October 16, 2007
CLEVELAND – Paul Byrd once had a classic windup.
It was born and developed the way most major-league windups are, and then tested and refined and, well, there are some things a pitcher just doesn't change.
But, going on six years ago, Byrd sat glumly atop a pitcher's mound in Florida. He was 31, his shoulder ached every day, his fastball had deserted him, and another season was weeks away.
Near the end of the afternoon, his Kansas City Royals teammates and coaches had gone home, or to a round of golf, or a familiar fishing hole, the usual spring-training airiness trailing them into the parking lot.
Byrd had left them for a back field at Baseball City. Dressed in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt, he climbed that mound and surveyed his future in the game. What he saw distressed him.
"My career's about to be over here," he thought.
He lowered his head.
"Look," Byrd said Monday night, walking a concourse beneath Jacobs Field, "I'm not trying to convert anybody. I don't go to God as a vending machine. But, I prayed. I just said, 'I'd love to keep playing.' "
After a few minutes, he stood, braced his foamy right flip-flop against the pitching rubber, and started making stuff up.
He tried the Bob Feller leg kick.
And fell down.
He tried the Warren Spahn arm swing.
All alone, in street clothes, on an empty field.
"I'm lucky I didn't get arrested," he said.
He went Luis Tiant. He went Juan Marichal.
"All kinds of stuff," he said. "And this is what I came up with. When all the smoke cleared, that's what I kept."
Initially, the momentum back and then toward the hitter freshened the velocity of his fastball. He later discovered the new delivery hid the ball longer, adding another few inches to his fastball. He won 17 games in 2002.
"Now that's sort of my trademark," Byrd said. "And in a very average career, that's something that I've become known for a little bit."
And this – the old-time arm pump (abbreviated Spahn), now unique in the game, and the somewhat exaggerated leg kick – is what he'll take into his start for the Cleveland Indians against the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League championship series, which the Tribe leads two games to one.
Despite Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the 2003 season, Byrd is 62-46 since he pimped his windup. And, eight days ago at Yankee Stadium, he beat the New York Yankees in the game that ravaged the Yankees' season and sent the Indians into the ALCS.
Manager Eric Wedge had entrusted the start to Byrd amid public calls to give the ball to Cleveland's ace, C.C. Sabathia, on short rest. Byrd went five innings and allowed two runs.
"I think the whole world wanted C.C. out on the mound, everybody except for my mom, Eric Wedge and my wife," Byrd said. "So the fact that he went with me, I think it made me feel really good. I can sit there and get angry and say, 'I don't get any respect and I want to prove everybody wrong.' That's really not me. I'd rather be focused on proving a few people right."
On Tuesday night he'll oppose Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, a pairing which Byrd called, "maybe the slowest-throwing right-handed matchup of all time in the postseason."
But, this isn't a radar-gun thing. It's a pitching thing, only without the flip-flops.