During his MLB career, Paul Byrd was known as the “nicest guy in baseball.” After spending a couple hours with him last week, it’s easy to see how he earned that title.
A 15-year MLB veteran, Byrd was the Cleveland Indians’ fourth-round pick in the 1991 draft. After breaking into the majors with the Mets in 1995, he spent time with the Braves, Phillies, Royals, and Angels before signing with the Tribe before the 2006 season. He spent two-and-a-half years in a Cleveland uniform before being traded to the Red Sox in 2008 and was a key player in the Indians’ 2007 playoff run.
Last Thursday, Byrd came to Brown University to speak to our campus Athletes in Action group. Though the main focus of Byrd’s talk was his faith and personal life, I sat down with him while he was on campus to talk about his playing career, his memories of the Indians, and his thoughts on the game in general. In the first half of the interview, Byrd spoke about his history with the Tribe, the 2007 playoffs, his passion for Cleveland, and his memories of playing under Terry Francona.
Click here to read the second half of the interview, in which Byrd discusses his HGH use, sabermetrics, the Hall of Fame, and what he would—and wouldn’t—change about the game.From flickr, by Brian Marks
- Did you have any connection to the Indians before they drafted you?
You know what? In 1987, I got a Cleveland Indians baseball cap because I saw Cory Snyder wearing the Wahoo Indians cap. And I thought, “Man, that is a cool cap.” He’s got long blonde hair, he’s got a mullet, which I had in the late 80’s, so I was like “Sweet!” And so I got a Cleveland Indians cap because I loved the hat, I loved the look.
At that time, cable TV consisted of the Cubs, the Braves, and SportsCenter, so I watched those teams. And then Cincinnati was actually the team that I followed, the Big Red Machine, because we were in Louisville, Kentucky and we were an hour and a half away. That was our team.
- What was your reaction when Cleveland drafted you?
Well, a guy named Buddy Mercado was the scout that drafted me, and I was at LSU and he said, “Hey Paul, I need to do an interview for you, we may draft you.” He said “I’ll be at the such-and-such hotel” or whatever, and this is the horrible story: I fell asleep and I missed that interview. And I thought, “Okay, I know what team’s not gonna draft me.” He went over the stadium later and he said “Hey, where were you?” and I said, “I messed up, I couldn’t make it” and he goes “Well okay, because I’m gonna interview you now.” But I knew I really blew it, I screwed up, they’re not gonna draft me.
And then, sure enough, there I was in the fourth round, right-handed pitcher. They took Chad Ogea, who was my college teammate, right-handed pitcher as well, in the third round, the round before me, and everybody thought that was just absolutely crazy. But they did, and we both made it to the big leagues and helped out.
- Did you want to come back?
I did. It felt full circle to me. And you know, when I got to Cleveland through the minor leagues I stalled in Triple-A. They picked up guys like [Orel] Hershiser and Dennis Martinez and everything like that. And then I had a really good year in Triple-A under Charlie Manuel and they had some studs there and I had a great year. And I got sent back down to Double-A after having a really good year in Triple-A. And I was getting people out, and my wife was like, “Can’t you see the writing on the wall? You’re getting people out, you’re going nowhere. So why don’t you quit? Let’s go back home and start a family.” I seriously considered it, and a guy with the Indians named Johnny Goryl came and sat with me in a hotel and told me I was too young and talked me out of quitting. And later that month I was back up in Triple-A as a reliever, and then that offseason I got traded to the Mets.
Ten years later, Cleveland would make me their No. 1 free agent pick—it wasn’t even 10, it was 12 years later. And I remember thinking, “The team that didn’t have a spot for me in Triple-A, 12 years later I’m their big free agent pick. Like, how great is this?” Mark Shapiro was the guy who sent me down to Double-A, I fought him tooth and nail in that office, I even had some tears in my eyes and stuff like that. And here Mark wanted me to come back. Isn’t that a good story? So, you know, don’t ever give up.
At the time John Hart, I don’t think he really felt like I threw hard enough to do well in the big leagues. And Mark had to do what they told him, he had to send me down, and it was kinda neat that he believed in me over the years, you know, brought me back.
- What was it like to play in Cleveland?
