Tuesday, October 16, 2007 Updated: October 17, 12:26 PM ET
Paul Byrd's struggle to walk with God
By Sam Alipour Special to Page 2
Weeks ago, a fair share of fans, media members and jocks rolled their eyes when Lions quarterback and devout Christian Jon Kitna referred to his post-concussion performance in an overtime victory as a "miracle," a hand-of-God type thing.
Paul Byrd was not one of them.
The Cleveland Indians pitcher has worn Kitna's cleats, played the same game and faced the consequences. Now, he's preparing himself for a stroll along that familiar but unforgiving turf as the author of "The Free Byrd Project," a finished manuscript that details Byrd's spiritual journey through the major leagues and the pitfalls that pious jocks must leap in navigating a ballplayer's lifestyle.
So roll your eyes if you must, but don't expect to faze Byrd. The 36-year-old with the old-fashioned two-armed windup, a far from fiery fastball and a mug that has earned him the not-so-flattering nickname of Kelsey Grammer has heard it all before.
Yet, Byrd has managed to overcome his doubters -- including his 7-year-old son Colby, an avid gamer who's been known to diss his virtual dad's player rating -- in battling back from Tommy John surgery in '03 to win 37 games the past three seasons and gutting out an ALDS-clinching win over the Yankees in Game 4.
On the eve of his ALCS Game 4 outing, Byrd took some time to talk about some of the topics he'll cover in his book, including his struggles with pornography, cheating, and sharing his faith with the media and clubhouse mates, and to discuss how religion can unify and, at times, divide a clubhouse.
Sam Alipour: What spurred you to write this book?
Paul Byrd: Here's the thing, I haven't had a Greg Maddux career, a career that warrants a book. Mine is a spiritual journey. It's an inside look at what it's like to have a spiritual journey and be on a baseball team, an encouragement for people who struggle to not give up and engage in the battle of walking with God in a lifestyle that's tough to do so. I'm called to a locker room that's a different kind of church. It's not the front lines of the world, but there's filthy stuff in the locker room and on the road. It's tough to walk with God when you have all of these options staring you in the face. I'm respected for surviving this lifestyle and loving my wife and family, things like that. Christian book writers will say that they had a guy they counseled with that struggled with this. Well, I didn't counsel with anyone. This is me. The author. I don't call people out like Canseco. I share my struggles. I think the last thing the Christian community needs is another person who says they have it all together, a 12-step process for being perfect. That doesn't exist. I can help people by being honest.
Alipour: It's clear you have a lot to share, but will this book speak to non-Christians, readers who might not respond well to preaching?
Byrd: People who aren't Christians, like one of my good friends in the game who's an atheist, read it and was like, "Man, I've never heard somebody be open about this. They usually write about how they have it all together, and here you are telling me about the things you struggle with." I also gave [the book] to someone who doesn't play baseball, and he was like, "You struggle with this in your job, competing against your teammates, and it's the same way at my work." So far, the response has been terrific. I have two publishers who have made firm offers, so it's officially going to become a book for next spring. What's cool is they're both major publishers with spiritual, religious divisions. And it's going to be available in both Christian bookstores and regular, secular bookstores like Borders.
Alipour: What's your religious background?
Byrd: I grew up in a mildly religious background. My mom took me to Catholic church. I went to Catholic school. But I became a Christian somewhere in '91. I was the guy who said a prayer to receive Christ about 35 times, but kept struggling with all kinds of stuff. Eventually, I realized I'm not perfect. I need to relax. When I was honest with where I was, it made a difference in the lives of people around me. Here they were thinking I have no struggles, no issues. But I said, "No man, I battle stuff all the time."
Alipour: You describe this book as being graphic. How so?
Byrd: It's not a politically correct book. It's not for a young audience. It's for people in their 20s and 30s that go through similar battles, like with pornography. I've had a real struggle with pornography, from before I became a Christian, when pornography was the good old American way. After I became a Christian, it really began to bother me, but God didn't really take it away. I struggle with porn one night, and somebody asks me a question about Jesus the next day in the outfield, so you feel like a hypocrite trying to share. It's the elephant in the locker room.
