Gnarly Hustle

Two years after his career appeared to be over, Eric Byrnes has made himself into much more than a high-energy novelty act for the National League's most surprising contender
September 16, 2007

THE SHAGGIN'WAGON is on the move. It's 1 p.m. on a baking hot Thursday in Phoenix, a rareoff day for the Diamondbacks, and outfielder Eric Byrnes is taking his boys outfor lunch in his 2005 GMC Savana conversion van. Riding shotgun is his agent,33-year-old Michael Sasson, all three-day scruff and Prada sunglasses. Loungingin two of the leather bucket recliners behind them are best friend Scott Seal,33—a former Padres minor leaguer who has known Byrnes since they playedtogether at UCLA—and the jut-jawed, cement-bicepsed Todd Leanues, Byrnes's42-year-old strength and conditioning coach. Conversation centers on theirexploits of the previous night, spent in the wilds of Scotts-dale celebratingArizona's 9--6 win over San Diego. At one point in the evening, hungry fromlate-night partying, Byrnes & Co. gave a rickshaw driver $100 to pedal to aJack in the Box, procure $40 worth of burgers and return. Says Byrnes,"Hunger should never be denied."

As Byrnesnavigates the strip-mall sameness of Phoenix's outer burbs, he describes thewonders of the Shaggin' Wagon (the name means exactly what you think it means).There's the '70s-style teardrop lighting, the moon roof, the 22-inch plasmascreen with DVD player and the back bench that, Byrnes notes, "convertsinto a bed with the push of a button." At the feet of the DVD console arethree input jacks labeled VIDEO GAME CONNECTION, but Byrnes does not use them."I don't play video games," he declares, and he is a man who speaks indeclarations. "They're a waste of time."

Spend some timearound Byrnes, the unlikely star of the D-backs' unlikely pennant push, andit's clear there are many things that the 31-year-old believes are a waste oftime. For example:

• Sleep

"We'll go outfor the night, and we'll be out late, I mean late," says Sasson. "ThenByrnesie will be up at 7 a.m. yelling at us to get going." By that timeByrnes will have already logged a workout. He begins every morning with atleast 20 minutes of cardio. "I literally roll off the rack and I'm on thetreadmill," he says. In this regard Byrnes likens himself to a goldenretriever who needs a run to achieve calm. "It's my peace, my solace,"he explains. "I can't function without it."

• Players whodon't run out pop flies

Whereas mostmajor leaguers resign themselves to a dejected trot to first, Byrnes jerks oneinto the sky and begins tearing around the bases as if racing a horse."Some people might think it's funny if I pop up and I'm sprinting aroundfirst and I'm trying to get to second before the guy catches the ball," hesays. "But you know what? That's got me two or three doubles thisyear."

• Shampoo

Byrnes doesn'tuse it unless absolutely necessary. He also employs hand lotion to style histhick blond hair, which can look from a distance as if a small, scared mammalhas perched on his head. Whatever, it seems to work: His coif is so popularthat, Sasson says, "it has its own career."

• Self-doubt

There's been noroom for it in a career riddled with call-ups, send-downs, winter ball andplatoons. "I've never met another player in baseball who has his will tosucceed," says A's general manager Billy Beane, with whom Byrnes clashedduring his time in Oakland. "Eric couldn't put cream in his coffee withoutbeing intense. I'm not sure I'd ever question his own belief inhimself."

And, finally:

• Underwear

Asked to namesomething people don't know about Byrnes, Arizona second baseman Orlando Hudsonthinks for a minute, then exclaims, "I know! The man don't own nounderwear!" This is true. Byrnes rolls commando-style away from the parkand plays in only sliding shorts (no cup). "I ran out of underwear incollege and never bought any more," he explains. "I don't like to berestricted."

You know whatelse Byrnes finds restricting? Baseball's conventions. So he wears his socksyanked up nearly to his knees and shuns the cool languor of the gifted playerfor the kamikaze hustle of a Little Leaguer on a Red Bull binge, crashingaround the field with neither grace nor restraint. Hudson describes Byrnes'sstyle of play as "dirty, messy, running with his hands all flopping."Says Byrnes, "I came up in an era when it was almost [as if] running hardwasn't cool. But I've been playing this way since I was nine years old, and Ijust never changed."

