CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... A Byrd in Hand

The legend of the rising of a bird called the Phoenix is a popular, well known legend. After what appeared to be a permanent demise, it arose to soar high in all its majesty. It would prove equally ironic if a player, also thought to have suffered a permanent demise, should also arise to soar high in all his glory. The irony lies not just in the story, but in the name. Much like the animal, this player is also a Byrd and his comeback looms as one of the more fascinating stories of the spring.

If the Flight of the Phoenix seems more legend than fact, so too does the story of Marlon Byrd, erstwhile starting center fielder with the Philadelphia Phillies, now trying to reestablish a career that seemed in tatters. Oh, the Byrd legend is an interesting one, a tale that has been told and retold for at least five years. It recaps the "rise" of an seemingly insignificant tenth round draft pick into a seemingly "can't miss" star with the Phils.

That it seems more legend than fact is based on the tales that were told...of a player who seemingly could hit, run and throw with some of the best prospects in baseball and would literally dazzle Phillie fans for years. The legend told of a solidly built six-foot, 225 pound outfielder who seemed to perform better with every promotion and who had overcome large odds to place himself on the doorstep of major league fame and fortune.

The legends were built in places like Batavia and Piedmont and Scranton. They excited a Phillie populace starved for excitement. And, truth be told, what was not to like? Not only did Byrd hit with the swing of a perennial .300 hitter, but seemed to have lightening quick speed, wonderful range in the outfield, and power that promised 20 homers a year. Even better yet, he was being primed to bat leadoff, a spot that has given the team more headache than happiness since Lenny Dykstra woke up one morning with a bad back.

Although Marlon Byrd made his cameo appearance with the team in September of 2002, the true test would come the following year. From day one of spring training, then manager Larry Bowa announced to one and all that Marlon Byrd was his center fielder, regardless of how much he might struggle in the early going. Yet, with this seemingly guarenteed seal of approval came this alarming caveat...Byrd would open the season at the bottom of the order.

One can only surmise how much batting in the seventh or eighth spot in the order bothered Byrd in the early months of the 2003 campaign. This much is known; Batting at the bottom of the order takes a special brand of patience and aplomb, one that a mere rookie is unlikely to exhibit. Certainly Byrd displayed neither and as May turned to June his Mendoza line batting average of .200 made a trip back to the minors more than casual food for discussion.

Phillie chat sights were ripe with rumors of the acquisition of Kenny Lofton from the Giants, though he would eventually end up in Chicago. With the rumors of the impending arrival of Lofton came the expectation that Marlon Byrd would soon be jettisoned back to Triple A. With his half life no more than a few days away, a funny thing happened to both Byrd and the team.

Almost as an afterthought, Bowa decided to place Byrd in the spot he was most comfortable with, the leadoff position in the order. If ever Larry Bowa looked like a genius during his four year reign with the club it was with this move. Suddenly a moribund Phillie attack took on a new and exciting look, with Byrd soaring high, wide and handsome.

The name and number were the same but the Marlon Byrd, post leadoff hitter, was as different from the predecesor as night and day. From mid-June until the end of the season, Byrd hit at a most impressive .330 clip to culminate a successful rookie campaign with a team leading .303 average. Not only did his average rise, much like the Phoenix, but his on base percentage, slugging percentage, and run production numbers were quite impressive.

Better yet, he took on the look of a defensive whiz in centerfield and some of his catches became the talk of the town. The City of Brotherly Love was captivated with their newest rookie phenom and center field became known affectionately as the place where the Byrd of Paradise roamed. When the 2003 season ended, with the Phils a sadly beaten contender for the National League wildcard race, the team appeared to have more than a few question marks. Center field was not one of them.

Then a strange and possibly confidence damaging event occured in December of 2003. Oh, the off season had been one of exhilaration, from the trade acquisitions of pitchers Eric Milton and Billy Wagner to the surprising resigning of potential ace-in-waiting Kevin Millwood. With the opening of the new stadium set for April of '04, and with a team loaded with talent, these were heady times in PhillieLand. Until late December of that year.

