Not all major league baseball players get to be everyday starters, and accepting the role as bench player is something that – no matter how distasteful – has to be learned.
It’s particularly hard to come to grips with after first being a starter.
The perfect example is Mariners infielder Brendan Ryan. Since 2009, he has been a starting player. At the start of the 2013 season, Ryan was the Mariners’ everyday shortstop, just like he was in 2012 and in 2011.
But that came to an end on June 28, when the Mariners called up prospect Brad Miller and handed him Ryan’s job. Ryan was hitting .196 at the time, and Miller was tearing things up at Triple-A Tacoma. Since then, Ryan is learning the life of a backup. It hasn’t been easy.
“It’s definitely not easy,” Ryan said. “I have no reason to lie. But we are all professionals here.”
Since Miller was called up, Ryan has started just 10 games and played in a total of 16. After bringing so much daily emotion and passion to the field, it has been hard to sit and watch and hope to play every so often.
“When you are failing quite a bit, it’s hard to smile,” he said. “Even if you are faking it. You don’t want to look frustrated out there.”
Games such as Wednesday’s 5-3 victory over Oakland don’t make it any easier. Ryan went 2-for-4 driving in three runs – including the go-ahead run — while making a few of his usually brilliant defensive plays. It reminds him of what he’s capable of doing.
“If I was hitting .280, who knows what would have happened,” he said. “We have big league players in this clubhouse. This is the role I’ve carved out for myself.”
It might appear easy to accept the demotion in public, but on the inside it’s hard. But Ryan is trying.
“You just have to be a pro,” he said. “There’s not much more I can say about it. You have to be a professional and take your licks and not look back, just look forward to the next challenge.”
For Ryan, it’s trying to figure out how to stay ready for when he’s called upon for a spot start or for action late in a game. Players have to find a routine that keeps them semi-sharp.
“It took me a while to learn,” said outfielder Endy Chavez, who has been a bench player as a fourth outfielder for much of the past five seasons. “You have to find a routine and be ready. But it’s still not the same as playing every day.”
Ryan is trying to do that, but for him the mental side of it is the most difficult. When you only get a handful of at-bats in a week, it’s hard not to place an exaggerated emphasis on the few results — particularly the failures.
“The frustration mounts,” Ryan said. “It gets exponential when at-bats are limited. You have so much time to sit and think about it. What you would have done different. What went wrong.
“All I can do is the best I can with the opportunities I’m getting.”
Those opportunities will be limited. Yet, Ryan isn’t pouting or being a problem in the clubhouse. Before games, he can be seen giving Miller fielding tips and working with him daily on ground-ball fundamentals. He lost his job, but he hasn’t lost his concept of helping the team.
“He’s been more than a pro,” acting manager Robby Thompson said. “He’s done nothing but help those guys up the middle, whether it’s pregame, during the game or postgame. He’s been there for them. He’s solid about that.”
It’s what Ryan believes he should be doing as a veteran player. It’s part of his new role. He doesn’t like riding the bench, but it’s far better than the alternative — not playing baseball at all.
“As cheesy as it may be, I’m still in the big leagues and living the dream,” he said.