For that, Arizonafans adore Byrnes. They honor him with their blogs(www.EricByrnesTriesHard.com) and game-day posters (ROCK ON BYRNES), and theywatch the Eric Byrnes Show on the Phoenix-area Fox affiliate in surprisingnumbers. The only thing they won't do, for the most part, is attend games.Despite leading the National League West for the better part of the last sixweeks, the Diamondbacks, who as recently as 2002 drew 3.2 million, will barelycrack two million at Chase Field this season, and those who do show trend moretoward silver hair and polyester than face paint and rally cries. Last week, inthe showdown series versus the Padres, the P.A. man did his best to make theplace feel raucous, piping in a selection of white-man anthems (Ants Marching,Where the Streets Have No Name, Life Is a Highway), but a half-full stadium isstill a half-full stadium. Chalk it up to a combination of the weather—100° cankeep a person at home for the night—a region of transplants that makes theD-backs everyone's second-favorite team, and a stiff Gonzo hangover (as infranchise icon Luis Gonzalez, whom the team decided not to re-sign after lastseason).

That's why thissummer, with Byrnes an impending free agent, Arizona Republic columnist DanBickley wrote there would be a "mutiny" by fans if Arizona didn't keephim. This put Diamondbacks G.M. Josh Byrnes (no relation) in an uncomfortablesituation. He'd already jettisoned veterans and big contracts to go young,accruing a cache of prospects deep in multitalented outfielders, including24-year-old Chris Young (29 homers and 24 stolen bases at week's end) and20-year-old Justin Upton, the first pick of the 2005 draft. The blueprintdidn't include an expensive, late-blooming thirtysomething outfielder.

Still, as summerwore on, the Byrneses realized they needed each other; in the D-backs, Eric hadfound an up-and-coming franchise that valued his style of play, and in Eric theteam had found an identity to build on. So while Josh Byrnes will say only thatthe fan reaction "somewhat" affected his decision, the contractextension he offered in August was more revealing: $30 million for three years."The fans love Eric here with good reason," says first baseman TonyClark, the elder statesman in the Arizona clubhouse. "If he were in NewYork, he'd be a rock star."

What nobodyexpected was that any of the team's planning would matter so soon. But here isByrnes in the second week of September, leading a preposterously young team—21of the 34 players were born in the '80s—while edging his way onto the peripheryof the NL MVP conversation. "No doubt he's a candidate," says San Diegomanager Bud Black. "He seems to be all about winning, and that's thebiggest compliment you can give a player." Byrnes's stats are indeedimpressive, if not Pujolsian: Through Sunday he was hitting .295 with 21 homeruns, 94 runs scored and 44 stolen bases (in 50 attempts). They're even moreimpressive considering that two years ago, Byrnes thought his career might beending.

IT WAS the fallof 2005, and Byrnes had just finished playing for his third team in as manymonths. In July, after 7 1/2 years in the Oakland organization, he was tradedto the Rockies, an experience Byrnes likens to "leaving home for collegefor the first time." He lasted 15 games with Colorado before he was dealtto the Orioles, whose manager, Lee Mazzilli, brought him into his office andtold him, "Eric, we like your style. Every time you get on base, we wantyou to run." To Byrnes, stymied in the A's theft-averse offense, it was awhiff of freedom. Within the week, however, Mazzilli was fired, and Byrnesfinished out the year in a dismal slump, putting up a .192 average in 52 gameswith Baltimore. Even his agent was down on him. "I had to put together hisnumbers for free agency, and after staring at them long enough, I was like,Eric, you sort of suck, man," Sasson says with a laugh.

The word on therighthanded-swinging Byrnes: He played balls-out but was an incorrigiblehacker. He rarely took walks, and while he hit lefties well enough, he couldn'thit righties. It's why Beane was willing to let him go, and why the Rockies andthe Orioles did likewise. "The thing is, I'd been hitting righties since Iwas a kid," says Byrnes. "I knew I could do it, but if someone tellsyou something enough times, you start to believe it."