Alipour: In what other ways does the game test your faith?
Byrd: Religion can go over into every area, like whether I should cheat out on the field. I write about the desire to just make money at any cost. I share about my temptation to spit on the ball, put KY jelly on it or scuff it, to win more games and make more money. That's a big temptation for me, being a guy who throws 82, who relies on movement. You have a pull, because you have a certain window up here that stares you in the face. Are you willing to take steroids? Because that's available. People viewed that as me being weak. Like, "This guy doesn't want to win."
After going 15-8 during the regular season, Byrd came up big against the Yankees in the ALDS.
I also write about what it's like to play on a team where you're trying to get a start and, in a weird way, you can start to pull against your teammates. You're like, "Man, I want my chance." And the only way you get your chance is if the other guy does bad. You have these thoughts, like "Man, that's not right. Why did that pop into my head?" These are the things you encounter when you try to walk with God.
Alipour: Will you also be covering infidelity?
Byrd: Yeah. I don't really cover it a whole lot. I'm married, but I never really struggled with that, so for me to say, "Other people struggle with this," that would come across as me pointing the finger. I think everybody knows that can be an issue.
Alipour: What are your thoughts on how the Jon Kitna backlash went down?
Byrd: You know what? That's Jon Kitna. I like when guys say what's on their mind. I don't know him, but now I feel like I have a better understanding of who Jon is. What's wrong with Kurt Warner thanking God after winning the Super Bowl? That's who Kurt Warner is. If you want to praise Buddha, then do it. There's such a thing as being too politically correct, where you're constantly worried about offending that you don't say anything but generic answers like "I'm just happy to help the team." That would make for a boring world, and a boring locker room, and boring interviews. That's no good.
Alipour: Did you ever experience anything similar to what Kitna went through?
Byrd: Boy, I know how he felt. I have a chapter about getting my shot with the Phillies and beating Randy Johnson, and I dropped a Jesus quote in the paper that gets into USA Today. Later, I walk into the locker room and, on my chair, I find a manila folder with names of all of these people who claim to be Christians but have really dropped the ball. The folder was an inside job. No name, nothing. And the note said: "I wanted to let you know that this is the God you serve. This is who he turns out." Basically, it said, "Shut your mouth, you don't know what you're talking about."
Alipour: What types of examples did this person cite?
Byrd: One of the names was David. I just met you so I don't want presume I don't know how much you know about David
Alipour: The bullet points. Not a lot.
Byrd: David does these great things for God, then he turns around and takes a bunch of wives, sleeps with a soldier's wife and has him killed, and God says this is a man after my own heart. The person who gave me this note was like, "Let me tell you about David " That chapter is called "Beating Randy Johnson and the Trouble with David."
Alipour: When you were pegged last week as the ALDS Game 4 starter, and not staff ace C.C. Sabathia, many questioned the decision. Then you came in, pitched remarkably well in perhaps the biggest game of your career, and proved the critics wrong. It wasn't quite a miracle, but it was a great achievement. Do you feel your performance in that game -- and generally speaking -- was God's work?
Byrd: Here's the thing, I think it's a We. We're both involved in this thing. I didn't create me, so I think for me to say I can do something apart from him is pretty arrogant in my mind. But then, for me to say, "Well, it's not me, it's all God. If I don't work hard, God will make sure all my pitches go where they're supposed to go," I don't feel like that's correct either. At times, I do feel his blessing, that he can heal you and allow you to pitch through tremendous pain. I also think there are times when he says, "I'm going to allow this setback, or this surgery." I do feel like it's a beautiful thing to have to struggle, to work through things.
