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Country boy Jay Bruce finding comfort in Big Apple

Free rent in exchange for pancakes and omelettes? The Mets outfielder traded in his couch-crashing days for a major offensive role and some stability in New York. AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson

When Jay Bruce was hitting .183 and flailing at everything in sight in his first month as a New York Met, a casual observer might have concluded that he was having trouble finding his comfort zone in the big city.

In reality, Bruce's biggest challenge was finding a comfortable place to sleep.

After the Mets acquired him from Cincinnati in early August, Bruce was the Major League Baseball equivalent of Pete Holmes, the vagabond standup comic in the HBO series "Crashing.'' When he wasn't ordering room service in Manhattan hotels, Bruce was bunking with teammates. All told, he stayed at six different residences in a two-month span after nine years of stability and autopilot commutes in Cincinnati.

"He stayed with me for a week,'' Mets second baseman Neil Walker said. "I made him cook breakfast a few times, but he liked that. Great roommate.''

During the pancakes and omelettes stage, Bruce's numbers were disappointing enough to perpetuate a timeworn narrative. He was hardly the first player to fall short of expectations after going from an afterthought team to a pennant contender at the trade deadline. But this was New York, and he instantly fell victim to the perception that he was swallowed up by the big stage.

"I understand how people come up with their thoughts,'' Bruce said. "It's like the fun, cool thing to say that New York is too big for people.

"I think it's a pride thing with people from New York, and I get it. It's an amazing city. It's chewed a lot of people up and spit them out.

"That doesn't even exist to me, though. This is the team I'm playing baseball for, with an incredible opportunity. I was just bad at baseball for a month.''

Bruce can cite numerous statistics to show that he has been much better at baseball since that underwhelming debut. He rallied to hit six home runs and slug .513 in September, and he's off to an impressive start this spring as New York's everyday right fielder and one of several designated wing men behind Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the order. Through 12 games, Bruce is slashing .271/.364/.542.

With each home run and double in the gap, he is exacting revenge on behalf of all those players who have had their competitiveness or even their manhood questioned in America's biggest market. For every Paul O'Neill and Rick Reed who taps into an inner force and elevates his game in New York, several players do not recall their experiences in the city with fondness.

"I understand how people come up with their thoughts. It's like the fun, cool thing to say that New York is too big for people ... I think it's a pride thing with people from New York, and I get it. It's an amazing city. It's chewed a lot of people up and spit them out. That doesn't even exist to me, though. This is the team I'm playing baseball for, with an incredible opportunity. I was just bad at baseball for a month."

Jay Bruce, Mets outfielder

Carl Pavano, Jason Bay, Vince Coleman, Kevin Brown, A.J. Burnett and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar are among the prominent big leaguers who either regressed or imploded in New York. In the process, they carried on the unfortunate legacy of pitcher Ed Whitson, the patron saint of players with a toxic aversion to the city. Whitson found life in New York to be such a soul-sapping ordeal that when the Yankees traded him back to the San Diego Padres in 1986, it qualified as an act of mercy.

"I was in awe of being in Yankee Stadium and the big city,'' Whitson said in a 2010 interview. "Some people can handle it, and some people can't. You dream about pitching in Yankee Stadium as a kid, but it can be pretty overwhelming for a guy coming out of a small hometown and smaller media markets. It's like working in an office, and your boss comes in and says, 'You suck,' after you've tried your best. Now multiply that by 50,000 bosses, all of them telling you that you suck, and imagine what that feels like."

For Bruce and other players who parachute into New York, Boston and other high-pressure markets, the fan expectations and increased media scrutiny can be an awakening. Mets manager Terry Collins has seen enough players struggle with the transition to be convinced that it isn't a myth.

"You'll hear it from guys who come in,'' Collins said. "In Cincinnati, they have, what, two writers? They have 12 here -- and maybe 15 or 25 when we're at home. That's the thing guys have to adjust to. I remember a few years ago, one of our players had a small problem, and it was in the headlines the next day, and he said, 'What's the big deal?' Well, it is a big deal. It's New York. Everything is a big deal. And if it's not, they'll make it a big deal.''

