"I didn't really know who I was there for a bit," Bay said Thursday, appearing relaxed in a backwards cap and flip-flops after arriving two days early at Mets camp. "That is the tough part, is just trying not to be your own worst enemy."
Bay knows that now. Or at least he thinks he does. He believes that something clicked last September, when he played through a barking right shoulder and still managed to post a .313 average, .392 on-base percentage and .563 slugging percentage, all by far his best monthly marks of the season. Scouts say not to trust what you see in March and September. Bay says to believe it.
"I had to force myself in September to do some things that were supposed to be natural, that weren't anymore," Bay said. "That was kind of the platform for the offseason. So when I pulled out the tee and started hitting, that's just normal."
What Bay forced himself to do, in essence, was to recreate the swing that made him so successful with the Pirates and Red Sox from 2004-09. He began his ugly cycle of adjustments after a slow start to 2010, his first season after signing a four-year, $66 million deal with the Mets. Then, when his adjustments didn't work, he tweaked again. And again. And still more and more, until Bay no longer recognized himself or his swing.
It did not help that a severe concussion impeded his progress halfway through 2010, or that an intercostal strain wrecked the beginning of his 2011 campaign. But Bay believes that is all past him now, once and for all.
He understands also that many will dismiss such optimism as typical Spring Training jargon, that production is the only currency fans truly believe.
"I'm in the best shape of my life," Bay quipped shortly after arriving Thursday, poking fun at February's most common turn of phrase.
But Bay's Spartan winter gives him hope that he, at least mentally, is in his best shape in years.
Rather than continue tweaking his swing throughout the offseason, Bay spent hours hitting at a Bellevue, Wash., complex near his home, attempting to force the repetition into his brain. He realizes now that there was never anything wrong with his swing while in Pittsburgh and Boston, and yet still he tried to alter it.
"There were way too many changes being made," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "We've got to use that video we had of him when he was swinging good and try to get him to stay on those tracks."
Both Collins and Bay cite the outfielder's batting-practice sessions as evidence that the player who averaged 31 home runs per season from 2005-09 still exists, and can only improve given Citi Field's adjusted outfield dimensions. Whether or not those walls really did affect his psyche is anyone's guess -- Bay's included. But change can only help.
More significant in Bay's mind is the fact that he truly does feel like his old self, ready to contribute.
"I'm a realist," Bay said. "If I didn't feel like I could do it, I feel like I could admit that. You go out there sometimes for batting practice and it's there. Boom."
Even if Bay does rebound to give the Mets two productive seasons in 2012 and '13, he is unlikely to ever truly make good on the $66 million they will have paid him over the life of his contract. There is simply too much ground to cover, too many lost days to overcome.
But if Bay does submit two productive seasons, he hopes his critics may at least pardon some portion of the past.
"For everything that I've done in my career, I haven't done any of it in New York," Bay said. "And I completely understand that."
Collins describes a player who cares "as much, if not more" than anyone else on the team. Despite Bay's genial front, Collins tells tales of a frustrated, exasperated player letting loose within the confines of his own clubhouse.
Bay does not want to endure those emotions again. So even if he starts slowly again in 2012, he will not change his swing. Bay is done with his alterations now that two years of changes have done him no good.
"It's human nature," he said, "but now I'm just trying to get back to normal."
Then he added: "That's sometimes easier said than done."