Brendan Ryan isn’t a scuba diver or a dog catcher. The 29-year-old Cardinal-turned-Mariner is a middle infielder — a pretty good one at that — but when a little subterfuge is in order, he can be most anything. Above all, he can be one of baseball’s more engaging personalities, as adept with a quip as he is with scooping up a ground ball. Befitting a .256-liftime hitter with limited pop, he is also appreciative for the opportunity to wear a big league uniform, which he did last year in Seattle after spending four seasons with St. Louis.
David Laurila: How did you end up attending college in Idaho?
Brendan Ryan: First of all, it was a very different experience. I grew up south of Hollywood, east of Beverly Hills, and west of downtown, so I was right in the middle of L.A. To go from that to Lewiston, Idaho, a town of 30,000, was culture shock. Things were slower, to say the least.
How did I get there? In high school I was busier playing baseball, and being rewarded with detention, than taking my studies as seriously as I should have. My family and I thought that Lewis and Clark State might be a good fit, because there would be fewer distractions. I also had an opportunity to play there on a scholarship.
DL: Was culture shock a valuable lesson leading into pro ball?
BR: Very. When you start out in the minors, you’re usually in small towns with very little to do, so you have to entertain yourself off the field. Being in Lewiston was similar to some of those minor-league towns.
When you think about the minor leagues, Clinton, Iowa is the type of town that comes to mind. When you drive in, you’re overwhelmed with the smell of dog food — I think that’s what it is — so you really want to wear a mask. With the Cardinals, we always had pretty good cities, though. Springfield is probably as good of a Double-A town as you’re going to find.
DL: Their Triple-A team is in Memphis. Did you get much of a chance to check out the nightlife?
BR: As a player, you don’t have too much free time, but you do check things out. You see what you can see, but man, it was so hot there that you really just wanted to stay indoors, in the air conditioning. I did check out Beale Street, though. I wanted to have as many different ribs as I could out there. That barbeque was outstanding. They also have some good live music. It was a cool ballpark, too.
DL: What is the quality of most minor-league infield surfaces?
BR: First, you can’t really compare anything to the big leagues. It would just depend, and that includes the lighting. In Nashville, you wanted the ball to glow, because it was so dark that it was almost scary at times. You’re facing Yovanni Gallardo and he’s the best pitcher you’ve ever seen in your life. He’s obviously very good, but in that setting he was [even better].
As far as infields go, I remember being kind of disappointed with Rosenblatt [Stadium]. That’s where the Triple-A Royals played, although I think they have a new one now. But then you go to Oklahoma City and you’re like, “Wow, this is almost like the big leagues.”
DL: Do players care much about ballpark atmosphere?
BR: I do. I grew up a fan of the game; I’m just fortunate enough to get to play it. When you go to a place like Fenway or Wrigley, the amenities aren’t really there and you can either spend your time feeling flustered about things like a cramped clubhouse, or you can think, “Hey, I’m standing in the same place where Babe Ruth did.” I’m captivated by things like that. Call it cheesy if you want, but I think it’s pretty cool.
DL: Is there a culture within baseball that discourages sharing that type of thing?
BR: Yes, little things like… God forbid that you’re ever caught, off the field by another player, wearing a team-affiliated shirt or hat. Or if someone asks if you’re so-and-so, or if you play for so-and-so, you have to come up with something like, “No, I’m a scuba instructor.” You can’t offer that information first; it has to be pulled out of you. It’s strange. You have to hide who you are, but I mean, shouldn’t you be proud?
DL: Have you ever told someone that you’re a scuba instructor?
BR: Yeah. Dog catcher is usually a good one, too. You can stretch that conversation a little bit. You can talk about that nasty neighborhood dog that’s always a tough fight. It’s kind of an improv thing. It’s usually something off the top of your head, as random as possible.
DL: Do ever find yourself wanting to tell a fan that being a baseball player really isn’t that big of a deal?
