CINCINNATI — Marlon Byrd was acquired over the winter by the Cincinnati Reds to fill a deep, black hole in left field where outfielders have gone to die in Great American Ball Park.
For the first 14 games this season, fans wondered if Byrd was a dodo bird, the extinct flightless bird, or maybe he belonged in an aviary cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Byrd was hitting .115 with no homers, no RBI, no walks and no fan support.
That was then and this is now and Byrd is flying like an eagle and Byrd definitely is the word.
During the just-completed trip, the 37-year-old Byrd was the Holy Grail of hitting, a five-game hitting streak during which he went 10 for 20 with four home runs, a double and nine RBI.
What has changed?
Even though the Reds are his eighth different major league team and he has had experience playing for a new team, he knew how much the Reds counted on him. So he pressed. He was impatient. He swung at any pitch in the same zip code. The pitcher’s didn’t get him out, he got himself out.
So he calmed himself. He became selective. He made the pitchers pitch. After drawing no walks in the first 15 games, he has drawn 10 in his last 15 games.
Manager Bryan Price quickly recognized what Bryd was accomplishing and moved him from sixth in the batting order to second.
That Byrd is even in any spot in the order, that he is even playing baseball, is a miracle.
While attending George Tech, Byrd suffered a muscle injury in his right leg. It became infected, cutting off circulation, and doctors talk about amputation.
Byrd knows there was once a one-armed pitcher in the major leagues, Pete Gray for the St. Louis Browns in the early 1940s, but it didn’t take much research to realize that there has never been a one-legged player in the major leagues.
He refused the doctor’s recommendation and it took three surgeries to get it right. And during the surgery his body ballooned to 300 pounds. During a year-long rehab Byrd shed 65 pounds, strengthened the leg and enrolled at Georgia Perimeter Junior College and resumed his baserball career.
He was good enough to be drafted in the 10th round in 1999 by the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then he has seen the baseball world in the uniforms of the Phillies, Nationals, Rangers, Cubs, Red Sox, Mets, Pirates, the Phillies again and the Reds.
What impressed Price and his teammates was that his pleasant smile and team-first demeanor didn’t disappear during his early problems
"He was the same," said Price. "You couldn’t tell after a game if he was 0 for 4 or 4 for 4. All he cares about is if we win."
While prognosticators pick the Reds to finish near the bottom of the National League Central, Byrd has said from the first day of spring training that he expects big things from his newest team.
"I look at the guys in our batting order and I shake my head," he said. "I don’t care where I bat in the order there will be chances to drive in runs. We have six guys who have hit 25 or more home runs at some point in their careers — Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco and Brandon Phillips."
Byrd lagged behind for 15 games, but he is on a dead sprint to catch up and in 15 days he lifted his average 106 points to .221.
"You are talking to a pitching guy talking about hitting," said Price, a former pitching coach, "he looks more comfortable with his approach at the plate. He is taking more pitches, he is swinging at good pitches early in the count. He was attacking everything — fastballs, changeups, breaking balls, inside pitches, outside pitches. He was just ultra-aggressive. And now he is being more patient and comfortable with his hitting mechanics. Base hits and home runs certainly don’t hurt anybody’s confidence.
And there has been an added attraction to what Byrd has brought. His defense. Not noted as a fly-chaser, Byrd not only chases them, he catches them, including several diving catches that saved runs this season.
"Whatever I can do and whatever they want me to do," said Byrd. "That’s what I’m here to do."
While he couldn’t make those catches with one leg, the way he is swinging the bat he might have been able to be baseball’s first one-legged player, if somebody would run for him.