Player Of The Year: Jay Bruce

Normally when we prepare for our Minor League Player of the Year award, one of us at the Baseball America World Headquarters winds up traveling somewhere other than Durham.

Either that, or we will assign the story to be filed by someone we know well and trust that’s within driving distance to whomever is taking said award home with them in any given year.

This time around, though, things were different. And they honestly couldn’t have worked out any better.

John Manuel, Jim Callis and I all got to chat with Jay Bruce on the other side of the country in San Francisco at this year’s Futures Game. But that was all kind of a blur, considering the number of prospects that were all in the same spot for less than eight hours.

Personally, I was working the World side of things in San Francisco and only got to briefly introduce myself to the Reds’ No. 1 prospect. Quickly. Before the rest of the national media surrounded him.

That all changed a few weeks ago when Bruce and his Triple-A Louisville teammates made a visit to Durham to play the Bulls in an equally as brief two-game weekend series.

I made contact with Louisville media relations director Svend Jansen (by far my favorite name among media relations directors, at least at the Triple-A level). Big Svend gave me Bruce’s cell phone number, but warned me that the team was traveling from Charlotte late on Friday and that Bruce would likely want to sleep in.

On that Saturday morning, I received a surprising phone call from the 2005 first-rounder at 10:00 a.m., which was odd considering Jansen’s advice.

“Can we do this tomorrow?” Bruce asked. “We only got to the hotel around 4 a.m. and I’ve been trying to sleep.”

People talk about first-round bonus babies being prima donnas, and to get a call like this seriously struck a chord in me for him to be so polite. But it just kind of hinted at the person Bruce is.

I got to meet that person--and the best minor leaguer with the most upside in 2007 who qualified for our award--that Sunday at high noon, picking him up in my little 2004 Toyota as we drove to grab lunch before diving into all kinds of questions about his season, his path so far in pro ball, his life growing up back in Texas and who Jay Bruce really is.

But just two minutes into the drive, and at my prompting to make the conversation as comfortable as possible by randomly asking him anything that came to mind, Bruce was more at home than I was. In fact, he made me feel at home. There was nothing pretentious or contrived about the conversation--just two guys nearly 20 years apart talking about anything and everything on the way to get some good barbecue.

As we walked into the Q-Shack in Durham (a BA fave heavy in the rotation, not to mention the provider of our draft-day lunch every year since they opened), I have to admit it felt weird being the 36-year-old johnson buying lunch for the 20-year-old kid who signed out of high school for $1.8 million, but it somehow didn’t all at the same time.

That’s how comfortable Bruce is to be around, and how relaxed he is in his own skin. Nothing about going to lunch with a not-so complete stranger ever felt awkward.

Until this exchange, that is, when Bruce gets downright embarrassed about having a sweet ride:

Baseball America: So I bet you ride some kind of SUV with some kick-ass rims.

Jay Bruce: No way.

BA: So what kind of car then?

JB: (Long pause, looking down at the table) I got a BMW 750 . . . But you have to understand, my parents and my friends drove me around before that. The first thing I got with my bonus, after helping my family out, was a cell phone because I never had one. I got it right after I signed the contract in Sarasota, which is why I still have a Florida number . . . free long distance.

BA: Nice. And I bet tooling around in a BMW has nothing on my 2004 Corolla, either.

JB: You’ve got to be kidding me. Any time I can get away from the hotel and eat something different . . . well, it’s special. It's awesome. Fast food . . . You get sick of it pretty quick.

Or this one:

BA: Is there a nickname you’ve been given? I ask because when Matt Meyers covered the Midwest League for us last year, he hung the nickname ‘The Boss,’ on you.

JB: Yeah, believe me, I saw that. And I heard about it and I still hear about it. When are you guys going to stop calling me that?

BA: It’s the ‘Bruce,’ dude. Springsteen. The Boss. Come on.

JB: See, I’m not that familiar with him.

BA: Now you’re showing your age a little--for the first time, really. ‘Born to Run’ for me is Springsteen’s masterpiece, but you probably know him better by ‘Born In The USA’ and I know for a fact you didn’t grow up playing in ballparks and never hearing ‘Glory Days.’

JB: Great song.

BA: See?

JB: I just didn’t understand where that came from. I listen to more rap music and some country than anything else.

BA: Like T.I.?

JB: Yeah, or whatever’s good that’s out. I just like music.

BA: You really are 20. Thanks for confirming it.

It was those little moments in the conversation that really drove home how much Bruce’s makeup matches his tools. That might sound crazy, but the fact that he A) has a sense of humor, B) doesn’t take himself too seriously, at least off the field, C) is dedicated to his family and D) is driven to be not only a better player, but a better person--all those things really left and impression.

Jay Bruce is our 2007 Minor League Player of the Year. And from my standpoint, after getting a tiny glimpse into his world, I know we at Baseball America couldn’t be happier.

As I’ve said to the countless number of scouts, front office personnel both in Cincinnati and around the league, Bruce is the first player we’ve given this award to since I've been here where the makeup matches--and sometimes exceeds--the tools.