BR: Yeah. I mean… in other words, yeah. When I was 10 years old, I was terrified to talk to a high school or college player, let alone a big leaguer, so I kind of get that. But when you have a grown man, in his 60s, and he’s shaky and a little uncomfortable talking to you, it’s like, “Hey man, I’m just a baseball player. It’s all good. We can have a normal conversation here.” I want people to be comfortable around me. It’s a trip when you have somebody a couple of generations older feeling uncomfortable talking to you.
DL: What was it like to play in St. Louis?
BR: Traditional, I want to say. The park plays fair; it’s a good surface. Of course, I’m always wishing the fence is brought in a bit, because I’ve got that warning track power. But it was a wonderful place to play; it’s classic.
The fans are there for baseball. They’re not there for the pool in right-center field, or some of the distractions you’ll find in other places. They’re there with scorebooks in hand and know what’s going on. When you move a guy over, they know you sacrificed yourself. They applaud a nice play.
DL: Is that important to a player?
BR; I don’t know if it’s important, but you respect it. It’s cool and maybe even a little unique. Even so, sometimes Cardinals fans are almost a little too friendly. They’re friendly to a fault. I mean, let’s not applaud the other team here. We’re trying to beat them.
DL: How does Seattle compare to St. Louis?
BR; It’s colder. I think it’s our responsibility to get this ship righted and put those people in the seats. We need to give them a reason to show up. I think it’s getting better, but we’d like more people showing up. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a blast playing here.
The park is enormous and the ball doesn’t carry very well. I’m also learning that, on the west coast, the fields are little harder, so you have to play the ground balls a little differently. There’s also the American League, National League difference.
I never thought that I’d be a bigger fan of the American League, but having played in both now… I think that strategy is cool in the National League, having to bunt and use your pitcher, and all that stuff, but it’s also cool not having to throw away innings. I think it’s cool to have nine hitters go up there. The American League is pretty tough, man. There are some pretty darn good players here.
DL: What about the ballparks?
BR: There are some great ones in both leagues. Take this series [in Boston]. It’s something you kind of circle on your calendar. We were talking about atmosphere earlier and these fans are on top of it; they understand what’s going on. You go to some parks and the interest level isn’t quite there, or there are plenty of empty seats. You want to play where it’s sold out. Even if it’s on the road. You want the fans going crazy, because as an opponent you want to play in a silent, packed park. That’s awesome. Or get booed; that’s awesome, too. As long as you don’t get booed at home.
DL: What about when you do get booed at home?
BR: It hurts. I haven’t heard too much of it, but it’s something… you don’t want that. Nobody is going out there trying to do poorly. You’re trying to help your team; you’re trying to win. You kind of feel like your family is turning on you, so it hurts. If it does happen, you can’t let it get into your head.
DL: Is booing not merited in certain situations?
BR: It probably is. If you hit a ground ball to short and walk to the dugout, and the throw bounces and isn’t caught, and the first baseman picks it off the ground… you can’t do that. But if you’re playing the game right — if you’re hustling and giving it your all — no. I think that what fans see is your salary and they expect that type of performance. The player does too, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way. That doesn’t mean there’s a lack of effort, or passion. It comes with the territory, though. It’s a part of the profession. It still sucks when it happens.
DL: Any final thoughts on the life of a baseball player?
BR: I think the whole buildup to the first pitch of a game is something that’s kind of fascinating. There’s also the travel — the chartered flights — and yeah, it’s awesome, but it’s a grind. It’s 162 games, which is a lot of games, and you don’t feel good for half of them. I could go on forever and ever about that one. That’s why I think that all this inside stuff is good. It gives people more of an inside look at the daily life of a Major League Baseball player.
Again, growing up, I thought big-league players were beyond special. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d even have close to an opportunity to do this. But in short, we’re all just guys with talent who really work at it. We also believed in ourselves and that’s a big reason we’re here. I guess it’s pretty cheesy to say that, too, but it’s true. Part of it is just believing in yourself, because there’s a lot of talent in the minor leagues and that confidence helps you get here. I got called up when I was 25, and now I’m talking to you at Fenway Park. Yeah, this is pretty cool.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.