Almost as if a bolt of lightening striking from above came the surprising news that the team had signed former Phillie center fielder Doug Glanville to a free agent contract. This news seemed shocking enough, but then came the seemingly stunning announcement that Glanville would not only make the club, but would take over for Byrd in centerfield if and when the youngster struggled.

No one will ever know the emotional effect these words had on the fragile psyche of Marlon Byrd, but suffice it to say that his thought process must have been filled with self doubt and confusion. Instead of proclaiming Byrd as a prominent member of a wrecking crew featuring Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu, Bowa inferred that he almost expected Marlon to struggle with the so called "sophomore jinx."

Sure enough, from day one of spring, Marlon Byrd looked like a different player than the swaggering rookie who had proven one of the most valuable Phillies in September of 2003. No longer confident, he struggled at the plate and in the field, almost as if he felt the presence of Glanville at every turn. For his part, Doug Glanville commented that he had not signed to sit the bench, and was prepared to help the team on more than an occasional basis.

They say that we often cause our own self fulfilling prophesies by our words and actions, in the sad case of Marlon Byrd, this seemed to have happened. His average never rose above the .240 mark, and by mid-summer, the rumors about Kenny Lofton were again in full force. He was abruptly jettisoned to the minor leagues in June, and although he was recalled after the trading deadline produced no Lofton, it proved a dissastrous and lost season for Byrd.

His numbers were abysmal, from the .228 batting average he posted, to the 48 runs scored, 79 hits, and only 5 home runs and 2 stolen bases. Even his defense lacked its former flair, and when the season ended, again with a disapointing non-playoff run, Marlon Byrd's flight seemed to have landed permanently. Not only did the team talk openly of trading him, but speculation was that if he were not traded, he might even suffer the fate of his contract being non-tendered.

Things, though seemingly bad enough, were still to get worse for Byrd during the off season. After almost two seasons of whispers and rumors, the Phils did indeed bring in Lofton, and he was immediately annointed as the starting center fielder. New manager Charlie Manuel was a huge fan of the fleet Lofton and no doubt helped engineer the deal. Even worse for Byrd came the announcement that when Lofton was rested against difficult lefty pitchers, it would be former fourth outfielder Jason Michaels who would take his place.

Not a word was mentioned about Marlon Byrd, he of the .300 average in his rookie season. Not an utterance about Byrd, he of the 86 runs scored and scintillating defense in 2003. As previously mentioned, Marlon Byrd always seemed more legend than fact, and it appeared this Byrd would take his place with the Phoenix...going, going, gone.

A potential trade with Milwaukee involving Byrd fell through at the last minute, and suddenly winter turned to spring with the former phenom still on the roster. Although solidly entrenched as the number six outfielder on the major league pecking order [even Rule 5 draftee Shane Victorino ranked higher], Byrd showed up in camp with a positive attitude. Instead of moping and complaining, he has set about to show that he is more fact than fiction, and has impressed one and all with his skills.

Not only has he been one of the stars of early camp offensively, but he seems in better shape and with a more confident attitude. No longer worried about Glanville, who has since taken up residence elsewhere, it is Byrd who is causing other outfielders to look over their shoulder. This much is known. At his best, he is easily the most skilled center fielder in camp and no other outfielder not named Abreu has hit .300 in Philadelphia for quite some time.

At 27 years of age, it is not yet too late for this Byrd to take flight again, much like his counterpart, the Phoenix. In a spring where the team hopes to prove that the window of oppurtunity is not yet closed for this aging but dangerous club, it may be a player not counted on at all who might prove their biggest "surprise acquisition." Although still no cinch to even make the club, he is making Manager Manuel's decisions that much tougher.

The options are many. Marlon Byrd could make the club out of spring training, probably as a fifth outfielder. Or the team could still trade him for a pitcher or possibly a backup catcher. A third option is another season at Scranton in Triple A, though one wonders what else he has left to prove in the minor leagues. The jury remains out on this seemingly revived player but this delicious irony is certainly valid enough.

In an off season where the Phillies determined that it was imperative that they improve their centerfield spot from afar, the real starter may already have been a resident. It is a saying much repeated, and surely valid enough to mention again. The Phils may do well to learn the lesson of the Phoenix as he soars again and remember this wise verse. A Byrd in the hand may prove more valuable than any two on the limb.

Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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