Part-Time Superstar

Jeff Sullivan · September 11, 2013 at 11:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

I’m wearing my yellow King Of Perfection t-shirt. That much is a coincidence — I set this shirt aside yesterday without much thought. Clean laundry is overdue, and this is a shirt I can run in when it’s 95 degrees. It’s not like I flash back in time every time I put this shirt on. At this point, it’s a shirt, that doesn’t pair well with other things. But it’s a shirt produced in honor of Felix Hernandez’s perfect game last August. Had one Ray reached, I wouldn’t be wearing this shirt. Had one Ray reached, I wouldn’t be writing this paragraph.

The Mariners have never won the World Series. I’m pretty sure the Mariners have never had a positive run differential; I’m definitely certain the Mariners have never made the playoffs. Those old years are just dreams they created and embedded in us, artificial memories we cling to because after enough time passes it doesn’t matter whether something really happened or not. There was never an Edgar Martinez. Just a few dozen John Marzanos. I do still have positive and real memories of the Mariners, though, and the conclusion of Felix’s perfect game was the most excited I’d been in years. I remember dancing, actually dancing, alone in that hot apartment that hot afternoon. The Mariners didn’t win the World Series that day, but I can’t imagine anything could’ve made me feel much better. On a scale of happiness, a World Series might make me feel 100. Felix put me up at 98.

Barry Zito’s contract is almost up. Presuming, that is, the Giants don’t pick up his $18-million option. That’s a contract that easily could’ve been ours, and it’s considered one of the worst contracts in recent memory. Over seven years, Zito’s posted an 86 ERA+, going 62-80 and only getting worse. Giants fans can’t wait to be rid of Zito and his drain on the payroll. But what has to be acknowledged is that, while Zito was on the team, the Giants won two titles. Had Zito not been on the team, the Giants might have won zero titles. Sports are complicated. Last October, Zito beat Lance Lynn. Later last October, Zito beat Justin Verlander. For San Francisco, Zito was a disappointment from the beginning, but no one would give it all back. With the roster as constructed, the Giants lived the dream. Zito’s contributions served a purpose.

With the Mariners’ roster as constructed, Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game. Granted, with the Mariners’ roster as constructed, Felix barely won, but it all worked out perfectly, the sum of all the little bits. An important catch was made early on by Eric Thames. A few important plays were made by Brendan Ryan. Without Ryan, maybe Felix is still perfect. With Ryan, we don’t have to wonder. That happened, we experienced that, and that’s a feeling we’ll carry with us. It was Ryan who didn’t lose focus when Kyle Seager dove for a grounder he couldn’t reach. It was Ryan who didn’t panic when Jeff Keppinger dribbled a soft grounder for out #26. The game didn’t feature Brendan Ryan at his best, but the thing about Brendan Ryan is that his ordinary is someone else’s extraordinary.

Another very fond memory of mine is the Mariners’ six-pitcher combined no-hitter against the Dodgers. That’s a fond memory for the absurdity, for how comical it was, and naturally, again, the Mariners won 1-0. That game probably doesn’t happen were it not for Brendan Ryan, because Brendan Ryan did this against one of the game’s fastest runners in the top of the ninth:

When you picture a skilled defensive shortstop, you imagine a lot of lateral range. Ryan has that, but Ryan also has more, which he put on display in the clip above. There’s forward range. There’s instinct, there’s positioning. There’s arm strength, and there’s arm accuracy, and there’s focus in stressful situations. As Ryan Divish has written in the past, and as has also been blatantly obvious, Brendan Ryan has ADD. He finds his clarity and his calmness in the infield. The one thing that settles Brendan Ryan down is one of the most difficult roles in the sport.

Some of my favorite Mariner memories involve Brendan Ryan. It stands to reason that, without him, I wouldn’t today have those same memories. I might have different positive memories, but Ryan did a lot to help bigger causes, and he also did a lot on his own, making insignificant plays that are still hard to forget. They’ve almost all been insignificant plays for the Mariners for years. For a decade. This team hasn’t mattered. But this team has been our team, and Ryan repeatedly did the impossible. Half of the time, Brendan Ryan was a superstar. That much was plainly evident.

