“Talent isn’t necessarily what makes or breaks a player. It’s what’s in your heart and mind. The guys that are relentless and never give up and come back for more… those are the guys that make it to the big leagues.”
In every person, there is the ability to do great things. But you need to want it. You need to want to be a success and push toward following your dreams. You need to work hard, stay determined and over time build the confidence you need to go out and achieve your goal. In baseball, the road is similar. This game of failure can be long and hard, and many times frustrating. But understanding the game and all it offers can only help you in achieving greatness on the diamond. It starts in little league and as you follow your baseball journey, one day you may get that shot to make it to the major leagues. It won't be easy, but for that committed player, dreams can come true.
I am happy to introduce pro ballplayer and my friend Brendan Ryan to the Oradell Little League audience. A great guy, family man and committed teammate to many in Major League Baseball over the years. Ryan played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees. His dedication to the game was valuable, as he became a success through Little League followed by high school and college ball and eventually being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003. For Ryan, it was a dream come true.
I asked Brendan to talk about his experiences in his career from youth baseball to the pros. He happily agreed and with the help from his wife Sharyn, I am happy to share with you our first installment of 2018 Oradell's "Success Through Little League" series. I bring you Brendan Ryan.
--Rob Monaco, OLL
OLL: Bring me back to playing Little League ball. What was the moment for you that made you realize that you loved this game?
Brendan Ryan: Well, I think I loved baseball before I knew I loved baseball. As a toddler I was always dragging a Wiffle ball bat around or always having a ball ready to throw. In Grade school I can remember in 6th or 7th grade being on 5 different teams. I mean, I was on 2 different travel teams and 3 different leagues. My parents were basically chauffeurs and even with all those games, I never got burned out on it. I could never get enough. And so I definitely always loved baseball, but I also didn’t enjoy practicing the other sports, where as in baseball, I would go out and take some ground balls, get to batting practice and go shag flies in the field and that never got old to me. That structure never changes and even in the big leagues. It never gets old to me. It never feels like work, I always enjoyed it.
OLL: Growing up, who was the baseball player you idolized most and why?
Brendan Ryan: He was way before my time, but I wanted to be Mickey Mantle. I thought that he was supposed to be the best there ever was and why wouldn’t I want to be that? That guy had the fastest time out of the box to first base and hit the furtherest baseball ever, and won a Triple crown. He was one of the most talented players that ever lived. Mickey Mantle…cool name. Number 7, it all seemed right.
OLL: In baseball, there is more failure than success, especially at the youth level. Kids many times get easily discouraged when things don't go their way. If you were a head coach in Oradell Little League, what is the most important thing you would let these young players know about this game and about themselves?
OLL: How many positions do you play comfortably on the baseball field? Why are you so diverse and is that important to you as a ballplayer?
Brendan Ryan: I’ve played every position in the big leagues except catcher and center field. I’m most confident in the infield but comfortable anywhere. I think it’s important for managers to have a guy who can move around like that. It improves the roster depth and gives the manager flexibility whether it’s for extra innings or in the National League for double switches, or for giving guys a day off and keeping the team fresh.
When I was coming up as a rookie in 2007, I was only a shortstop in the minor leagues, but got more starts at 2nd and 3rd than I did at short. But proving that I could move around and play different positions is something that kept me in the big leagues and playing for Tony LaRussa. He would tell me for example that I’d be playing third base. And he would say, “Go take some grounders off a bat out there before the game.” That was the most realistic look I was gonna get outside of playing the game live. And so I would tell young players, that’s the best way to improve at any one position.
OLL: You were drafted by the Cardinals in the 7th round in 2003. This, after years of playing baseball in Little League, High School and College. What the heck is going through your mind that day?
Brendan Ryan: I remember draft day being exciting, but probably stressful more than anything because I really didn’t have a good feel for where I was going to go in the draft. There was enough attention to where I knew I was going to get drafted, but playing in Idaho, the thought was “How much exposure was I getting to the right people?”
I pretty much worked out for every single team leading up to the draft. I remember the first work out I had was for the St. Louis Cardinals. As I was turning into my parking spot, this other guy who was late for his final T-boned me. The Cardinals cross-checker saw the whole thing happen and luckily my parents were there so my dad handled it. After that moment I had plenty of adrenaline. I remember my arm being pretty strong in that workout and it turns out that it went well enough because they ended up drafting me.