I've been on a team where a guy shows no passion, and he says, "God meant for me to give up that home run." I'm like, "What does that mean? God didn't hang the slider, you hung the slider." That's not going to go over well with teammates. You're not going to turn anybody over to Christ with that attitude. I think if Christ goes into second base to break up a double play, he'll do it cleanly, but he'll try to knock the guy into left field. Look, I don't bring a lot to the table. I throw 82, had different shoulder surgeries. But I compete with what God gave me. I get angry when I give up a home run. I'm passionate about the game and I'm not into using God as a scapegoat. People hide behind religion.
Alipour: Do you feel religion is a unifying force in the locker room, or more of a divisive force?
Byrd: It can unify a team if you learn how to respect each other. That's one of the good things that religion and Christianity brings out. Everybody isn't going to have the same beliefs, but the good teams learn to work together and respect each other's differences and backgrounds, to care about each other, care about your brother.
But it can be divisive, too. If you have a problem, the way you bring it up is huge. If you can say something to a teammate in a way that he knows you care about him, like, "Hey man, I don't mind if you have pornography in here, just don't make me look at it. Don't have the centerfold open on the ground. Are you OK with that?" I can say that in a nice way. Or I can be like, "Hey, I'm going to post scripture up and see how you like it!" Man, I wish we had some good books in the stalls. Not just Penthouse.
Alipour: Have you ever witnessed or experienced a clubhouse incident along those lines?
Byrd: One of the biggest ways that it can divide a clubhouse is with music. When I was playing for the Braves, no music was allowed in the locker room. You had to have headphones. It was obvious that can be an issue. But I remember one time (with another team), someone was playing hard-core rap, something offensive with curse words, and a Christian was offended by that. He walked up, tore the cord out of the wall, called the music trash, and it turned into a fistfight. That divides teams. The way he explains himself is important. That's one of the problems I have right now with our country. An example is, we make fun of our president. There's a way to disagree with somebody. Go out and vote and have your say, or write a column. But we make fun of everybody.
Alipour: When Shawn Green sat out a game during the '01 playoff race because it fell on Yom Kippur, the reaction from pundits and players was mixed. On which side of the line did you fall?
Byrd: Everybody will feel differently on that. I played with a guy in Double-A when I was with the Indians in '94, Ramser Correa. He was a Seventh-day Adventist. They believe in keeping the Sabbath holy. Meaning, from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, you don't work. He was a starting pitcher and very good, but it was Saturday, and he couldn't pitch. He was like, "Paul, this is what I believe." Now, I didn't agree with him, but I respected where he was coming from. He was a Christian, loved God, but he just wasn't going to pitch, man. Didn't matter what you said. He'd rather pack up his things. And he told me how that hurt him with different managers. It was perceived as, "You feel there's something more important than baseball." He confided in me that that hurt him, and he was willing to accept any persecution that came with it. He wasn't punished, but the reliever had to start the game, and you heard grumbling in the dugout. That affected the team. The reliever must've been like, "What's the deal?" I remember worrying about that. Like, "Man, I hope the starter does well for Ramser's sake. If he doesn't, he could transfer the blame."
Alipour: There are many ways that guys bring their faith onto the field. Do you have any religious pregame or in-game rituals?
Byrd: I used to memorize a bible verse and say it over and over again. But I felt like I was using God. Like it wasn't right. This is something I talk to the guys about: Do you see when guys point to the sky when they hit a home run? It's funny, I never see anyone point up when they strike out. I'm not a sky-pointer. I'm more of a chest-grabber. I feel God inside of me. People seem to give praise a lot more when they hit a home run and not strike out. I give praise regardless of the outcome. But I feel like he's right there with me. I talk to him during the game. A lot of times, guys are like, "You're 36. Why are you talking to yourself?" I'm not talking to myself, I'm praying. But I'm not praying for a strikeout.
Alipour: Do you plan to up the chatter with God when you're on the mound facing the potent Red Sox lineup? Maybe try to get a tip on how to pitch to Ortiz?
Byrd: (Laughs) Our talks don't increase or decrease based on the competition. Now, if he wants to give me a tip on Ortiz, I'd certainly welcome that. And since he's listening to us right now, "God, if you've got something, fire away."
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.