Beaumont, Texas with the 12th overall pick of the 2005 MLB draft. Just two years later, Bruce had earned a roster spot with the AAA-Louisville Bats. He finished that 2007 season the consensus #1 prospect in baseball. Bruce’s minor league brilliance had shown so bright even casual Reds fans were aware, not just prospect stargazers. 

2008 was a season of transition for the Reds. The club had hired a new manager, with Dusty Baker beginning his 6-year run as the team’s skipper. A lesser-known prospect named Joey Votto had been called up the previous September and had made the 2008 Opening Day roster.

But Baker and Votto were secondary. The newcomer Reds fans were most anxious to see, the piece we had heard so much about, the one who would turn the losing around, was Jay Allen Bruce. He had started the season back in Louisville, but we knew it wouldn’t be long until Bruce got his call to the big leagues. Every last one of us was brimming with excitement and unbridled expectation.

In fact, the Reds summoned Jay Bruce before the 2008 calendar turned to June. Bruce was batting .364/.393/.630 in about 50 games at Louisville. Once again, he was crushing the minor leagues. I remember hearing the thrilling news that Jay Bruce had been called up. He was to start on Tuesday, May 27.

The Reds were 24-28 and already 7 games out of first place. I bought a ticket for the best seat I could find and headed down to the ballpark.

From my seat near the Reds dugout, I could see Jay Bruce in the camera well near the Reds on-deck circle. It was 15 minutes before the game and he was by himself, swinging a bat and smiling ear-to-ear, enjoying the moment. So was I, apparently. I say that because on pure impulse, I walked over and asked for his autograph. I am the farthest thing from autograph-guy as possible. I’m not sure I own two other sports autographs. I hadn’t planned for this ahead of time. I had to borrow a pen.

Anyhow, Bruce graciously obliged and I have my memory.

Bruce batted second that night and went 3-for-3, with a double and two walks. Joey Votto, who Dusty Baker had seventh in the lineup, went 3-for-5. The Reds won and with the team’s shiny new outfielder, were now invincible. The Jay Bruce train left the station, accelerating on its hype-greased tracks.

The final standings would show the grim truth that Baker’s inaugural Reds team ended the season dead last. The 2008 Reds finished 23.5 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs and 12 games after the fourth-place Cardinals.

Of course, Bruce’s debut wasn’t the only dazzling memory he gave us. Jay Bruce provided at least one other, perhaps his greatest one a little more than two years later. It was also on a Tuesday night at GABP:

Of course the Reds would have won the NL Central whether or not Jay Bruce had hit that dramatic home run. They had a seven-game lead on September 28. Heck, they might have even won that very night without Bruce’s bomb. After all, the score was tied at the time.

I was in that crowd too, and wrote this later:

“Like thousands of other fans, I lingered in the delirium that September night to celebrate with the team from the stands. That group of hungry players, clad in postseason t-shirts and hats, drenched in various carbonated beverages was as elated as could be. The picture taking, backslapping, player hugs and high-fives with fans seemed like it would go on forever. And not one of us wanted it to end.”

It had been such a long, long wait for the Reds and their fans. The clinching home run by a 23-year-old was the stuff of award-winning movie-scripts.

Yet, more than the home run itself, in my mind the gesture that symbolized the Reds reaching the top of the NL Central was Bruce raising his arm as he headed to first base. It offered a perfect exclamation point. It punctuated the conclusion of a painful saga about a 15-year drought.

I wrote this about Jay Bruce in the summer of 2016, when the Reds were about to trade him:

“Jay Bruce has hit more home runs in Great American Ball Park than any other player. He has hit more home runs than any other National League batter since 2009 and has more RBI than any other National Leaguer since 2010. He is only the sixth Reds player in the club’s storied history with 200 home runs and 1000 hits.

Jay Bruce hit two home runs in one game against Clayton Kershaw. He hit a dramatic, game-winning homer off Phillies ace Roy Halladay, the pitcher who would go on to win the NL Cy Young award. Jay Bruce has been a multiple-time All-Star, multiple-time Silver Slugger and a three-time Rawlings Gold Glove finalist.

Bottom line, Jay Bruce has been a great player for the Reds.”

In the depressed run environment of the early 2010s, hitting 30 home runs was a big deal. Jay Bruce hit at least 30 home runs each year from 2011-2013. Here is the complete list of other National League players to do that: 

It’s been almost five years since Jay Bruce last played in a Reds uniform. As we look back at his time here, it’s human nature for our memories to be drawn to the positive. We’ll reminisce about his debut, the home run against the Astros, and similar heroics.

But you watch the coverage. We’ll also polish and rewrite a bit. Jay Bruce was a great player and exemplary representative of the Reds. But we better not gloss over the disappointment.

The unfair disappointment.

Some have said that Jay Bruce was the victim of unrealistic expectations. I don’t think that’s exactly right. High expectations for Jay Bruce, based on his phenomenal minor league career, were fair. His sensational record suggested that Jay Bruce could be a league MVP.

What wasn’t reasonable was our reaction as Bruce fell short. Over time, we learned that instead of being 50% better than the average player, like Joey Votto was, Bruce was merely 20% better. A certain segment of Reds fans could never get past that. Marty Brennaman’s sniping from his influential platform at WLW didn’t help. Brennaman’s infamous lament “When will Jay Bruce get it?” defined Bruce for some. 

To be clear, it’s a mistake to assume that a player who is exceptional in the minor leagues will become an MVP-caliber player in the majors. It’s possible, but not probable and nowhere near destiny. Further, a player who is 20% better than league average over a decent period of time is a great player.

It was the critics who didn’t get it.

Jay Bruce made the penultimate out in Game Five of the heartbreaking 2012 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants. Representing the tying run, Bruce engaged in an epic, unforgettable 12-pitch battle with Giants reliever Sergio Romo. That was as loud as I’d ever heard it at GABP. Fans-on-their-feet-screaming loud. Ohio State vs. Michigan loud. 

The Reds had won 97 regular season games. After winning the first two in San Francisco, Dusty Baker’s club had been one win away from advancing to the NLCS — three times. The hopes of Reds fans had shot sky high. The disappointment in losing all three was is was bottomless. 

When expectations and dreams soar, they can fall far and hard. For teams and for individual players. 

In the first part of the 2010’s so glorious for Reds fans, we took a liking for different players. Some of us went for Todd Frazier, others singled out Brandon Phillips, Billy Hamilton, Johnny Cueto, even Homer Bailey. But conventional wisdom is that people didn’t fall in love with Jay Bruce. At least not as much as we should have. 

I’m not sure about that. I, for one, showed up to see Jay Bruce play. I loved watching him patrol right field in my team’s ballpark. I hoped he would have occasion to use that cannon fastened to his left shoulder. I was there to witness his effortless power at the plate. I took pride as a fan that he hustled on every play.

And judging by the number of others — both young and not-so-young — who wore the #32 jersey with his name on it, I wasn’t the only one.

Jay Bruce’s excellent career here should be judged by the record book and the personal qualities he displayed. It should not be read through the eyes of disappointed fans. The fact that Bruce’s legacy in Cincinnati isn’t as straightforward as it should be is on us, not him. 

Featured image: Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

1 Response

  1. Tom Short says:

    Well said Steve. I think you nailed it. Bruce is somewhat emblematic of that whole era. He and the Reds were good, great at times, but never quite as good as our highest expectations.