Playing for them was great. They have passionate fans. You know, when you’re in Atlanta, I don’t have anything against Atlanta, but it’s a very transient city so people are in and out, you know? They’re in and out for a job. Very few people in Atlanta can say “My grandpa used to take me to the games.” They don’t say that. And in Cleveland they do. Cleveland has a rich history around the Indians. People can remember when their grandpa took them to see Bob Feller pitch. And just a lot of rich history around the Indians and their fans just are diehard, they love the Indians and I’m really pulling for them because someday, soon, I mean they deserve a winner now but someday soon I hope it becomes a reality. I’m not talking about a winning season, I’m talking about the big one.
- Did the name “Indians” ever bother you?
No, I never felt like it was degrading or anything like that. I’m not American Indian so I also am sensitive to the fact that someone could be. I’m sensitive to it but it didn’t bother me at all. I felt like it is what it is and it’s what the team’s been for so long. I didn’t take it as a negative connotation.
- Can you talk about the 2007 playoffs and pitching in Game 4 of the ALDS?
Oh, that was great. And I really had no business pitching that game. CC Sabathia was on full rest. CC Sabathia was going to win the Cy Young that year. Fausto Carmona was third in voting for the Cy Young, and Jake Westbrook had the best ERA in the second half of that season. I’d had a terrible September and they care about what you’ve done lately in the big leagues. So I was really surprised when Eric Wedge said “I’m gonna give you the ball.” I said, “Eric, why are you giving me the ball?” He goes, “Paul,” he goes, “you’ve had a great year for us.” He goes, “I appreciate the way you’ve gone about your business and the way you talk to the other pitchers and help them out.” And he goes, “you’re a veteran.” And he goes, “I’m giving you the ball.”
And so I was able to win that game, give up two runs in five innings. It just meant the world to me that he trusted me and he handed me the ball and I was able to deliver. Joe Torre’s last game. And are you ready for this, Cliff Lee was on that team and wasn’t good enough to make the postseason roster. Is that crazy? So it was a wild year.
The frustrating part of that year, as great as that season was, is that we were up on the Red Sox 3-1, all we had to do was win one game. And we had the best pitching in the game, I felt at that time. And we couldn’t pull it off. And that will haunt me the rest of my life, that will hurt, that leaves a mark. I’ll never forget.
It just hurts because as a team, I wanted to be part of something in bringing a championship to Cleveland. You know, you go over to the Yankees, it’s already been done recently, or whatever. So I really wanted to be a part of helping Cleveland win a World Series. It’s a big hole in the heart and always will be. You know, just such a shame.
And then I got traded to the Red Sox the next year. Dustin Pedroia told me, as soon as I got over there. We’re sitting on a bus, and we’re talking, we’re goofing around, and he’s like, “Man, how ‘bout that series we played against you guys?” Then he goes, “That was the real World Series.” He goes, “Man, if you guys would’ve beat us you guys would’ve rolled over Colorado.” You know, they swept them 4-0. He goes, “You guys were so much better.” I’m just like, “Stop talking. Stop talking to me.” Yeah, so it just drove me nuts. It always will.
- I know Cleveland fans feel the same way, that we’d have won the World Series if we’d gotten past Boston.
And we should have. I still wonder, you know, if Kenny Lofton would’ve run in the first inning, what would’ve happened. Somebody in PR got Josh Beckett’s old girlfriend to sing the National Anthem and it made Josh really angry. And I wonder, you know, you wonder and you replay every little thing that happened in that series and it just makes you wonder.
- Speaking of the Red Sox, what was it like to play for Terry Francona?
He was great. He’s a player’s manager. He never dogs his players out in the paper, and players appreciate that. He has one rule, and that’s that you hustle and play hard. If you do that, you just play hard, he will love you. If you don’t play hard, he will yell at you in the locker room, he will get mad, throw stuff. And I really respect him. And that’s the one thing I learned from Terry is, if you just play hard you’re gonna be alright.
- So you think he’s the right guy to lead this Tribe team?
I do, I think so. You need somebody that knows baseball, makes good moves, but you need somebody the players are comfortable with, they feel like has their back. And that enables big leaguers to perform.
Click here to read the second half of the interview, in which Byrd discusses his HGH use, sabermetrics, the Hall of Fame, and what he would—and wouldn’t—change about the game.