Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan has channeled his energy and become the team leader manager Eric Wedge was looking for.
Brendan Ryan isn’t sure where he gets the boundless energy that’s had Mariners coaches and fans alike raving about his play.
He just knows it’s always been there, as “a madman” child running around his family’s Hollywood-area home with a baseball bat. And as a high-school student too distracted for textbooks, but who’d “religiously study” Comedy Central on television in order to impress classmates with Dana Carvey impersonations from Saturday Night Live reruns.
These days, Ryan, 29, is a rock-solid shortstop and fiery No. 2 hitter for a resurgent Mariners team only a game out of first place. Off the field, he keeps teammates laughing with Robert De Niro impersonations and a full-blown handlebar mustache he started growing during a streak in April.
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“My priority is on being the best baseball player I can be and getting as many laughs as I can at any cost,” Ryan said. “There’s not enough humor in life. I think it’s important to laugh every day. I understand the importance of time and place, for sure. But I think it’s important to laugh.”
But his frenetic intensity and humor hasn’t always played so well on other stages.
Ryan shrugs off the school detentions he used to get for “just being ridiculous.” But it’s tougher to shake memories of having his college scholarship pulled and later being kicked off his baseball team at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho by its legendary, no-nonsense coach.
Then came last December, when the St. Louis Cardinals traded Ryan to Seattle for minor-league pitcher Maikel Cleto. The deal came amid talk that Ryan was often distracted, lacked focus and had become hard to take as a teammate.
Ryan was stung by the fact the energy level and personality that had served him so well as a player was being cited as a negative. And though he’s tried to remain true to who he is in Seattle, he’s also worked hard to show that the clubhouse funnyman can channel his energy into winning baseball when it’s time to get serious.
“I’m holding myself more accountable,” Ryan said. “I think I’m definitely handling myself pretty well here. Not that I didn’t over there. But I feel like the Mariners have embraced me and it’s pretty refreshing to be accepted for who you are.
“They embrace the energy and seem to love me for who I am. It makes me feel good deep down.”
Mariners infielder Adam Kennedy, who teamed with Ryan in St. Louis during the shortstop’s first two seasons in 2007 and 2008, says he’s still the same funny guy. But with one change.
“He’s understood that he has a different responsibility,” Kennedy said. “(Mariners infield coach) Robby (Thompson) and Wedgie (manager Eric Wedge) have been very adamant with him: If you’re going to be the shortstop, you have a responsibility that comes with that.”
The responsibility, Kennedy added, is to lead by example.
“There were times when Wedge didn’t play him at the beginning of the year because they didn’t like what he was doing in a leadership role,” Kennedy said. “Now, for the first time, he’s understood what it is to be in a leadership role as the team shortstop.
“He has the tendency to kind of be a free spirit. And it’s just a matter of tightening that up a little bit, especially with a lot of these young guys coming up. Every team needs a different kind of leader and he is a leader by example.”
Ryan has embraced that new label. It’s preferable to the one he kept bumping up against after reports surfaced in 2008 that he’d been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a child.
The labeling often associated with the condition is the prime reason Ryan doesn’t talk about it often. His parents took him to get treated, but he opposed medication because it gave him horrible stomach aches and “there was no humor in life anymore. I just felt stoic.”
But Ryan also worries that, once people are aware of his ADD, they’ll use it as a catchall explanation for on-field play. And Ryan insists that’s not the case. He said he can focus on the task at hand and that his carefree side should not be mistaken for a lack of self-control.
“It puts a spin on me,” he said. “It makes me look like I’m brain-dead out there. And I pride myself on being one of the more intelligent players.
“It could be something like, you have a coverage play and it’s clearly understood and then someone else doesn’t cover and you’re the shortstop and it’s like, ‘Oh, well, he’s the friggin’ ADD guy. Of course, he’s an idiot!’ “
Besides, he adds, the impact of his ADD has lessened with age and he controls it better by understanding where to apply his focus. Those who’ve known Ryan best say he’s always channeled his surplus energy in an intense way on the field and a funny way off it.
