Eric Byrnes is back in the lineup as an everyday player! Every Wednesday, anyway. Byrnes is now the starting left fielder for the Dutch Goose, a slow-pitch softball team sponsored by a Menlo Park burger barn.
Until a week and a half ago, Byrnes was a Seattle Mariner, so some might see this as a step down. To me that is debatable. To Byrnes it’s just another exciting chapter of life.
Wednesday night, in the Menlo Park League, Byrnes, the cleanup hitter, led off the bottom of the second inning against Vintage Construction.
The Vintage pitcher was Bill Lopez, who, as a local Little League coach, passed over 9-year-old Eric Byrnes in a draft. Man, talk about payback.
25 years later Byrnes hit the first pitch deep over the left-field fence. When he arrived back at the dugout, Lopez nodded and rolled the ball to Byrnes, a souvenir of his first slow-pitch homer.
Byrnes walked to the stands and presented the ball to his proud mom, Judy.
It was a relief to see Byrnes seemingly happy and reasonably sane. The reports out of Seattle on his release by the Mariners were more than a little weird and at some times disturbing.
The cut came as absolutely no surprise. Byrnes, 34, had been battling injuries, was cut in January by the Diamondbacks, was picked up on the cheap by the Mariners (as the D’Backs were footin’ most of the $11 million in guaranteed salary this season), was relegated to part-time duty and wasn’t hitting a lick.
Two Fridays ago, in extra innings of a scoreless game in Seattle, Byrnes pulled his bat back on a suicide squeeze, rendering teammate Ichiro Suzuki a dead duck at the plate. The Mariners lost 2-0 and I was sent into a fiery rage penning this in the process.
Minutes after the game, Byrnes (ever the odd bird) burst out of the clubhouse riding a beach-cruiser bicycle, blew past the media and almost ran down Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, hurrying to the clubhouse to address his sinking team.
Days later, Byrnes was cut, announcing in a radio interview he was done with baseball for good but would soon be playing slow-pitch softball.
Those of us who remember Byrnes when he played for the A’s remember the Bay Area kid (St. Francis High in Mountain View) as quite the free spirit. He was always a high energy guy, nicknamed Captain America by his Dominican Winter League teammates, and just threw himself around with a reckless abandon.
But the reports made it sound as if one of Byrnesy’s notoriously loose screws had jammed and sent him spinning out of control.
To the above reports, Byrnes pleads guilty, but with an explanation. He hadn’t lost it; he merely flamed out, and retired from baseball with as much dignity as you can muster making your exit on a beach cruiser.
Byrnes said that when Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu and Zduriencik cut him, they offered to make calls to other teams on his behalf.
“I told him, ‘I appreciate it, Jack, but this is it. I’m done,’ ” Byrnes said. “I went to shake Don’s hand and he pushed it away and hugged me. He said, ‘Hey, I never had anyone play harder for me.’
“To be honest, I don’t really have any interest (in trying to play more baseball). I’ve never been scared for it to be done, for life after baseball, and it’s not because I didn’t love the game.”
Byrnes played the game with the type of zeal that very few have. While he was prone to leave us scratching our heads from time to time, his joy for the game could never be questioned.
But all of that seemed to have changed recently.
Byrnes’ version of events in Seattle vary from the news reports. On the failed squeeze bunt, he said the pitch was so far outside he said he knew he couldn’t reach it, so he pulled back and hoped to obstruct the catcher to allow Ichiro to score.
After the game, he was upset with himself, so after showering he hopped on his bike (he lived near the ballpark) and pedaled off, not deliberately blowing off the media.
Byrnes said he left baseball, and the Mariners, on good terms.
“Ask any of my teammates if I gave a” darn, he said. “Ask Wakamatsu. Ask Mike Sweeney. … I didn’t give up on baseball. I played, in my mind, to the end. My time just ran out. … I busted my ass for 11 years, I gave this game all I had.”
He drove home from Seattle to Half Moon Bay and slept a couple of hours at home, then hit the golf course.
Tuesday he played golf, then went surfing. Wednesday, softball.
“People keep asking me, ‘Are you really done’ ” with baseball? Byrnes said. “I’m beyond OK with (retirement). This is awesome for me.”