Byrd perched to wow Cubs fans
MESA, Ariz. -- The Early Byrd likes to start his day with a little pick-me-up.
"I do my espresso before my day games," Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "It's a little bougie [slang for bourgeois], but that's the way I roll."
Before most games this spring, Byrd said he gets to HoHoKam Park around 7-7:30 a.m. to start hitting. It's something he picked up watching Jim Thome prepare during their days together in Philadelphia.
"Automatic, automatic," Byrd said, borrowing Thome's penchant for repeating words. "I come to the field to work, so I get here early to get all my work in."
It's the same routine every morning. First he checks his game bats and batting practice bats to see if they need to be re-taped. He then checks his gloves, gets dressed and heads right to the cage. It's not a Turk Wendell level of superstition, but he likes sticking to a basic formula.
"Every single day," Byrd said. "It's something that happens. I don't have to think about it. I automatically do it."
After he's done hitting, Byrd works on his clubhouse routine. In the last week of camp, Byrd was sitting at his locker, facing the center of the room. Carlos Zambrano walked by and Byrd got his attention.
"Real," he said, pointing to himself. "Imposters," he added, pointing to Carlos Marmol and some other Latino teammates. Then he broke up laughing. Zambrano smiled too.
Byrd was referencing Torii Hunter's controversial statement that black Latinos from Central and South America shouldn't be lumped in with baseball's diminishing number of African-American players.
Byrd, as you might have heard, is somewhat of a "clubhouse guy." Now if he can't hit and can't handle center field at Wrigley, all the backslapping and funny stories won't matter much. But for a team that came into camp looking to bring some fun back, Byrd has been a welcome addition.
"He's done a nice job here," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He's a hard worker and he's well-liked by his teammates. We couldn't be more pleased."
Byrd, 32, got off to a hot start in the majors, hitting .303 in 135 games in his rookie season in Philadelphia in 2003. A leadoff hitter for part of the year, he didn't have much pop (seven home runs in 495 at-bats) but he posted a pretty good .366 on-base percentage, and finished fourth for National League Rookie of the Year.
And then things got sticky. He screwed up his swing and hit .228 the next year, appeared in 106 games and was sent to Triple-A. He told The Associated Press that he was "swinging like a little girl." In 2005, he broke his ring finger in spring training and wound up playing in only five games with Philadelphia. He was traded to Washington in May. He played in 152 games over two seasons with the Nats, again spending time in the minors.
"I showed up at the field and knew I was going 0-for-4," he said of his early tough times. "It was tough mentally."
His career started to turn around in 2007, when he didn't make the Rangers out of spring training. Finally, he figured himself out.
"I needed my time in Triple-A," he said. "I was blessed that organizations didn't just keep me around, where I just kept digging a hole. I was able to go down and get some work in, and get better. But every single year, there was something I needed to work on. In 2007, I got back up and it started working. I said I got it. I don't need to go back down to Triple-A anymore. It clicked and I went on from there."
In 2007, he hit .309 with 70 RBIs in 109 games with Texas. In 2008, he spent the entire year with the Rangers, hitting .298 and driving in 50 runs. Both years he had 10 home runs.
"I remember eating breakfast with Ramon Vazquez in 2008, the last series against Anaheim," he said. "I said, 'Ramon do you realize this is our first time spending a whole year in the big leagues since 2003?' And he just smiled at me. I said to him, no more Triple-A for us, ever again."
Byrd was rewarded handsomely after one of those typical Texas walk years. He hit .283 with 20 homers and 89 RBIs, putting up a career-high .479 slugging percentage. Cubs manager Jim Hendry gave him a three-year, $15 million deal. He is expected to patrol center, helping out Alfonso Soriano in left, and likely hit fifth. That gives the Cubs two former leadoff hitters in the middle of the order.
"That's always nice," he said of the money. "The big thing is I get to be a Cub. I get to play in Wrigley for 81 games and try to help this organization and the city of Chicago win a championship."
That's the kind of stuff that makes a dorky Cubs fan happy. But Byrd really means it. He's the type of guy who will enjoy bantering with fans. Unless of course, he stinks. If that happens, it happens. But it won't be because he's not working hard, nor will it be a matter of discomfort.
"These guys make it easy for me to enjoy myself, come over here and have fun," he said. "It's a real easy clubhouse to come into as a new guy."
While chatter is great, it's the comfort Byrd has in the cages that should help him avoid being another free-agent flop.
When the Cubs signed Rudy Jaramillo to be their new hitting coach, Byrd knew he wanted to follow his hitting coach.
"When he signed here early, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get over here," he said. "I don't have to change my hitting routine. He's been my hitting coach for the last three years and he'll be my hitting coach for the next three years."
All the Cubs are raving over Jaramillo, but they haven't seen anything yet, Byrd said.
"Until you see him for a full season in the cage with the things he talks about, it's hard for people to understand," he said. "These people will see how good he is."
He could be talking about himself too. Cubs fans will know soon enough.Jon Greenberg is a reporter and columnist for ESPNChicago.com.