The other half of the time, Brendan Ryan sucked. It’s hard to believe he’s twice slugged .400. His Mariner numbers are the same as Jack Wilson’s. They’re the same as Rob Johnson’s. Ryan managed a lower Mariner OBP than Chone Figgins. A lower Mariner OBP than Jeff Cirillo. A lower Mariner OBP than Jamie Moyer. Ryan’s been worth 3.5 WAR, and this has been the subject of much discussion, as people who’ve seen him hit have widely refused to believe he could still be a net positive contributor. And maybe Ryan hasn’t really been worth 3.5 WAR. It’s not like the stat is inarguable and infallible. But Ryan has made us wonder, and Ryan has allowed us to have the conversation. Because of Brendan Ryan, we’ve wondered how poorly a shortstop can hit while still helping the team overall. It’s a question Braves fans have occasionally considered on account of Andrelton Simmons. Not that Simmons is the hitter Ryan is, but right there, it should tell you something that Ryan hit like he hit and still stayed in the lineup.

Ryan isn’t the best defensive shortstop in the league. Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the league. Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in a really long time, seems like. Simmons is 24. Ryan is 31. We wouldn’t expect Ryan to be able to keep up with Simmons, but something incredible is that sometimes Ryan can pull the same things off. Ryan can’t make all of Simmons’ plays, but he can make a lot of them, and Simmons is as good as it gets. A league can contain more than one superstar. As Ryan has gotten older, he’s compensated for his reduced physical ability by being one prepared and alert son of a bitch.

Overall, Brendan Ryan wasn’t a great shortstop for the Mariners, but he was a great shortstop half of the time, and as unpleasant as it was to watch him hit, let’s acknowledge that Ryan’s bat wasn’t the difference between the Mariners we’ve seen and playoff teams. The teams have been bad, and Ryan was a highlight reel. Ryan was a guy who’d make the plays that would make you thankful you tuned in to a go-nowhere game in the middle of August. Ryan would leave us with images to remember, remarkable plays in a game otherwise most unremarkable, and you know that thing he does where he swings and hits the ball and instinctively looks up and around like he popped out? Adorable. Ryan’s been a memorable player on forgettable teams. Maybe if the Mariners were better, I’d feel about him differently, but, well, nope. Last I checked, they’ve sucked a lot. So I’ll take what pleasures I can.

I wasn’t sure why Ryan stuck around this long. I thought he should’ve been on a contender by now, and I anticipated writing this post in July. You’d figure he could’ve at least helped a team off the bench, but instead now he gets three weeks on the Yankees, filling in for the irreplaceable. Because of Ryan’s defense, we’re going to be more critical of Brad Miller’s defense. It’s just too jarring a transition. And because of Ryan’s defense, perhaps Yankees fans will finally acknowledge the issues with Derek Jeter’s defense. It’s just too jarring a transition, not that Jeter’s lately been active. But those people haven’t seen a good defensive shortstop in something like 20 years. They won’t get a lot of Brendan Ryan, but they should get enough, and maybe they’ll realize a thing or two. Maybe they’ll just get a couple of Web Gems.

A happy ending would’ve been sending Brendan Ryan to the playoffs. As is, because it’s September, he’s ineligible. But then, the Yankees are only two games back of the wild card. These are their playoffs, at least until or unless they make the playoffs, so Ryan gets to feel the intensity of a race. It’s the next-best thing, even if he’s with a bunch of new guys, so this isn’t an unhappy ending. It’s a long move, after which Ryan gets to temporarily share a clubhouse with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. It’s a long move, after which Ryan gets to have baseball’s most intense media market watching his defense and covering what he can do. Ryan’s probably wondered about the future of his career. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for him to make a few plays in New York.

Over time, we tend to exaggerate our baseball memories. We make the pitches a little faster, the swings a little harder, the hits a little longer, the crowd a little louder. Over time, we’re going to exaggerate our Brendan Ryan memories. But they’ll hardly be exaggerations. Brendan Ryan’s defense is a difficult thing to exaggerate. Thank you for the time, Brendan Ryan. I’ve loved some of it.


