Marlon Byrd goes from outcast without a swing to playoffs

Marlon Byrd of the Pittsburgh Pirates slides home

Marlon Byrd of the Pittsburgh Pirates slides home to score a run in the seventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium., (Oct. 4, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - Marlon Byrd's odyssey began with the buzzing of a cellphone.

The call came as he packed up his apartment in Boston in June 2012. He had just been released by the Red Sox, who saw no reason to believe that he might raise his average from a paltry .210.

"If you don't get it right in spring training, it's too late," Byrd said of his swing, which had crumbled into an unreliable mess. "I couldn't fix it -- at all."

Nor could he foresee what would come when he answered the phone. The voice on the other end of the line, an official from Major League Baseball, delivered the sobering news that Byrd had tested positive for a banned substance.

The punishment was stark: a 50-game suspension, the permanent stain of a PED violation and perhaps the end of a career in which Byrd went from a brash rookie with the 2002 Phillies to an All-Star outfielder with the 2010 Cubs.

"It's just very odd," he said of his first few days on suspension. "You're sitting at home the first couple of days and you're like 'OK, what do I do now?' "

Byrd discovered the answer through thousands of swings inside a batting cage in the San Fernando Valley, through playing on the pockmarked fields of the Mexican League and through restoring his value while starting in rightfield for the Mets.

The final phase of Byrd's remarkable comeback led him to the Pirates, who traded for him with the hope that he'd help them earn their first playoff berth in 21 seasons.

"Everything we've hoped for we've gotten," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "This guy has thrown aces all over the table."

When the Pirates face the Cardinals on Sunday in Game 3 of their National League Division Series, the 36-year-old Byrd will take his usual spot in rightfield, where he hit .318 after an Aug. 27 trade from the Mets.

For the season, Byrd hit .291 with a career-high 24 home runs. He wound up being named a finalist for the National League's Comeback Player of the Year award.

"We joke around," Byrd said less than 24 hours after the champagne shower that followed the Pirates' wild-card triumph on Tuesday. "This time last year, I was eating tacos."

A revamped swing

It wasn't Byrd's first choice to begin the 2012 season with the Cubs and end it with Los Tomateros de Culiacán -- the Tomato Pickers.

But when his suspension ended and no teams showed interest in giving him a second chance, he had no choice but to cross the border for his only chance to prove he still could play.

"We completely revamped his swing," said Doug Latta, a former high school baseball coach who never had met Byrd until last summer.

They since have spent countless hours together, first in the San Fernando Valley, where Latta owns and operates a batting cage, and then in Mexico, where the two often broke down swing tape over breakfast before games in the Pacific League.

"We connected really well," said Latta, whose face bears the creases of a coach who has baked under the sun.

When he was suspended, Byrd only recently had moved his family's offseason home to Southern California, and he returned there to serve out his punishment. He hoped to use the time to fix his faulty swing. He held on to the belief that with hard work and time to refine his hitting mechanics, he still had the raw skills to play in the big leagues.

A simple Google search uncovered Latta's facility, "The Ballyard."

The building is indistinguishable from the rest of the squat warehouses off a busy six-lane highway. Coils of barbed wire sit atop a chain-link fence and most of the walls are gray.

Inside, black netting hangs from the ceiling to form a pair of side-by-side hitting stalls. Plastic buckets filled with baseballs are stacked along a wall.

What passes for carpeting is really just worn-down AstroTurf that doubles as a sponge for sweat.

It was everything Byrd hoped it would be.

Going to work

Earlier this summer, Latta leaned back into a worn office chair and reached into a file cabinet. He fished out the discs that hold digital videos of Byrd's tireless work. The tape is marked July 12 -- their first day working together.

"Garbage," Byrd would later say of his swing. "Jacked up."

Latta pressed "play'' and the flaws jumped off the screen. Byrd's swing was riddled with excess movement and shifts in balance, small flaws that added up to bigger problems. He lost power by opening his hips. He hit at the ball instead of through it. He lacked balance.

Said Latta: "All those cost you time."

The two worked straight through for 21/2 months until Byrd joined Los Tomateros de Culiacán. One of his first games was in Puerto Peñasco, where no grass grows in the outfield.

"I was checking it out to make sure I wasn't going to break my ankle," said Byrd, who inspected the dirt for holes.

His new teammates and coaches expected Byrd to back out. When one of them offered him the option of sitting out, he insisted on playing.

Byrd hasn't stopped hitting since.

Mexican league to postseason HR

A year later, and an entire world away from Culiacan, Byrd wiped champagne from his eyes this past week. Chaos reigned in the clubhouse, just as it had in the stands, when a sold-out crowd at PNC Park on Tuesday willed the Pirates to a 6-2 victory over the Reds in the NL wild-card game.

It was the Pirates' first playoff win since 1992, and Byrd helped ignite it all. In the first postseason at-bat of his career, Byrd smashed a changeup from Johnny Cueto into the leftfield stands.

"This is a big difference," said Byrd, his days as a Mexican League outcast long passed. "This has been an amazing run, from last year with the suspension all the way to now. I just kept battling, kept working, kept trying to get better, and here I am."

He hit his way out of the Mexican League and signed a minor-league deal with the Mets -- the only team willing to take him on before spring training.

Still, Byrd will always have his doubters, those who refuse to believe his explanation for failing his drug test. He has maintained that the positive test was triggered by the presence of a banned substance in medication he used to treat a medical condition.

He repeatedly has called the mistake "stupid" and "dumb." He should have known to check. But Byrd, a free agent at season's end, insists that he's never intentionally tried to cheat the system. He accepts the lingering doubts as part of the price he continues to pay for his offense.

Byrd still has nightmares about the day he learned of his suspension. He had been roused from bed by the bleating of his cellphone, the last thing he heard before the news that nearly ended his career.

But Byrd can sleep well now because he knows how much sweat he left on that AstroTurf at The Ballyard. He knows of the swings he took while marooned in Mexico. He knows what he has now is real.

"I've had nights, I just wake up, 3 or 4 in the morning," Byrd said. "It's like I wake up and say, 'OK, I'm still here. I'm good.' "

advertisement | advertise on newsday

MLB video

Vote

Which team off to a good start is most likely to fade?

Athletics Braves Brewers White Sox

advertisement | advertise on newsday