Mazzone's words ring true with Byrd

April 23, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

When Cleveland Indians starter Paul Byrd arrived at Camden Yards last week, a few autograph seekers outside the ballpark had a question for him.

Is Orioles new pitching coach Leo Mazzone as good as advertised or was he a product of his environment in Atlanta? All of baseball is patiently awaiting the answer as Mazzone attempts to sculpt a few masterpieces out of the intriguing lump of clay he inherited here. And Byrd might be the most qualified person to analyze whether Mazzone is the real deal.

"It's a tough question for me to answer," Byrd said. "I think he is."

Still, Byrd understands why there are some reservations. Mazzone's amazing run of 14 consecutive pennants with the Braves was punctuated by the presence of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

"I think the test comes when you don't have Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz," Byrd said. "But I do think he has already passed that a little bit. Maddux and Glavine weren't in Atlanta the last couple years."

Byrd, 35, had two separate stints with Mazzone in Atlanta - first as an inexperienced major leaguer trying to find a role and secondly as a veteran attempting to come back from career-threatening surgery.

Different scenarios, different attitudes, different results.

Byrd was 27 when he made his Braves debut in 1997 after a season-plus with the New York Mets. Let's just say he and Mazzone didn't see eye-to-eye back then.

In fact, there was murmuring this offseason that the Orioles wouldn't be signing Byrd because he and Mazzone didn't click. Byrd said that wasn't true. Time, he said, helped him appreciate Mazzone.

"When I went there, I was a young player and I didn't get to pitch much and I didn't understand Leo," Byrd said. "He can be rough on younger guys with his communication style. It's not that I didn't like him, it's just that we clashed a little bit."

That's the most common knock against Mazzone, that he doesn't mesh well with young pitchers who have an unwillingness or inability to grasp his teachings. Byrd, for one, certainly didn't get Mazzone early on.

He scuffled in Atlanta, posting a 5.26 ERA in 31 outings in 1997 and pitching in just one game for the Braves in 1998 before being released. Instead of harboring bitterness, Byrd believes he owes his career to Mazzone, because it was Mazzone who decided that Byrd needed to be a starter and not a middle reliever.

"If Leo hadn't said that or noticed that or given that analysis, I wouldn't be up here as a starter," Byrd said. "I am very thankful for that."

The Philadelphia Phillies picked Byrd off waivers in 1998 and put him in the rotation. He went 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in eight starts, and his career flourished.

He won 15 games in 1999, struggled for two seasons and then won 17 in 2002 with the Kansas City Royals. That offseason, he signed a free-agent deal with the Braves that reunited him with Mazzone. But he injured his elbow in his first spring training game and had Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery later that summer.

When Byrd returned to the big leagues in 2004, he was 33 and in comeback mode.

"When I came around the second time, then I was a veteran and I showed I could do it," Byrd said. "[Mazzone] had a much better way of handling people then - better than I thought - and I enjoyed the interactions."

After 12 wins and a solid postseason with the Los Angeles Angels, Byrd became a free agent again in November. Mazzone phoned his old pupil.

"He said, `We want you over here [in Baltimore]," Byrd said. "And I was excited about it."

Ultimately, it didn't happen. The Orioles offered Byrd a two-year, $13 million deal, but the day before he was supposed to visit here, the club informed his agent that the initial offer was its final one.

Byrd eventually signed with Cleveland for two years at $14.25 million with an option for a third season. It probably worked out best for both parties. The Orioles got Kris Benson, who is four years younger and has more upside than Byrd, for nearly the same investment. And Byrd is with a team that has a good chance to win now. But Mazzone hasn't left Byrd's mind altogether.

Byrd said, "I hear this voice in my head, `Strike one to make these things work.' And it still echoes in my head [when pitching]."

So, yes, Byrd thinks Mazzone deserves credit for a good chunk of the success Braves pitchers had over the years. And he believes that once Orioles pitchers follow through on Mazzone's philosophies, they will show vast improvement, too.

Byrd has another prediction, one that's sure to make Orioles fans giddy.

"Whoever over there overthrows, whoever has a great arm but poor control, that's who he will help the most," Byrd said.

When told that 24-year-old Daniel Cabrera, the club's most talented pitcher, perfectly fits that description, Byrd responded: "OK, then I think he'll help Cabrera the most."

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