A's outfielder is no star, but he's never boring either
Posted: Friday May 13, 2005 12:49PM; Updated: Monday May 16, 2005 1:37AM
"Believe it or not, I'm walking on air ..." Eric Byrnes does another impression of The Greatest American Hero.
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Certain players bear watching at all times, for obvious reasons. Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Alex Rodriguez. Pedro Martinez. Miguel Tejada. Any time they take the field, there's a chance you'll see something worthy of your attention. Every play is a potential Hall of Fame moment.
Then there are players such as A's outfielder Eric Byrnes, who bears watching in a torch-juggler-riding-a-unicycle-along-a-jagged-cliff kind of way. Every play is a potential Hall of Fame moment, but it's also equally likely to end in a flaming tangle of limbs and metal, which is why Byrnes gets my vote as the most exciting player in the game today.
It takes a strong stomach to appreciate the excitement he creates; he doesn't stir the heart with Ichiro's grace or Derek Jeter's nobility. Byrnes is reckless and unpredictable, constantly tottering the fine line between high-energy performance and disaster. This season it's been mostly disaster, at least when he's at the plate. The 29-year-old is batting .216 with seven RBIs and a .296 OBP. Earlier this week he was dropped to ninth in the punchless Oakland order. That's a bit like being kicked out of 'N Sync for singing poorly, but it doesn't make Byrnes any less fun to watch.
It's hard not to love these Mr. Excitements for the way they effortlessly blend athletic talent and clumsiness. Good or bad, any play they're involved in will be memorable. One of the joys of the 1980s was watching Lonnie Smith, the man known as Skates, stumble his way around the bases. Current Royals first baseman Ken Harvey must be watched because of his nose for contact -- with teammates, not the ball. (Has anyone collided with more people or objects over the past few seasons?)
Byrnes' Oakland teammates and bosses like to say he plays like his hair is on fire (not to be confused with fellow A's outfielder Bobby Kielty, whose red mane makes him look like his hair on fire) and in the Dominican Republic, where he's a fan favorite for his winter-ball exploits, he's known as Loco. Take the series the A's played in Boston this week. (They were swept, but without back-to-back meltdowns by closer Octavio Dotel, the A's would have taken two of three.) On Tuesday, Byrnes made what has to be the catch of the year, a full-extension, diving backhand of a line drive that sliced away from him in left field. The play saved two runs. But in the series Byrnes also turned a few routine fly balls into adventures, circling under them like he was waiting for paper airplanes to land. By my count, he also airmailed at least three cutoff men in the series.
On Wednesday Byrnes struck again, hammering a monster two-run home run off Keith Foulke to put the A's ahead in the ninth. Surprisingly, he remembered to touch home plate after he rounded the bases -- something he forgot to do at Fenway Park in Game 3 of the 2003 Division Series, when he missed the plate on a slide and was tagged out while hopping and clutching his injured knee. That play was the beginning of another A's postseason choke job; they lost the game and went on to blow their 2-0 series lead.
Some puckheads say hockey is a sport best watched when mistakes are made. Byrnes brings the same spirit to baseball. He may be out of control, but he's a nonstop bundle of entertainment.