13 Responses to “Part-Time Superstar”

  1. Westside guy on September 11th, 2013 11:13 am

    I don’t know that we’re going to be super critical of Brad Miller’s defense because he definitely provides more offense, and it’s not like he’s booting every ball that comes his way – he seems at least adequate in the field. But I have missed Brendan Ryan’s fielding ever since Miller came up.

    I posted this statement before, but: We are privileged to have watched Brendan Ryan play defense the past couple years. Good luck, Brendan, and thank you.

  2. deadmanonleave on September 11th, 2013 11:22 am

    I know he probably wasn’t going to be on the team next year, and he absolutely deserves a chance on a contender as a brilliant defensive sub and back up, but I’m also really going to miss Brendan Ryan.

    In years of mediocrity, Felix’s pitching and Ryan’s defense have stood out as the two things that were better than ordinary – so, so much better.

    And his triple…

  3. smb on September 11th, 2013 12:28 pm

    In other news, ex-Mariner bust and now full-time superstar Wlad Balentien just tied Sadaharu Oh’s single season J-League HR total with 55…

    There’s many different jokes to be made here, but I just don’t have the heart anymore. Good for Wlad. We should cut some of these other drowning 4-A’ers to allow them to go realize their dreams in some form of less oppressive run-producing environment.

  4. scraps on September 11th, 2013 1:24 pm

    Back to the subject that the post’s about — Wlad is fine, and maybe he’s deserves a post right now, but this is Goodbye to Brendan Ryan, and that is important, IMO — I like defense so much that my favorite players are defensive standouts. (My very favorite player is Mike Cameron.)

    Right now, for the last two years, it’s been Brendan Ryan. I am sad. (My second favorite is Guti. This is going to be a sad offseason.)

  5. scraps on September 11th, 2013 1:26 pm

    And Jeff: magnificent post. You got it squarely.

  6. scraps on September 11th, 2013 1:37 pm

    He did play four years in St Louis, which is a very good team, of course. Unfortunately, his four years included only one year that made the playoff, and that year they got got swept in the Division Series.

  7. Milendriel on September 11th, 2013 1:51 pm

    One thing that video highlights that we don’t always notice with fielders is how insanely fast Ryan’s transfer is. Grantland had an article comparing his plays to Derek Jeter’s and it was a very noticable difference.

  8. Aussie Mariner on September 11th, 2013 3:02 pm

    Once again, thanks Jeff for giving us closure on a trade I’m both okay with and saddened by.

  9. sawsatch on September 11th, 2013 3:45 pm

    TSN (Trade Smoak Now)

  10. MrZDevotee on September 11th, 2013 3:55 pm

    Thanks for this… I have a horrible analogy, but it rings true for me so I’ll share it… Brendan Ryan is like my beloved old 15 year old dog dying, and Brad Miller is the new puppy brought in to replace him.

    Ryan wasn’t perfect, and had his flaws, but he was faithful, and devoted to his craft, and would chase the ball for hours and hours, and still want to chase it again even when he couldn’t run anymore… Sure he lost a step the past few years, he shed sometimes, he chewed up more than a few sofas, but he could still fetch a helluva ball, and would sit there at our feet panting with pure pleasure everytime he brought it back. A pat on the head was all he needed.

    Sure, Brad Miller is fun to watch, and he’s a perfectly reasonable replacement, and I’ll love him too for what he brings to the table. But he’ll never be a Brendan Ryan. I’m gonna miss that dog.

  11. MrZDevotee on September 11th, 2013 4:00 pm

    I forgot about the infield triple! Beautiful hustle there.

  12. PackBob on September 11th, 2013 11:31 pm

    Brendan made a lot of games worthwhile to watch with his defense. It was worth the grind of the season to see the brilliant points in time. He was always a highlight waiting to happen.

    Good luck Brendan, wow ’em in NYC, and I hope you keep playing in MLB somewhere next season.

  13. mossi on September 16th, 2013 4:57 pm

    Ackley’s Grizzley Adams look : trying to get traded to Boston?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.