Jason Delay had made peace with the decision.
His career was stalled out. His bats collected dust. He had a roster spot, but at that point, it was more theoretically than actively. His patience had worn thin, and he knew his time could best be spent elsewhere.
“I was fully prepared to walk away from the game,” Delay said.
But as things stand, Delay now doesn’t plan to leave the game anytime soon. Delay has been a boon for the Pirates, who needed stability at catcher after Roberto Pérez sustained a season-ending injury. He’s essentially become the team’s starting catcher and continues to impress defensively. But in the not-so-distant past, Delay didn’t believe this opportunity would arrive.
In June, Triple-A Indianapolis manager Miguel Perez told Delay that he wouldn’t be playing, and reps would go to other players. Delay, a fourth-round Draft pick in 2017, admitted frustration; he felt that he’d performed well enough to deserve an extended look. On May 29, Delay started against Twins’ affiliate Triple-A St. Paul. He doubled and scored. Over the next two weeks, Delay didn’t play at all, instead serving as a bullpen catcher.
Delay still loved the game. The passion never evaporated. He was on the cusp of finishing what his grandfather, Edward Cannon, started. Cannon played Minor League ball in the Appalachian League for the Salem Rebels, a former affiliate of, coincidentally enough, the Pirates. Delay’s dream of playing in the Majors never died, but he didn’t want to ride the bench, waiting for an opportunity that might never arrive.
“It just wasn't worth it to sit in Triple-A and not play,” Delay said. “It just didn't really make sense.”
So, Delay developed a plan that did make sense. In mid-June, Indianapolis was set to travel to the Gwinnett Stripers, the Braves’ affiliate located 11 miles east of Delay’s hometown of Johns Creek, Ga. Delay would go with the team to Gwinnett. He wouldn’t come back, and his career would be over.
Delay, 27, didn’t lack options outside of baseball. He majored in economics at Vanderbilt and is weeks away from completing his MBA. As the trip to Gwinnett neared, Delay packed his apartment and searched for jobs. The decision was tough, but also cut and dry.
“Something needed to give, whether it was stepping away from baseball,” Delay said, “or the way that it ended up happening.”
In early June, as Delay caught a pregame bullpen, Perez called him into his office. The Pirates called Delay up. Sort of. Jordan Comadena, the Pirates’ bullpen catcher and coaching assistant, tested positive for COVID. The Pirates needed a bullpen catcher, and Delay would fill that role.
“He kind of framed it as a congratulations, but at the same time, it wasn't a congratulations,” Delay said. “I wasn't getting called up.”
Regardless, Delay joined the Pirates in St. Louis. To Delay, joining the team via taxi squad was neat, but wasn’t the goal. The goal was to make the big league roster. Due to circumstance, he’d get that chance.
Before the series, Duane Underwood Jr. tested positive for COVID. The Pirates needed a player. Sure enough, they had someone readily available.
Delay recalled being in the middle of a pregame meeting with Mitch Keller and pitching coach Oscar Marin. Despite not being on the roster, Delay wanted to sit in on these meetings to understand preparation at the Major League level. During the meeting, bench coach Don Kelly pulled Delay away to manager Derek Shelton’s office. Shelton broke the news.
“It’s probably one of my cooler moments as a Major League manager just because of everything he went through, where he was at, what he was thinking about with his post-baseball life,” Shelton said. “I think it just shows that you don’t give up on things, and when you get the opportunity, you take advantage of it, and he’s taken full advantage of it.”
Delay vividly remembers his reaction.
"I think I just started saying some expletives as I walked out of the room,” Delay said. “I tried to get back to the meeting as fast as I could because it was like, 'Now I'm active, I really need to know this stuff, I need to be prepared and ready for this game.' During the meeting, I think [Tyler] Beede and a couple of the other bullpen guys snuck in and were screaming and yelling. Mitch had no idea what was going on. No one really knew what was going on. It kind of interrupted the meeting. I didn't want to interrupt his start and alter his preparation or anything like that, but it was a really cool moment.”
Delay spent his first game on the bench, but the following day, June 14, Shelton inserted Delay into the starting lineup.
The conditions were suboptimal. Not only was it a hot, muggy summer day in St. Louis, but Delay hadn’t played in two weeks. Delay, who remembered tearing up when he saw his family in the stands, couldn’t have cared less.
As Delay stepped in the batter’s box in the third inning, Cardinals veteran Yadier Molina offered the rookie congratulations. And when Delay drew a nine-pitch walk in his first plate appearance, probable Hall of Famer Albert Pujols greeted him at first base.
“That's such a small thing for them to do, but that's something I'll remember forever,” Delay said.
Immediately following the first game of Pittsburgh’s doubleheader, the Pirates optioned Delay back to Indianapolis. His time on the roster hadn’t lasted two days, but to Delay, that cup of coffee gave his career a second wind.
“Ever since that day, everything has changed,” Delay said. “It hasn't even been close to the same.”
When Delay returned to Indianapolis, the team was, coincidentally enough, still on the Gwinnett road trip that Delay believed would be his final days as a ballplayer. With a big league game on his résumé, plans of walking away were set aside.
The following few weeks were a bit of a whirlwind. Delay spent a week and a half with Indianapolis before being added back to the taxi squad for the Pirates’ series against the Nationals in Washington D.C. Following that series, the Pirates assigned Delay to Double-A Altoona to get him reps; catcher Tyler Heineman’s wife was about to give birth, and the Pirates wanted Delay ready. When the Pirates placed Heineman on the paternity list, Delay made his return.
In his first game back, Delay did a little of everything. Not only did he double in a run for his first career hit and RBI, he also nabbed Tommy Pham for his first caught stealing. Delay, a defense-first catcher, took more pride in the throw.
Unlike his first stint, Delay wasn’t a one-and-done. Shelton began frequently starting Delay, and Delay kept impressing. And since then, Delay has gone from a taxi squad addition to Pittsburgh’s starting catcher. Delay has especially impressed on the defensive end; across 46 games, Delay has accumulated four defensive runs saved and ranks in the 78th percentile of framing. With Pittsburgh’s No. 1 prospect Henry Davis still making his way through the Minors, Delay could very well have a spot on next year’s Opening Day roster.
With every passing day, Delay grows more accustomed to life at this level. That’s a far cry from when he felt like he could’ve thrown up before every game due to nerves. The ebbs and flows have become normal. But Delay doesn’t take this for granted. If any number of scenarios unfolded differently, Delay might be out of baseball, having hung up his spikes for good. Instead, he’s living out the dream that he thought had faded away.
“I've settled in a little bit,” Delay said, “but at the same time, every time I look around, it's just crazy that I'm even here. Looking back on the past two months and the way it's unfolded, it really is insane.”