By Jim Masilak
July 29, 2007
Redbirds shortstop Brendan Ryan wasn’t sure where his career was headed when he was dismissed from the Lewis-Clark State baseball team for the fourth and final time during the 2003 season.
The major leagues had always seemed a long way from Lewiston, Idaho, but never more so than in the final days of Ryan’s ill-fated junior season with the Warriors.
“I figured I was gonna get a shot (at playing pro ball),” Ryan said. “But I wondered, ‘Am I gonna get thrown into the 90th round because of a guy who has a personality conflict with me?’ This isn’t right. I’ve worked too hard.”
Ryan’s relationship with longtime Lewis-Clark State coach Ed Cheff was a tumultuous one.
Reached via telephone at his home Lewiston, Cheff said Ryan’s problems at Lewis-Clark State were the result of “a lot of irresponsibility — being on time and being a student athlete and not just an athlete.”
“Sometimes he didn’t focus as much as I thought he could as a student,” Cheff said. “He’s a bright guy. At that point in his life, (school) wasn’t as important as it should have been. … He had some things he needed to get better at, and he actually went out and did it.”
Cheff said he was delighted when Ryan, whom the Cardinals selected in the seventh round of the ’03 draft in spite of his collegiate woes, received his first big-league promotion last month.
The 25-year-old from Los Angeles was nothing short of a revelation, hitting .339 with two homers in 25 games with the Cardinals. Able to play a number of infield positions, he has been mentioned as a possible starter in St. Louis in ’08.
“Like a lot of kids, I think he’s matured a lot since he’s been in pro ball,” Cheff said. “He’s always been a great player, and he’s obviously gotten a lot better.”
Optioned to Memphis on Friday due to the Cardinals’ bullpen needs, Ryan went 2 for 5 with a double on Saturday night during the Redbirds’ 7-3 loss to Fresno at AutoZone Park. Ryan extended his Triple-A hitting streak to 11 games in the process.
“He did a great job (in St. Louis), absolutely,” Redbirds manager Chris Maloney said. “He put a good foot forward. I think everyone was pleased with him.”
Ryan, whose time-keeping skills have occasionally been an issue within the Cardinals organization, drew headlines when he showed up late for a game in New York against the Mets. It turned out that Ryan’s cab driver had taken him to Yankee Stadium instead of Shea Stadium.
“I got to the field and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. The guy’s not here a minute and he’s showing up (late). I’m impressed,'” Ryan said in self-deprecating fashion.
It ended up being the best day of his life. Having found his teammates had frozen his clothes, Ryan was struggling to thaw them out — and blowing a fuse in manager Tony LaRussa’s office in the process — when Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols pulled him aside.
“Albert went to the training room and gave me a collared shirt,” Ryan said. “I was like, ‘Sweet!’ I got some acceptance from Albert Pujols. Nice.'”
Ryan also thought it would be a good idea to take some ground balls at third base, just in case someone noticed.
When Scott Spiezio began experiencing shoulder pain shortly thereafter, Ryan learned that his extra work would indeed be rewarded.
“I just wanted to be seen taking ground balls over there, and then Scotty’s shoulder started hurting him and he was gone,” Ryan said. “Tony said, ‘I saw you taking ground balls at third. You’re starting there tonight. … I was like, ‘Sweet, it really worked! It was that easy!'”
Ryan is under no illusions that hitting in the big leagues over an extended period will be as easy as he’s made it look thus far in his short career.
“Do I think I’ll stay at whatever my average was up there? Probably not,” he said. “It was fun. We’ll see what happens.”
As far as mending fences with Cheff, Ryan said that will be more difficult. Ryan received a letter from his former coach during spring training — “I guess that’s as close to an apology as I’m gonna get,” Ryan said — but he has yet to respond.
Ryan said Cheff dismissed him from the team a total of four times. The third time, during the fall of ’02, Ryan said he revoked his scholarship.
“He tried to ruin my life. I’m not going to forget it that easily,” Ryan said. “… OK, I wasn’t completely innocent there. But I’m a kid a million miles from home. You’re gonna have to have some patience.”
After a few minutes of reflection, Ryan softened his stance, if only the slightest bit.
“I learned a lot about life,” he said of his experience at Lewis-Clark under Cheff. “People ask me if I would do it again. It got me to the big leagues, so I guess I would do anything again if I knew it was gonna get me to the big leagues.”
Cheff, meanwhile, speaks glowingly of the player with whom he once butted heads.
“He’s got a soul. He cares. He wants to do things right,” Cheff said. “He had a lot of great characteristics. … I’m not surprised he’s a big-league player. Not a bit.”
Pitching matchup: Redbirds, RHP Mike Parisi (5-9, 5.51 ERA) vs. Fresno, RHP Matt Palmer (9-5, 4.30 ERA), 2:10 p.m. at AutoZone Park.
Radio: WHBQ-AM (560)
Promotion: Post-Game Christian Concert with Hawk Nelson