With no expectations, Byrd took flight with Phils
It would be technically accurate to say that there were few expectations when the Phillies claimed Paul Byrd from the Braves in 1998. It would also be underselling the concept to the point of being misleading.
Byrd, at the time, was 27 years old. The previous season, he had posted a 5.26 ERA in Atlanta, mostly out of the bullpen. He'd spent most of that year at Triple-A Richmond as a starter, but the Phils planned on him being a reliever at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. At least, that's what general manager Ed Wade said the first time he called. That was followed by another call informing Byrd that, due to a technicality, he should report to Philadelphia instead. And a third call in which Byrd was told he was starting three days later against future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.
"You don't pick up 20-game winners off the waiver wire," Terry Francona, the Phillies' manager at the time, said with a shrug when the move was announced.
"I don't know what to expect. Just go have fun," Francona told Byrd when he reported.
What happened on the night of Aug. 17, 1998, at Veterans Stadium remains an inspiration to underdogs everywhere. The right-hander not only beat the Astros, he threw his first Major League complete game and shutout. He allowed four singles and a walk; no runner reached second.
And even though, while he was selecting a bat before the game, outfielder Gregg Jefferies kiddingly told Byrd he probably wouldn't need one -- "I don't like your chances at the dish" -- Byrd singled in the first Phils run off Johnson in the second inning.
"No one really gave me a shot. And I was fine with that," Byrd said. "That was probably my greatest game -- including playoffs, including anything. It was the greatest single game of my entire life. I've had some really big wins. But that was by far the greatest experience, the greatest game, of my life."
Byrd ended the year going 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in eight starts. While he never was a 20-game winner, he won 15 the following year and made the National League All-Star team in the midst of a career that didn't end until 2009.
After a few starts, Byrd caught Francona analyzing his videos.
"I was like, 'What's going on?'" Byrd said. "And he said, 'I read what you said in the paper about how if you hit your spots, you're good enough to get guys out here. And I agree with you.' It was almost like, 'Is this for real? I want to see what this guy has, what's going on. Why is he getting guys out?'"
Now 44, Byrd lives outside Atlanta with his wife, Kym, and he does "a little bit of everything." He broadcasts Braves games for FOX Sports South as a roving reporter and pregame and postgame analyst. He does some college coverage for CBS. He has an interest in a business called Media Caddy.
He's also coached his sons. The older, Grayson, is an infielder at LSU, Byrd's alma mater. The younger, Colby, is a high school junior who leans toward soccer and basketball. Both are 6-foot-4, towering over their father, and can run.
There's another member of the family, too. A few years ago, one of the players on Byrd's travel team, a young African American named Tarez Miller, moved in with the Byrds. This fall, he's attending Georgia Southern University on a baseball scholarship.
Even though Byrd was originally drafted by the Indians and also played for the Mets, Braves, Royals, Angels, Indians and Red Sox while going 109-96 with a career 4.41 ERA, who knows what would have happened if he hadn't gotten his chance with the Phillies, and if he hadn't taken advantage of it?
"I'm 6-foot, I don't have long arms, I'm balding," Byrd said. "I looked like an accountant. People would say, 'You just don't look like a big league pitcher.' At any time in my career, anyone could have said, 'What are you doing? So, yeah, I could have not gotten claimed off waivers and my career could have been over. I think everybody was holding their breath. I'm not headed to the Hall of Fame. But I pitched for a long time and I provided for my family."
In a way, it all started that August night at The Vet ... and the story gets even better. Kym was driving a U-Haul from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia. Somewhere along the way, she made a wrong turn and missed the start of the game. In fact, she didn't arrive until the bottom of the eighth, just in time to see her husband step to the plate and get a standing ovation as the "Rocky" theme blared from the sound system.
"And here she is, holding two little kids, one that's 2 years old and one that's 6 months old, and she just started crying," Byrd said. "It's like the coolest moment I've ever had in my career. The whole game was surreal, and afterwards, gosh, I can't even think back about it without getting emotional."
Byrd was thrilled when the Phillies claimed him off waivers. He turned out to be a perfect match, a blue-collar pitcher in a blue-collar city, a development nobody could have seen coming.