Byrnes grew up inRedwood City, south of San Francisco, idolizing Will Clark. His father had ablack belt in karate, and his mother was an avid tennis player. The result: ahyperactive, talented child who played, he says, "anything with ascore" and, for a while, refused to leave the house unless his shirt had anumeral on it. After giving up football in high school to focus on baseball, heheaded to UCLA, where he played alongside future major leaguers Troy Glaus andDave Roberts, and first met Sasson, then the team manager.

After beingdrafted by the A's in the eighth round in 1998, Byrnes played five years beforesticking in the bigs, though he had some memorable call-ups, including one in2000, when he nearly sparked a brawl because Indians pitchers didn't appreciatea hyperaggressive hack at the plate. He spent winters playing in the Dominicanleague, winning the MVP award in 2001 and earning the nickname Captain America.He was so popular when he played for Triple A Sacramento that he continued toappear on a weekly radio show even after he was called up to Oakland. His breakwith the A's finally came in '03, when Jermaine Dye was sidelined with a kneeinjury. In his first 59 games as a replacement, Byrnes hit .352 with 11 homersand was nearly named an AL All-Star (he was one of the online choices fans voteon to fill the last All-Star spot), only to sink into a 9-for-91 slump in July.Beane, one of the high priests of OBP, wasn't convinced Byrnes was an every-dayplayer, especially against righties. Byrnes saw things a little differently."It never got physical, but there were some heated arguments," saysByrnes. Part of the tension arose from the similarities between the men; in theoverachieving, strong-willed Byrnes, Beane saw something of himself."Billy's [playing] career was obviously short-lived, but he wanted it badlyin the same way I wanted it," says Byrnes. "And while I have theultimate respect for him as a person and a businessman—Billy, I am notyou."

Today Beaneadmits that he misjudged Byrnes. "Quite frankly, he's willed himself to bethe player he said he could be, and in fairness to him, he told me he was goingto do it, and he did." After signing as a free agent with Arizona in 2005,Byrnes had a breakout year in '06, hitting 26 homers and stealing 25 bases.This season he's focused on being more patient and using the entire field. Atweek's end Byrnes had nearly twice as many walks as he did last season (56 to34) and was hitting better against righties than lefties (.310 to .252). He is,finally, the player Beane wanted him to be.

Asked if hewishes he still had Byrnes, Beane chuckles. "I'm not allowed to say that,but we can make some assumptions."

WATCH BYRNES nowand one can still see his inner hacker trying to escape, only with mixedresults. Take the opener of the Padres series, on Sept. 4. In the bottom of thethird inning, with the D-backs up 2--0 and two men on, Byrnes stepped in versusrighthander Chris Young, he of the 6'10" frame and the sub-2.50 ERA. Tothis point Young had owned the matchup: Byrnes was 0 for 8 this season and 2for 17 overall.

Young started himoff with a slider away for a ball; then another slider away, but Byrnes swungand missed badly; then a third slider, this one so far out of the zone it endedup in the dirt, though that didn't stop Byrnes from taking a mighty cut. Down 1and 2, Byrnes was on the defensive. In years past he'd have been toast.

Only this timeByrnes laid off the next two pitches, a fastball in and a slider away. Thatmade it 3 and 2. "I don't sit on pitches often," Byrnes explainedlater, "but in that situation with first base open and Tony Clark on deck,who has hit four home runs off [Young], I figured he wanted to throw a sliderfor a strike."

Byrnes guessedright, stayed back and tore through that slider, sending it 418 feet into theleft centerfield bleachers. The resulting home run trot was more of a sprint;Byrnes was home before David Ortiz would have reached second base.

"That's anexample of a matchup he wouldn't have handled well last year," Arizonamanager Bob Melvin said afterward. Byrnes agrees. "If you look at the lastpitch, it's the same pitch I missed badly for the first strike," he says."Those are adjustments I wouldn't have been able to make a year ago, letalone five years ago. I used to swing and miss, and it would mess up my at bat.I would have been flustered, thinking, There's no way I can hit that pitch, andif you believe that, you're done. Now I have a greater belief in myself. Thatcomes from maturity."

