All-Star nod validates Byrd's hard work
Cubs' lone rep at first Midsummer Classic after long journey
ANAHEIM -- Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd made the short drive from Los Angeles to Anaheim on Sunday. When he arrived, he had completed an incredible journey.
"Driving down from Los Angeles, that's when it hit me," Byrd said. "I'm an All-Star."Byrd is indeed that, and he will be representing the Cubs in the 81st annual All-Star Game on Tuesday night in Anaheim in his first appearance in Major League Baseball's Midsummer Classic. "This means everything to me," Byrd said. "All the hard work, all the time I spent in the Minor Leagues, going up and down from 2004-07, watching the Phillies in the World Series. In '07, the Rangers are playing on TV on Opening Day and I'm working out in the gym. It just goes to show all the hard work pays off. You keep working, keep plugging -- you never know what will happen." Remember, Byrd was almost the National League Rookie of the Year in 2003 with the Phillies, but since then was demoted to the Minors four times, designated for assignment twice, discarded by the Nationals and spent Opening Day in 2007 sitting at home. The Rangers originally wanted him in 2007 as a fourth outfielder, but he flourished in Arlington and after three productive seasons there, he was rewarded with a three-year contract as a free agent with the Cubs. He signed with some people wondering if he might be another Milton Bradley -- a disaster with the Cubs -- but instead he has been Byrd at his best. Byrd is hitting .317 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs in 87 games. His .845 OPS right now stands as the best in his career. The Rangers, operating under strict financial constraints, made little effort to sign him, instead concentrating on a one-year deal with Vladimir Guerrero. Both are here for the All-Star Game and this might be a good opportunity for Byrd to send a nice "told-you-so" note to past employers. "I don't think I need to say that," Byrd said. "Everybody who had seen me play knew the ability was there. Even when I was in Philly and not playing well; in Washington, when I wasn't playing well; and in Texas, when I was the fourth outfielder -- everybody saw the player I was, but I kept working hard and it was a matter of putting it all together. If anybody questions that, I think I've answered it."
If there were questions whether the Cubs made a good move signing Byrd, he answered them right away. Byrd made a positive first impression on the Cubs by batting .348 in April with nine doubles, four homers and 16 RBIs. He followed that with a .333 average in June, hitting nine doubles. So far in July, he's 14-for-38 with two doubles and five RBIs.
While handling center field every day, he has been the most versatile Cubs player in the lineup. So far, he's batted everywhere but seventh and eighth, with most of his at-bats coming in the fourth and fifth spots. He can run, which works well at the top of the order, and he's been the Cubs' best hitter, which fits well into the middle of the lineup.
"He's a flexible kid who can hit [No.] 1-6 in the lineup," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
Byrd won over Cubs fans quickly, hitting a three-run homer in his first at-bat against Atlanta's Derek Lowe in the April 5 Opening Day contest.
Compare that to Opening Day 2007, when Byrd was at home after being designated for assignment at the end of Spring Training by the Rangers, who chose to keep infielder Matt Kata as the 25th man. Byrd eventually was outrighted to Triple-A Oklahoma, where he hit .358 with six homers and 32 RBIs in 44 games before the Rangers recalled him in May.
"Once they called him up and he started getting going, I was really impressed with him and his work ethic and his energy," said Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who was with the Rangers during Byrd's three seasons with them. "He never gave up. He said he was always working. It's been a joy to see him progress. It just shows a lot about him and his makeup as a man."
Byrd not only emerged as a front-line player with the Rangers, but also as one of their vocal leaders in the clubhouse and he brought those qualities with him to Chicago.
"Marlon is a smart player, he's a good teacher," rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin said. "It's like the little things -- he's always working. You see him get real mad if he doesn't take a good swing, even if the outcome is good. He's always wanting to go up there and hit the ball hard and have a good approach and have everything perfect."
There is also his relentless energy.
"He gives me more energy and more motivation to come to the ballpark and play hard because I see him play and I like how he plays," Chicago's Alfonso Soriano said. "He deserves [to be an All-Star] because of the way he plays. I think he's the best player on the team. He comes every day to play hard and I'm very happy for him."
The Cubs, despite Byrd's efforts, are 39-50 at the break, sitting in fourth place in the National League Central, 9 1/2 games behind the Reds. Byrd, positive and upbeat, is not giving up."We have the ability to get on a roll," Byrd said. "There is a huge gap between us and the teams we're chasing but we have the ability to catch. We've just got to catch fire and to do that, we have to go out and start playing well."