Before his arrival in New York, Bruce, 30, formed his impressions of baseball and life from his experiences in the heartland. He grew up in Beaumont, Texas, a city of 120,000 that is best known for producing Frank Robinson and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. The Reds selected Bruce as the 12th overall pick in a monster 2005 draft that included Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen and Jacoby Ellsbury, and Bruce carved out a niche as one of baseball's most reliable power hitters. He's 10th in the majors with 245 home runs since his big league debut in 2008, and he's tied with Joe Morgan for 16th on the Reds' career list, with a .470 slugging percentage.

Despite a reputation for streakiness, Bruce was en route to one of his most consistent seasons when the Mets acquired him from the Reds in a 2016 deal for Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell. He considers himself a creature of habit, and suddenly, Bruce was forced to deal with a disruption to his routine, not to mention chaotic living arrangements. As he set off for New York, his wife, Hannah, and infant son, Carter, stayed behind at the family's offseason home in Texas, and that separation contributed to his sense of disorientation.

"I am a routine-oriented guy,'' Bruce said. "I like simplicity and routine, and that was really unsettling.''

Amid the bad days, Bruce never grew defensive, ducked reporters or reacted in a way that suggested he was skittish in his new environs. He simply expressed disappointment that he wasn't doing more to help a team that won 87 games and earned an NL wild-card berth.

"It eventually comes out in the demeanor of some guys in the clubhouse,'' Collins said. "They become a little more quiet and sullen. But Jay was upbeat about it. We would talk about his struggles, and he would say, 'Look, I've never gone through this, so it's news to me too.' When we talked in spring training, he said, 'I just want you to know I'm the same guy you traded for, and I'll be that guy.'"

Bruce, an analytical type and problem-solver by nature, spent a lot of time conferring with Mets hitting coaches Kevin Long and Pat Roessler and diving into some of the metrics that contributed to his slow start. He has made a conscious effort to pull the ball in the air more often, be selectively aggressive early in counts and refrain from swinging at bad pitches and getting himself out. He ranks second among Mets hitters with seven walks this season, even though his average of 3.65 pitches seen per at-bat is low by his career standards.

It's easier for Bruce to maintain his focus now that his off-the-field life is settled. Hannah and Carter, who turns 1 later this month, have accompanied him to New York, and the family is renting a place on Manhattan's east side. While Hannah checks out little gyms and a variety of baby classes in the city, Jay scopes out new breakfast nooks and the best places to order late-night food. In contrast to David Wright, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and some of his more celebrated teammates, Bruce has the freedom to wander out in public without creating a fuss.

"Everyone here kind of carves out their own little neighborhood,'' Bruce said. "I find a lot of comfort in that. There's so much energy. You stay moving, and you stay active. I always enjoyed that when I came to New York, but now I have an opportunity to experience the city and let it become mine. That's super refreshing. It's something I really value as a kid from Beaumont, Texas. It's the most amazing city in the world.''

As Bruce focuses on driving in runs, he is also dealing with the challenges of, well, driving. He has a car in the city and commutes to and from the park with first baseman Lucas Duda.

How does a kid from southeast Texas and Cincinnati handle the rigors of New York traffic? By making adjustments.

"You turn into a New York driver fast,'' Bruce said. "Evolve or die. I just keep the blinders on. If you ever hear about me and some kind of road-rage issue, then something went terribly wrong.''

Bruce will be eligible for free agency in November, and he knows his performance this season could have a major impact on his financial future. But a decade in the majors has taught him the importance of compartmentalizing. In August, fans at Citi Field were dreading his at-bats. A few months later, those boos have turned into cries of "Bruuuuce!"

At least, that's what he thinks they're yelling.

As the pendulum swings back in his direction, Bruce has made his peace with the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately mentality that governs public perception.

"I totally get the passion and the ebb and flow,'' Bruce said. "I don't quote a lot of guys, but I remember a while back, J.J. Watt said, 'Success isn't ever owned. It's leased, and the rent is due every day.' With New York fans, they expect you to help every single day.

"I think that's a great thing. That's the beauty of it all, man. We get to come do it every single day. Good or bad, it doesn't matter. The next thing is coming at you. It never stops.''