During Sunday's televised St. Louis Cardinals game, KSDK's Rick Horton delivered a great lead to a cut-in about rookie shortstop Brendan Ryan, who had just been called up from Memphis for his first-ever big league action.
There on the eve of the 25-year-old's first MLB start, Horton, a former player himself, harkened back to what such a day means, not for the player as much as for his life-long support system of teachers, coaches, friends and of course, family.
Then, the audio switched to reporter Frank Cusamano and two special guests – Ryan's Mom, Katie, and his older brother, Paul. The delighted pair shared their story how they learned of the news of Brendan's call-up and their overwhelmed reaction.
Though he didn't say it on air, I knew from personal experience that Californian Paul Ryan is Brendan's biggest supporter. Fifteen years older than his baseball-playing brother, Paul first contacted me back in the fall of 2003, following Brendan's initial season in the Cardinals organization. The shortstop had been selected in the seventh round of the June, 2003 draft.
I had put together an article about statistical leaders at the various levels of the Cardinals minor league system. Inadvertently, I had excluded mention of a young hitter from Los Angeles who had finished seventh in the New York-Penn League with a .311 batting average.
Just as he had likely done for his entirety of his younger brother's life, Paul was looking out for Brendan, in this case politely but firmly correcting a sportswriter's erroneous report.
Three years later, as I do every fall, I was in Arizona on a dual mission, both tied to baseball, of course. The timing of the trip was established due to a yearly convention called "First Pitch Arizona", run by friend and fantasy baseball competitor Ron Shandler. The ex-Cardinals consultant hosts an informative and fun-filled three-day symposium devoted to prospect watching and fantasy baseball.
As our group was enjoying one of the integral parts of the conference, an Arizona Fall League contest, I struck up a conversation with two men sitting nearby. One of Shandler's attendees last October was Donald Moss, an entertainment attorney from Los Angeles. His friend seemed to have a special interest in one of the Peoria Saguaros players, a young man called "Boog" or "The Boog".
Moss' friend was none other than Paul Ryan. The surgical products specialist had arrived in Phoenix to catch his little brother in action. This time, Paul didn't have to inform me that Brendan was hitting over .300. (Brendan finished with a .310 average and his 29 hits tied for the most in the 2006 AFL.)
However, big brother did have to explain the origin of Brendan's nickname. Turns out that baby Brendan bore a striking resemblance to former Orioles slugger Boog Powell, a big man in stature. Though Brendan grew up tall and slender in build (6-foot-2, 195 pounds), the moniker stuck.
He was lovingly given the tag by his father, James Ryan. Like Brendan, James was a standout middle infielder. Dad played college ball at Loyola Marymount, and later shared his joy for the game with thousands of boys while coaching little league baseball for over two decades. Mom Katie Ryan is also a giver. The long-time first grade teacher is preparing for her retirement later this month.
The three of us, Don, Paul and I, continued to talk Brendan and baseball for the better part of two hours. The timing was uncanny, as not more than a hour prior, in my other mission, I had interviewed a number of Cardinals prospects in the Saguaros clubhouse, including Brendan.
I was struck by the shortstop's outgoing and humble, yet confident demeanor. We joked about his apparent record of having played at four different levels of the Cardinals minor league system in 2006 as he was coming back from a wrist injury. The AFL was in fact our 19th-ranked Cardinals prospect's fifth official league stop last season.
His reply was typical of the easy-going youngster. "Yeah, I got a lot of hats this year," he joked.
Brendan knew all too well that his injury had kept him from being called up in 2006 when Cardinals starting shortstop David Eckstein went down with a serious concussion. Ryan had been added to the organization's 40-man roster prior to the season, but a partially torn wrist ligament trashed his first big chance.
While disappointed, he remained optimistic, knowing that opportunity would not be his last. "Yeah, it was tough. There were a couple of articles in Springfield that I didn't want to read. It is tough to think about that, but it was even tougher not being healthy. But, then when Eckstein went down and to not be available… that was pretty rough," Ryan admitted.
Brendan knew his spot on the 40-man roster cemented an invitation to the Major League camp in the spring of 2007, but he wasn't taking it for granted for one second. "That is my huge goal now – just to try to get protected again and get that big league invite," he said humbly last fall.
Fast forward to 2007. Ryan hit .320 in 25 at-bats in March Major League action in Florida and though he did not make the big club out of camp, he proved he belonged. Brendan reported to Memphis to start the season and continued to play hard.
As May turned to June and with Eckstein slowed by a bad back then out after getting hit on the elbow by a Roy Oswalt offering, Brendan Ryan finally received "The Call" this past weekend to help reinforce the middle of the Cardinals infield.
It didn't take long for the news to spread like a California wildfire. The only problem was that Paul Ryan was miles away from even smoke signals at the time.
I will let Paul explain it to you as he did to me. "I was actually at a bachelor party camping/river rafting deep in the Sierra Nevadas about two hours from any kind of mobile service. Luckily, my resourceful wife was able to reach a friend that was coming up later that evening just minutes before his phone went out of service range.
"At around 1:30 A.M., just as I was walking to my tent to crash, that friend arrived with the earth shattering news: 'Ryno, The Boog got the call.' Immediately, my heart started pounding but even so, I was having trouble digesting the information. I was saying stuff like 'Seriously? ... No, seriously? ... Dude, this isn't a funny joke. ... Seriously?'
"After repeating that seven or eight times, I finally realized that it was not a cruel joke so I woke up our whole camp and gave out a ton of bear hugs mixed in with high fives. Having known all these guys since kindergarten, Brendan is like a little brother to all of them," Paul explained.
Proving blood is thicker than whitewater, Paul knew right then and there that he had to drop everything and head to Houston immediately, where the Cardinals were playing the Astros.
"I promised myself a long time ago that no matter where I was, if it is humanly possible to be there for his MLB debut that I would be there. Little did I know that he would put that to the ultimate test," Paul said.
How could he possibly traverse the 1,500-plus miles by the next afternoon's game?
"Quickly we did the math and determined that if I could withstand an all-night drive, there was a plane leaving LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) to Houston at 8 A.M. It was a no brainer," said Paul matter-of-factly.
The rest of the guys left behind in the California wilderness altered their plans, too.
"The fellas back at the bachelor party cancelled the next day's rafting so they could drive into Fresno to watch the game at a sports bar," Paul recounted.
Yes, both Ryan brothers made it to Texas in time for the game – but just barely in Paul's case. They weren't alone.
"Having been up for over 24 hours and relying on sheer adrenaline, I made that flight and got to Minute Maid Park minutes before game time. I was joined by my Mom, two sisters, wife, daughter and next door neighbor," said Ryan.
Then, all the emotions finally came to a head.
"When I got inside, I went to my seat, grabbed a bottle of water and took a deep breath. Then I located Brendan as they sang the Star Spangled Banner and it all started to sink in. It was kind of like when one of your countrymen win a gold medal in the Olympics and they stand there and listen to the National Anthem," Paul explained.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to be shared with those present as well as those who could not, including James Ryan. The head of the clan couldn't be there with his boys, having passed away unexpectedly at the age of 63 two years ago February.
"All sorts of feelings, memories and the sacrifices on what it took for Brendan to get to this point surfaced. But more than anything, I felt my Dad's warm smile from above looking down on us as proud as could be. It was a great moment that I will never forget," Paul said.
How could Brendan Ryan do anything but put his best foot forward, considering all those right behind him, backing him up on every play?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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