PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Long before he found himself in a holding pattern at the professional level, Jon Jay had learned the necessity of waiting his turn.
It started during his days at Columbus (Fla.) High School, when, despite being a talented teenage player, he didn't even make the junior varsity team as a freshman. He joined the varsity his sophomore year but didn't start until his junior season. Such was the reality for players trying to break into one of the Miami area's elite high school programs.
As a senior, Jay was a member of a state championship team.
He expected to wait at the University of Miami too, signing a letter of intent at a school that, at the time, had four junior outfielders. Jay didn't care. It's where he wanted to play. Circumstances -- two transfers and an injury -- created an immediate opening for him, even though Jay had already braced to wait.
He finished his collegiate career a three-time All-American.
"I didn't have the best tools out there, but I did what I needed to do as a college player to prove myself," Jay recently recalled. "I've always looked at things as a challenge. At a young age, I learned to understand how the business side of this sport goes."
It all prepared Jay for his professional path, which, after a quick climb to Triple-A, stalled because of the absence of an immediate fit with the big league club. Jay, who turned 28 on March 15, spent parts of three seasons with Memphis. When he was finally summoned to St. Louis in 2010, he bounced around the outfield, filling in as needed.
It wasn't until the Cardinals dealt center fielder Colby Rasmus at the 2011 Trade Deadline that Jay finally sensed the Cardinals committing to him. He prepares for the 2013 regular season having proven his value as an everyday center fielder, much in the same way that Allen Craig has finally found his everyday job at first base.
"It might not have been as fast as we would have liked it to have been, but we were patient and worked hard," Jay said of his and Craig's journey to the Majors. "We did what we needed to do, and instead of pouting about it, we worked every day. Now, it's nice to come into the season as a starter, even though it doesn't change how hard I work. But you know the role. You know what to expect. You know in Spring Training, exactly what you need to do to get ready."
Jay, who made a diving catch to save a run against the Mets on Thursday, solidified his credentials as a capable Major League center fielder last season. He became just the third outfielder in Cardinals history (minimum 108 games) to play errorless defense. And, as manager Mike Matheny describes it, Jay took over the task of "quarterbacking" in the outfield.
Despite playing between two outfielders -- Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran -- with a combined 24 years of service time and 15 All-Star appearances, Jay willingly took charge.
"That's not an easy transition, especially when you have guys of that caliber around you," Matheny said. "It's hard to jump in and really take that leadership role, but I think that's part of his natural makeup. He has those leadership characteristics in him. It was something he was excited about this offseason to kick it to another level."
This spring, Jay also found guidance in guest instructors Jim Edmonds and Willie McGee. The three analyzed ballparks, hitters and approaches together in a way Jay said he never had before.
"That's what comes with being a center fielder," Jay said. "You have to take ownership. You really have to step up. I think that's what makes the great center fielders great. They play fearless out there. They take charge. They're not afraid to say, 'I messed up.'"
Jay's leadership has been evident this spring -- even off the outfield grass, as he's taken the initiative of being a buddy to prospect Oscar Taveras. He's an accountability partner of sorts, helping Taveras learn how to read hitters' swings, how to adapt his positioning and how to play with maturity.
He's been a combination of teacher and friend.
"I look up to Jay," Taveras said through a translator. "I feel more confident out there now. I like how he's aggressive out there on balls."
Matheny recently instructed Taveras to watch how Jay approached something as innocuous as shagging balls during batting practice. Matheny wanted Taveras to see the effort, yes, but also the enjoyment.
"He's doing everything short of diving in batting practice," Matheny recalled. "He loves to do this. He's out there going hard for one round of batting practice. That's his plan. He's just out there like a kid enjoying the game of baseball."
Something interesting has happened, too, Matheny noted. Taveras has started to mimic Jay's pregame seriousness.
While solid on defense, Jay will again be asked to spark the offense. With Rafael Furcal out for the season, Jay is set to hit leadoff, a spot where he took half of his at-bats in 2012. He finished the year tied for fourth in the National League among leadoff hitters with a .303 average.
On a team not constructed around speed, Jay brings that element. He led the Cardinals with 19 stolen bases last season and has been testing his limits and leads throughout Grapefruit League play. The Cardinals have encouraged him to be advantageous, but not reckless. They value having him on base more than they do the extra 90 feet.
This concept of taking advantage of opportunities should come natural to Jay -- it's the same path he walked to get here.
"I knew everything would work itself out here in this organization," he said. "There was not another organization that I wanted to be with. It's paid off."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less