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Mariners’ outfielder doing it his way

His injuries behind him, Eric Byrnes is back to playing baseball the way he likes best — energized

  • Seattle Mariners left fielder Eric Byrnes dives for, but can’t come up with a ball hit by the San Francisco Giants’ Aaron Rowand in a rece...

    Jeff Chiu / Associated Press

    Seattle Mariners left fielder Eric Byrnes dives for, but can’t come up with a ball hit by the San Francisco Giants’ Aaron Rowand in a recent spring training game between the two teams.

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By Kirby Arnold
Herald Writer
Published:
  • Seattle Mariners left fielder Eric Byrnes dives for, but can’t come up with a ball hit by the San Francisco Giants’ Aaron Rowand in a rece...

    Jeff Chiu / Associated Press

    Seattle Mariners left fielder Eric Byrnes dives for, but can’t come up with a ball hit by the San Francisco Giants’ Aaron Rowand in a recent spring training game between the two teams.

PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s not just the speed on the bases or the full-layout diving catches that show Eric Byrnes is playing baseball again the way he once did.
The scabs on his elbows, knees and even his nose are just as positive proof.
“It’s not a pretty sight, but it sure feels good,” said Byrnes, who signed with the Seattle Mariners in the offseason and is playing well in his effort to win the backup outfielder job.
“He’s a car wreck,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said.
When Byrnes looks like that, it means he’s playing his kind of game — running, diving and performing with an energy that inspires his teammates and irritates opponents. And it means he has recovered from the hamstring injuries that hampered him the past two years and led him to consider retirement.
There was no greater example of that than the first inning Saturday against the Diamondbacks when Byrnes made a flying leap to catch Stephen Drew’s drive toward the left-field corner.
Byrnes, 34 and with his fifth team since 2005, never lost his desire to make such a spectacular play. But when his hamstrings went out on him two years ago, he lost his ability.
“It’s a lot easier to put forth that effort when you’re healthy,” Byrnes said. “Over the past two years, it became very difficult for me. In a lot of ways, baseball wasn’t fun anymore because I couldn’t put forth that same effort that I was used to because I was hurt.”
Byrnes played only 136 games the past two years with the Arizona Diamondbacks and, not only had he battled injuries since early in the 2008 season, he broke his left hand last June. He called it the lowest point in his baseball career.
“My life was still fine. It wasn’t like I was in the tank,” Byrnes said. “But as far as baseball was concerned, I wasn’t sure how much longer I wanted to play because I wasn’t able to go out there and perform at the level that I was used to. It no longer was fun for me. Watching baseball games and doing rehab wasn’t exactly what I signed up for and it became difficult to deal with. In a lot of ways, I kind of looked at it and said that maybe it was time to move on.”
Byrnes didn’t need baseball to be happy — he has considerable TV and radio experience, he has launched a clothing line called Byrnt Organics and is an avid surfer — but he knew he could never replace the clubhouse relationships.
“There’s obviously the thrill of making a diving play or hitting a homer or stealing a base,” he said. “But I could drop in on a double overhead wave and get that same thrill. I’m serious. It’s a rush. But the one cool thing about baseball is these relationships that you’re able to build and keep throughout the years.”
Time became his solution.
Byrnes rehabbed the hand and the hamstrings most of last summer and, while playing for the Diamondbacks’ Class AAA Reno team, regained his speed and his passion. He batted .279 in 16 games, with two home runs, seven doubles, a triple and a stolen base.
“It had been two years since I had played consistently like that,” he said. “I had a lot of fun and I knew I still wanted to play baseball.”
Better, he still had a year remaining on his contract with the Diamondbacks, an organization he enjoyed. But the team decided to move on, even though he had one year and $11 million left on his contract for 2010.
The Diamondbacks designated Byrnes for assignment on Jan. 15 and released him five days later. The Mariners, looking for a fourth outfielder, signed him Jan. 29 to a one-year deal at the bargain price of $400,000 (with the Diamondbacks still paying $10.6 million that remained of his 2010 salary).
Byrnes said he talked to several teams but, after listening to Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, became convinced he fit best with the M’s.
“It’s one thing to get a job offer and all they say is, ‘Sure, come on in,’” he said. “And it’s another thing when you have somebody selling you on the fact that they believe in you.”
So far, Byrnes is backing up the Mariners’ faith in him. He went 1-for-2 with a double, two walks and a run in the Mariners’ 6-4 victory over the L.A. Angels, giving him a .306 batting average. He’s competing for the reserve outfield job with Ryan Langerhans, who’s batting .130, and Corey Patterson, who has a .320 average.
Byrnes believes he’s a good fit for the Mariners because he’s a speed-and-defense guy with home run potential. In 2007, his last completely healthy season, he hit 21 home runs and stole 50 bases for the Diamondbacks.
“That’s probably been the best part of my game, the ability to steal a base when we need it or potentially hit the ball out of the ballpark,” he said. “I’ll scrap and do whatever I can to get on base. I’m not a career .300 hitter but when I do get on, I like to try to use (speed) as an opportunity to create a run any way I can.”
And in the field, he’s capable of plays like the catch he made Saturday. Byrnes called it one of the most satisfying plays of his career because it happened against the Diamondbacks, the team that gave up on him.
“When I caught the ball — and I’ve never done this before — I kind of gave a “Whooo-hoooo!” That’s why we play this game,” Byrnes said. “Sugar coat it any way you want, it was the team that flat-out had no interest in having me play for them. I have no bitter feelings, I really don’t. I’ve 100 percent moved on. But, I’d be lying if I said that catch didn’t mean more because it was against the Diamondbacks.
“It was kind of a way to say, ‘By the way, I am healthy again.’ ”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog
Story tags » Mariners

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