The mentoring of a young Byrd
While I was patrolling center field in Philadelphia, I had heard about Marlon Byrd. In the wake of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Byrd was a rising star. He was the Phillies' minor league player of the year and represented my eventual replacement.
When I met him, I knew this was a guy who was both fun-loving and intense. Byrd had a history of doing noteworthy work on the football field in Georgia, and he brought a football player's approach to the game on and off the field. He was young and still learning how to channel it all.
As a player that is transitioning to becoming a veteran in the big leagues, as I was at the time, change comes quickly. Besides the reality of just about everyone on the entire planet gunning for your job, you have to learn how to embrace younger players within your organization.
You are always competing, and not just against the guys in the opposing dugout. You are competing against your own teammates, and it isn't always a friendly competition.
It makes sense, given that there are only 25 roster spots. Young players or newly acquired players are rocking the boat, by definition. They come to make the team, they come to win a job -- and there are a finite number of jobs.
So you have to make a choice as to how to engage the new guy or the young buck, knowing that helping him learn the ropes makes for a deeper and better team.
But when he plays your position, it also makes your career as a starter with the organization shorter. You are training your replacement and you are not even being replaced yet -- not the best strategy on a personal level.
Yet baseball has a culture of mentoring. You learn the game's history and the importance of heeding experience. When you report to minor league camp, you hear from the big leaguers, you understand the solidarity behind the union. You share the best lunch spots. You also know you are part of the flame of history, there to pass the torch -- and part of that process is pulling up a young player from the dark well of inexperience.
So Chuck McElroy let me room with him for free in spring training. Shawon Dunston pulled me aside and told me about team politics. Lance Johnson told me about race and dating. Mark Parent rode me about keeping my locker clean. Jose Valentin told me how to run the bases using my head, not my legs.
Once you experience this outreach, you get it. You understand that you have to pass it on because, after all, it was passed on to you.
When I was traded to the Phillies, I would always arrive to spring training early. Marlon Byrd would be right there with me, and we would train together. Running, talking, hitting. I knew he was going to get to the big leagues -- it was only a matter of time. I also knew I could help him get there.
Once he did arrive, I held nothing back. I opened up my book and read aloud all of the chapters of the game. At that point, I was an established regular and realized that even if he would take my job after I had a slow month, I could still find work. Once you break through and become a productive starter, you can hang around the game a long time, Byrd or not. Maybe not in Philly like I would have hoped, but somewhere.
Our conversations covered the entire world of baseball. One of our early big league conversations was about dating and relationships. I emphasized a point my parents made to me at one time or another: "You have to be with someone who can grow with you. A tall order in baseball." Get rid of the drama off the field was the message.
After the 2002 season, when I was faced with free agency, I had to weigh the Marlon Byrd reality. I felt like I was still young enough and qualified enough to be a starter, but after a down year in 2002, it was unclear how much room I had to go into Phillies camp and win that job. It seemed like it was Byrd's job to lose. The Rangers were courting me as an option and were clear about their desire to make me the starter. In Texas, it was my job to lose. I was also much more open for change from a city I enjoyed (Philadelphia) after my father passed away that September.
So I went to Texas as a starter in 2003, and Byrd hit .303 in his first full season as a regular in Philadelphia. I was genuinely proud of him and his work. He developed a reputation as a hard worker and someone who hustled on every ball. Every part of his game was growing.
When I returned to Philadelphia as a free agent in 2004, it was Byrd's job -- and I knew I would have to wait for a window to be a starting center fielder again. He struggled, but by then, our relationship was close and we talked about tactics during pre-game workouts. We would stand in the outfield during batting practice and talk, just like I did with Jimmy Rollins, just like Brian McRae did with me.
Now he could recite my thoughts on issues. I knew he remembered the day when I gave him a clear lesson from experience. Gavin Floyd was making his big league camp debut with the Phillies. We had an intrasquad, live batting practice session with Floyd on the mound. I had heard Floyd could hit the high 90s and had a nasty curveball, and I also knew he was young, excited, and nervous.
Byrd was in my group of four hitters. I was slated to lead off as the veteran in the group. I declined. I told Byrd to "step in there, rook." Floyd drilled him. Lesson learned: Never hit first against an excited rookie early in camp.
So when the news came out about Byrd's 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug this week, I was upset. It had nothing to do with guilt or innocence or my work on the drug policy or cheating or not cheating. It was like any parent would feel. You invest in young teammates, and some you really want to help. I know his family. I had spoken to his father many times, who was thrilled with the personal growth his son underwent in his years in Philadelphia.
Byrd has publicly conceded his mistake and certainly is already paying for it. He has also explained that his suspension came from medically addressing the recurrence of a personal health issue. Yet he must also have known that the drug policy lays out a way to deal with this kind of circumstance without getting in trouble for it. That is where I wish he did it differently. Privacy was the most important factor for him at the time he made his decision. It trumped policy. A choice often made from being in the public eye, but an expensive one on so many levels, in this case.
In the end, it was avoidable, and that is a hard lesson at such a pivotal time in his career as he fights for a new contract and a way to get a fresh opportunity.
It will get nasty from here on for him, but he also has an opportunity to regroup. From the eyes of mentor, I just hope he will take this time and learn from it, which, knowing Marlon Byrd, I am sure he will attack it with the same reckless abandon he shows on the field. Then I hope he will teach from it, helping anyone who can gain from it, especially young fans and young players.
Even if one of those players could be his replacement.