“He puts himself out there,” said Lee Johnson, his best friend since age 12 and former teammate at Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles. “I can see where he might rub certain people the wrong way because they might not appreciate his humor. Maybe they think he’s trying to get attention or be selfish about it. I just think he’s an entertainer and he wants to make people happy. Once you know that about him, it’s hard not to like him.”
Johnson said his friend loves life and that they’ll spend hours playing fantasy football, where Ryan shows “the same passion for that as he does playing baseball.”
A couple of years back, Johnson and his fiancée visited Disneyland with Ryan and his girlfriend, Sharon, where they rode the roller coasters all day long. Soon after, Ryan was asked to be the officiant at Johnson’s wedding — in a Universal Life Church, where religious training wasn’t an issue.
“They told us we could use anyone and we thought Brendan would be great because he’s funny, charming and a great public speaker,” Johnson said. “And he was perfect. Everybody loved him.”
Ryan was the youngest of four children, born more than a dozen years after his siblings to parents nearing 40. He weighed a whopping 10 pounds at birth and his father, Jim, dubbed him “The Boog” after pudgy Baltimore Orioles first baseman Boog Powell.
His two sisters and brother had moved out when Ryan was about 6. But he remained extremely close to his brother, Paul, 42, who viewed “The Boog” almost like a son.
As an infant, “The Boog” was so fussy inside his bassinet that his parents removed a rattle — fearing he’d damage it — and gave him a Ping-Pong ball to bounce around instead. Once old enough to be left alone outside, Ryan would wander the backyard for hours swinging a toy bat or bouncing a ball off the wall.
“The Boog” also excelled at making others laugh.
His brother made him do his Harry Caray impersonation at Thanksgiving dinner. But little Brendan insisted on performing from underneath the table.
“I guess I was shy,” Ryan said. “That’s probably the first time that’s ever happened. And the last.”
Even after he moved out, his brother brought friends over for backyard barbecues, where Ryan did impersonations of the dead guy from “Weekend at Bernie’s” or the “Down by the River” skit by comedian Chris Farley. Those same older friends today call themselves “Boog-aholics” when they gather to watch Ryan on television.
“Brendan just had this thing about wanting to make people laugh,” his brother said. “I think it made him feel good to see other people happy.”
But once baseball games began, “it was always Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was the most intense guy on the field.”
Ryan was recruited by USC and other top programs. But a clerical delay processing his SAT transcripts prevented him from being offered scholarships right away.
He wound up picking Lewis-Clark State at the last minute because he loved the Lewiston, Idaho, campus and its reputation as an NAIA powerhouse under longtime coach Ed Cheff.
But Ryan felt like “a round peg in a square hole” playing for Cheff, a noted disciplinarian. Ryan was booted off the team several times for various infractions, including for good in 2003, but was fortunate to be drafted by the Cardinals in the seventh round soon after.
Cheff, who retired last year after 34 seasons, has written Ryan to say he’s happy to see him succeed. But Ryan hasn’t written back. He says he has moved on.
Ryan didn’t hear anything about being a nuisance or distraction when he hit .292 for St. Louis in 2009. It was only last year, when he had preseason wrist surgery and his average plummeted to .223, that such talk surfaced.
The family was as stunned as Ryan.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” his brother said. “Everybody’s got a friend in their crew you can rip on a little bit because guys know he doesn’t take it too seriously and they can get away with it. So, they do.”
Paul Ryan said his brother welcomed the change of scenery. He remembers Ryan phoning him after a meeting with Wedge in which the manager told him he’d be playing every day and needed to show leadership.
“Brendan was ecstatic about that,” he said. “He’s really fed off that role.”
Ryan constantly works to channel his energy toward better baseball use, like staying “quiet” with his body at the plate and letting his eyes do the work. Despite a recent slump, Ryan is batting .251 with the third-most hits on the team and is playing some of its best defense as well.
“He’s just been great,” Wedge said. “His energy level and enthusiasm have just been infectious, and a lot of the guys are feeding off that.”
Ryan wears a T-shirt with “Fear the Mustache” printed on it. It’s something teammate Kennedy had made and similar to other team-galvanizing shirts both wore when they were in St. Louis.
“It hasn’t really caught on here yet,” Ryan said.
The same can’t be said for its owner. An acquired taste, just like his mustache and T-shirt, Ryan appears to be here for the long haul.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.