That maturity hasnot stopped Byrnes from playing defense like he's a beach volleyball player. Hehas the highest zone rating of any leftfielder in the majors (a metric thatmeasures a player's success in getting to balls hit in his zone) and wouldsurely lead the league in flat-out dives if such a stat were kept. Not everyoneappreciates his gusto, though. "He's an example of what I call falsehustle," says Padres outfielder Milton Bradley. "He takes a Z route toa ball in the outfield, and when he finally runs it down it looks real good.But if he just takes a straight line, it would be an easy catch."

Byrnes bristlesat this. "You think I'm trying to take a Z route?" he says. "Trustme, I'd much prefer to stay on my feet to make a catch." He pauses."When I play baseball, I put my heart and soul into it. If people want tocall it false hustle, I have no problem with that, but they can also go f---themselves, because I'm not going to change."

Byrnes analyzeshis performance obsessively. For instance, he can list every time he's beencaught stealing this season ("a couple were pickoffs from lefthanders, onewas a pitchout, one was a botched hit-and-run, and a couple times I got caughtlegitly"), he studies video of his at bats between innings, and he believesthere is a science to basestealing, one he's tried to pass on to teammatesYoung and Upton. "People see the wild image, but what they miss is thathe's a smart cat," says Hudson. "I'll argue with him, and he'll go onfor an hour and I'll pretend to move on, but you know what, 99 percent of thetime he's damn right."

Smart enough, itturns out, to know that while his intensity plays well on the field, it's hisgoofiness that plays the best on TV. Even if, on occasion, it can be a bitembarrassing.

FLASH BACK tothis summer's All-Star Game. Byrnes, not chosen despite numbers worthy ofinclusion, is in a kayak in McCovey Cove, just outside AT&T Park, wearing amicrophone for Fox Sports. He has with him his bulldog Bruin, who is swaddledin a yellow life vest. In the top of the fifth, Fox's Joe Buck sends it out toByrnes, who was supposed to be waiting for a home run ball. Here's whatmillions of viewers worldwide saw and heard:

"Guys, not awhole lot of action out here in McCovey Cove, so I decided to bring Bruinout," Byrnes begins. "I brought my own baseball, and he's been antsy toget into the water so...."

With that, Byrneschucks a baseball into the murky water and lets go of Bruin's collar. Then, ina high-pitched frenetic voice, he begins shouting and pointing. "Go get it,boy! Go get it! Go in! Over there, over there, go get it, go getit...."

Bruin scramblesthis way and that for a moment, then launches himself into the water and beginsswimming furiously. "Yeaahhhh," roars Byrnes into the mic. "There'sa swimming bulldog, ladies and gentlemen!"

Only Bruin makesnot for the ball but the open water of San Francisco Bay. "He's heading thewrong direction," Byrnes narrates. "I might have to go in after him....He's swimming to another boat, I think he smells the, um, bacon overthere."

But Bruin passesthe boat and continues heading out to sea. Two kayaks take off after the errantdog while Byrnes nonchalantly addresses Buck and the crew. "The great thingabout being from San Francisco, guys, is I got all sorts of people helping meout. First they bring me out on this boat, now my dog's goneadrift...."

"Just get thedog back, Eric," says Buck, clearly not amused. "Get your dog back inthe boat, Byrnesie."

The action cutsback to the game, and now all that is audible is Byrnes's voice. "My ball,I think, somehow is sinking out here," he says. Then, with finality:"It's gone."

It was not, byany measure, a high moment in sports television history, but it wasentertaining (and Bruin did make it back in the boat). Recounting it now,Byrnes is not proud of the scene, even if it briefly became a popular YouTubeclip. "It was stupid, but it doesn't matter," says Byrnes. "Thenetwork got what it wanted."

Still, itshowcased Byrnes's easy likability, much as his performance in the playoffs didlast October, when he yakked his way through one three-hour rain delay. Othersmight recall the first time he guested on Fox's smarmy Best Damn Sports ShowPeriod. In reenacting the story of how he beat up a burglar who broke into hisapartment after college, Byrnes erupted from his seat, leaped over a table andthrew a mock punch at a camera. "After that," says Sasson, "thenetwork said, 'We'll have him back on whenever he wants.'"