I remember the day of the draft being really stressed out, my mom couldn’t sit still. She was in the kitchen baking, keeping herself busy. My dad’s writing every single name down and what team they went to. As the draft moves through the rounds it just gets more stressful because you’re not hearing your name read. When my name was said by the Cardinals, it sure was a relief and exciting. The family was there at the bottom of the stairs as I came down. We had a big BBQ. I remember a big banner that my mom made and we all took a picture around it.
OLL: Errors are a big part of baseball. But getting past it takes enormous mental toughness. As a kid it can be tricky, but as a major leaguer, you guys seem to get over mistakes rather quickly. Why?
OLL: You played College ball for Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. Tell our players about playing there and what you learned on that level when it comes to being successful in this game?
Brendan Ryan: So this is a tough one. The 3 years I spent in college were not the most fun years of my life. It was tough. Yes, I learned a lot, but not necessarily about baseball. I learned about life. I learned to cook. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that if I got better grades I may not have went to Lewis-Clark. But I got tougher and the coach there… well… if you could imagine the worst heckler in the world x 30… that’s what it was like on a daily basis. And so your spirit, your heart, your mind and passion for the game was all tested.
I had to not let that break me. What’s great is that I accomplished that and that carried me into the minor leagues. Once I got to the minors, I rediscovered that love for baseball and it was rejuvenated and refreshing and exciting. So in some regards, I was thankful for my college experience, but it would be tough to do again.
OLL: Brendan, you played in the majors for the Cardinals, Mariners, and the Yankees. Which pro manager did you enjoy the most and tell us why? Was it about trust, knowledge? What did you like the most about them?
Brendan Ryan: I was pretty lucky to play under a Hall of Fame manager in Tony LaRussa to begin my major league career. Learning from someone who had such an incredible understanding of the game helped me greatly both at the time and for years after. His attention to detail was second to none. Lineups were made 3 and 4 days ahead of time and he commanded the respect of every guy. There was definitely a level of intensity and even intimidation that was effective because you didn’t want to screw up and get sent back to the minor leagues. So you couldn’t help but be at your best. I think at the beginning of my career and being young that was something that helped me. That and he gave me my first opportunity so I am forever grateful.
Then I moved onto Seattle and Eric Wedge and that great coaching staff. That was a very tight-knit group. That was a very special time those three years in Seattle. I think back really fondly of those years and I am thankful for those coaches.
Moving to the Yankees and to New York, it was a lot like my time in St. Louis. Similar culture and similar winning environment. I was older than, but refreshing to be part of that winning culture again. Joe Girardi was a very personable guy. Someone that you felt cared greatly about you… not just as a player but as a person. That’s what I remember most about Joe and I really enjoyed him and his staff as well.
OLL: What is your fondest memory of playing ball as a kid, and who was the one person you remember most who inspired you and helped you fall in love with baseball?
OLL: You played for the Tigers minor league club in 2017 and I know as a pro player, anytime you are in the minors for an extended period of time, it's hard to deal with, especially not getting called up. But you powered through and had a great season with the Toledo Mud Hens. How do you get past the fact that you aren't on a pro team and what's the mindset for you so you stay motivated and stay determined?
Brendan Ryan: Having to go back to Triple-A for anyone is challenging and the reason is because you’ve seen what it’s like in the big leagues. And even if it’s for a day or 2, it’s more than night and day. The hotel rooms, the post-game spreads, the chartered flights and how about the people that are in the seats cheering or booing… it’s much less. It can be very difficult and also easy for you to feel sorry for yourself. If you can treat it like a test, like you are trying to prove some imaginary person wrong. That’s kind of how I looked at it. There were times were I would look at myself and say "Come on man, what am I doing? I’m 35. I’ve had a career in the big leagues. How am I going to get back up there?"
These things weigh on you. But you have to remember that you are one of the lucky ones. I often think about how I am in my mid 30’s and I still get to play the game I love. In the end, enjoy it.
OLL: Finally, you have learned success through little league and have had a great baseball career and are raising a wonderful family. How important was the discipline of baseball in your life path?