Bay embraces New York challenge with Mets

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By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jason Bay formally buried speculation that he was not keen to play in New York when he put on Mets uniform number 44 Tuesday in his welcome to Citi Field.

A free agent after two seasons with the Boston Red Sox, outfielder Bay signed a four-year contract worth $66 million with a vesting option for a fifth season to bring his power-hitting bat to the borough of Queens.

The 31-year-old Bay, who slugged 36 homers and drove in 119 runs last season, did not want to discuss free agent talks, but bristled when reminded of a Boston media report that he would prefer to play baseball in Beirut than in Queens.

"That couldn't be farther than the truth," Bay told reporters. "There was a short-list of teams I wanted to go to and the Mets were on that list. I'm very grateful and very honored to be here."

Bay said the Mets were persistent in showing interest. "They made it known from day one they were interested," he said. "You want to go somewhere you are wanted."

Asked about Boston's stated interest in re-signing him, Bay said: "Ultimately, what it boiled down to was the Mets wanted me more. And I'm excited to be here."

Last year's Mets were considered contenders for the NL East crown but injuries devastated the lineup and the spacious dimensions of new Citi Field contributed to a power shortage.

They finished 70-92, 23 games behind National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Bay, who played in the first major league exhibition at Citi Field prior to Opening Day while with the Red Sox, said he was undeterred about distances to left field and believed the team would field a potent lineup.

"It didn't seem like Death Valley to me," he said. "I have confidence in the type of player I am."

Mets general manager Omar Minaya agreed.

"We've seen him produce in a big ball park in Pittsburgh. We've seen him produce in a big market in Boston," said Minaya, pointing out how he responded to the pressure of replacing Manny Ramirez as left-fielder for the Red Sox.

"We needed to slug more, add to the middle of the lineup. With Jason up here, we've met one of our goals."

(Editing by Justin Palmer)