The complex case of Marlon Byrd

October 2, 2013

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There have been a lot of bad days for Marlon Byrd. He has been suspended and exiled, shamed and suspected. Perhaps no single day surpassed the moment Byrd’s chronic misadventures and the duct-tape-and-baling-wire operational standards of the Nationals in their embryonic stage converged. Playing for Washington in 2005, while the team was on a road trip Byrd’s black Escalade was stolen out of the players’ parking lot at RFK Stadium.

After 12 years in the majors and one partial season – at this time, just last year– toiling for Cuilacan in the Mexican Pacific League, Byrd savored a very good day. He played 1,250 big league games, 152 of them with the Nationals, before he stepped to the plate last night for his first postseason at-bat. Johnny Cueto hung him a slider. Byrd pulverized into the left field seats, and the sea of black-clad fans at PNC Park came unglued.

Byrd provided the Pirates’ first run in their 6-2 wild-card victory over the Reds, which sent them to the National League Division Series to face the Cardinals. The story of the game, as captured so well by Barry Svrluga, was the jubilant, raucous and borderline deranged atmosphere in and around PNC Park.

The story of the party – a ritual release of the frustration of 21 losing seasons – was simple. The story of the man who started the party is far more complex.

Byrd, 36, debuted in the majors with the Phillies in 2002 at 24. Bryd at one point had been rated the 26th best prospect in baseball, but after three sluggish seasons the Phillies traded him to Nationals midway through 2005. Bryd struck around Washington for one and a half unremarkable seasons and then caught on with Texas.

In 2010 he landed with the Cubs, and in 2011, at age 33, Byrd made his first All-Star Game. Rather than celebration, the feat was met with suspicion. For years, Byrd had unapologetically worked with trainer Victor Conte, the mastermind behind BALCO, and maintained his innocence.

Everything after his all-star appearance became a nightmare. He tapered in the second half of 2011. He opened 2012 hitting 0.70 for the Cubs, who released. The Red Sox took a flier, and he whiffed his way through another month before they released him, too. Two weeks later, MLB suspended Byrd 50 games for testing positive for tamoxifen, a banned substance that increases testosterone produced and, as a side effect, causes breast-tissue growth.

Byrd’s career had reached a dead end. He couldn’t hit. The taint of a PED suspension hovered over him. He was more punch line than ballplayer. He was done. And then he went to Mexico.

Byrd signed with Cualican, hoping he could convince one desperate team to give him a shot in spring training. He found a perfectly desperate outfit in the Mets, who invited him to Port St. Lucie. He clobbered the ball in the Grapefruit League and made the team.

Out of nowhere, Byrd had one of the best offensive seasons of any outfielder in the league, and once the Mets fell out of contention they traded him to Pittsburgh. He helped the Pirates escape the regular season for the first time since 1992, and then he sparked the greatest baseball victory in Pittsburgh since Game 7 of the 1979 World Series.

Byrd is no easy, hackneyed rise-fall-redemption case. He still faces the specter his PED past and whether his remarkable comeback is clean. He has been remarkably open about it, even the breast-tissue part. None of it mattered last night as he crushed Cueto’s hanger into the seats. Nothing could keep Marlon Byrd from having a very good day.

Other Series

The American League play-in game comes tonight between the Rays and Indians in Cleveland. The last time the postseason came to the firth of Lake Erie, midges were prominently involved. Tonight, Danny Salazar, a 23-year-old rookie who started the year at Class AA Akron, will face Alex Cobb. Manager Terry Francona thinks Jason Giambi, a 42-year-old who hit .183, was the team MVP. I would give it to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who, if the Indians win tonight, America will come to know in the coming weeks.

The winner will play the Red Sox starting Friday in Boston. The Red Sox earned an honor I think deserves more recognition – over the course of 162 games, they  were the best team. They got there by focusing on redemption, Jackie MacMullan writes.

Friday brings Game 1 of the Tigers-A’s ALDS. Max Scherzer, and not Justin Verlander, is getting the Game 1 start for Detroit.

The Dodgers-Braves NLDS starts Thursday. Matt Kemp is out for the playoffs, and Andre Ethier will only be a pinch hitter in this series. Dan Uggla, who made $13 million and hit .179 this season, may not make the playoff roster. It’s Kris Medlen-Clayton Kershaw at Turner Field.

The Cardinals will play the Pirates on Thursday. Allen Craig will miss the series, which continued a Cardinals postseason injury trend.

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