That turned outto be quite often. Byrnes has a contract with Fox that pays him $125,000annually for All-Star and playoff coverage, 30 guest spots on Best Damn andmonthly vignettes. And in the off-season he occasionally hosts a three-hourradio show on KNBR in San Francisco, a gig that started in 2005, just after hisabysmal stint with Baltimore. "I figured it could be my last year in thegame, so I better start doing a lot of radio," he says.

Byrnes is anunapologetic media geek. In the den of his house, on the rocky outskirts ofsuburban Glendale, the only signed ball is from Vin Scully, and his 2006postseason press pass hangs prominently. He adores Regis & Kelly (though,he points out, he also loved Regis & Kathie Lee). In interviews he isforthright, not surprising for a man who gave himself the nickname the Truth.Not that he doesn't take pains to cultivate a certain image. During a recentinterview he stopped himself to say things like, "Wait, start the storyover," and suggested certain anecdotes for inclusion (like the one aboutthe burglar) over others (like the time, recounted by Sasson, that Byrnesjumped on a table at a Japanese restaurant in Phoenix, thrust his arms over hishead and yelled, "I am the Sake Bomb King"). He is, in many ways, theembodiment of the 21st century's melding of sports and entertainment.

These days,thanks to his new contract with the Diamondbacks, Byrnes no longer need worryabout a second career as anything other than a hobby. He can also finally getthat 50-foot wave pool he's been jonesing for in his backyard, and "won'tthat be f------ cool."

His house,purchased before this season, is where Byrnes's crew retreats to after lunch onhis off day. It is part McMansion (home theater with leather recliners,built-in outdoor grill, home gym, framed tiara of his long-distance fiancée,Tarah, from when she won Miss California in 2001) and part Chuck E. Cheese(Ping-Pong table, basketball hoop, batting cage, seven-hole putting green,billiards table, curved pool with a built-in waterslide).

Life is good inByrnes's Neverland. While the host poses for a photo shoot, the trainer Leanuestakes some cuts in the cage and Sasson provides hair pointers ("It'slacking poof.... It's flat in the back"). All of them carry around plasticbottles or, in the case of Byrnes, a disposable coffee cup, for spittinglippers. You can leave the game, but the game's routines do not leave you.Seal, the UCLA buddy who played Double A ball and is now in commercial realestate, relaxes and takes it all in. "Man, I guess I always knew Eric woulddo well, but not like this. He was always that guy who wanted it just a littlemore than the rest of us."

As Seal saysthis, Byrnes is posing on a rock above his pool, the early-evening sunreflecting off his shades as he raises his arms to the sky. Ever the director,he suggests this shot, and he's pleased with it. "This," he says fromhis perch, "is f------ awesome," and it's unclear whether he'sreferring to the pose, the afternoon, the season, his life or, perhaps, all ofthem.

"Quite frankly, he's WILLED HIMSELF to be theplayer he said he could be," says Beane. "He told me he was going to doit, and he did."

"I had to put together his numbers for free agency[in 2005]," says his agent, "and I was like, Eric, you SORT OF SUCK,MAN."

"The fans love Eric here with good reason,"says first baseman Clark. "If he were in New York, he'd be A ROCKSTAR."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckDUDE AWAKENING Even as a youngster, Byrnes showed signs of being a dynamo and displayed a fondness for the camera. PHOTOCOURTESY BYRNES FAMILY[See caption above] FOUR PHOTOSJOHN GREEN/CAL SPORT MEDIAWITH FLYING COLOR Byrnes's all-out outfield play (such as on this throw home) is interpreted by Bradley as "false hustle." SIX PHOTOSJONATHAN WILLEY/ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKSGRIME STORY With his down-and-dirty approach, Byrnes kept his career alive until he found his groove at the plate. PHOTODAVID ZALUBOWSKI/APHACK MAN The free-swinging Byrnes has learned that a walk (he had a career-high 56 at week's end) can be as good as a hit. PHOTOJONATHAN WILLEY/ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS POPULARDEMAND Despite their youth movement, the Diamondbacks ponied up $30 million tokeep the 31-year-old Byrnes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)