Urban: D’backs like new and improved Byrnes

Bay Area native Eric Byrnes cut his big-league teeth with the A’s from 2000-2005, but he grew up a Giants fan.

The ex-St. Francis High School of Mountain View star absolutely killed the Giants when he came to China Basin with the A’s, too. So when it looked like Arizona wasn’t going to give him a contract extension a couple of weeks ago, more than a few folks figured he’d sign with San Francisco this winter to become the first left fielder of the Post-Bonds Era.

Then the Arizona Diamondbacks did an apparent about-face, inking Byrnes for three more years at $30 million.

“Be honest,” the ever-enthusiastic Byrnes said over the phone last week. “When I was playing in Oakland, did you ever think I’d be making $10 million a year someday?”

The answer, of course, was no. And yes.

No, because back then, we didn’t know that $10 million would soon be the starting point for baseball-star salaries. Yes, because Byrnes was always so convincing when he told you that he was going to be a star some day.

Byrnes, in the words of former A’s manager Ken Macha, was something of a “spaz” for much of his time with the A’s. He’d show flashes of brilliance one day, look like a total bonehead the next.

He’d steal second and third base, then forget to touch home. He’d get a bad jump on a fly ball, catch up to it with his plus speed, appear to make a sensational diving catch, then drop the ball upon impact with earth. Cynics derided his “false hustle,” claiming the dive either wasn’t needed or wouldn’t have been without the bad route.

And while the “professional hitters” were working on their inside-out swings during batting practice, spraying balls the other way, Byrnes was yank-pulling as many balls into the left-field bleachers as possible. The higher and deeper the better, too, because Byrnes liked to admire his yardwork.

So how’d he get here — $30 million! — from there? Two things: He grew up, and he got time.

Byrnes was a huge fan favorite in Oakland but he never quite fit the Billy Beane-“Moneyball” mold, so he never got much regular run. So he was traded to the lowly Colorado Rockies during the 2005 All-Star break, and not long after that he was flipped to the lowly Baltimore Orioles. That’ll humble even a player who always has viewed himself as a superstar in the making.

But now he’s 31 years old and playing every day for a team that starts anywhere from four to six rookies. He’s had no choice but to get serious and lead, and he’s helped lead the D’backs into first place in the National League West.

It would have been nice to see him in orange and black, but seeing him succeed like this is pretty cool, too.

Mychael Urban is the author of “Aces: The Last Season On The Mound With The Oakland A’s Big Three — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito” and a writer for MLB.com. He also hosts the weekend edition of “Sportsphone 680” on KNBR (680 AM).


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