“I’d be happy to just sit the bench for a major league baseball team.”
It’s a common statement from baseball fans.
On the surface, it seems like it would be a pretty great set-up. The minimum major league baseball salary for a player was $480,000 in 2012. So the money is slightly better than most jobs. Then there is the major league lifestyle of ballparks, luxury accommodations and people there waiting on you constantly.
No player will ever complain about that opportunity to occupy one of those coveted 25 spots on a big league roster. It’s all pretty great.
Yet, very few, if any, of those same players, are content to just sit on the bench and never play. They didn’t dream of sitting on the bench in the big leagues.
But not everyone gets to be an every day starter, and accepting the role as a bench player is something that players have to learn.
It isn’t easy to come to grips with it at first.
The perfect example is Mariners infielder Brendan Ryan. Since 2009, he’s been an every day starting player. At the start of the 2013 season, Ryan was the Mariners starting shortstop, just like he was in 2012 and in 2011.
But on June 28, that came to an end. The Mariners called up prospect Brad Miller and handed him the shortstop job. Ryan was hitting .196 at the time, while Miller was tearing up Triple A Tacoma. Since then, Ryan is learning the life of a back-up. It hasn’t been easy to stomach.
“It’s not easy,’ he said. “It’s definitely not easy. 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 emotion and passion to the field on a daily basis, it’s been miserable 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 like Wednesday don’t make it easier. Ryan went 2-for-4 driving in three runs, while making a few of his usual 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’s easy to blame yourself for the demotion in public, it’s harder to accept inside. But Ryan is trying to do it.
“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.”
The next challenge is trying to figure out how to stay ready when for when you are called on for a start once a week or late in the game.
Players have to find a routine that keeps them semi-sharp so they aren’t overwhelmed or rusty when they do get in the game.
“It took me a while to learn,” said outfielder Endy Chavez, who’s 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 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,” he 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.
Even in his disappointment, 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 on ground ball fundamentals on a daily basis. 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 sitting 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.