SUMNER — Avoid the meme.
That’s the goal Ryan Rowland-Smith states as he sizes up the “shrinking steps” at Sumner Ninja in his final tune-up before the show. A few weeks earlier, the former Mariners pitcher-turned-broadcaster was invited to compete on “American Ninja Warrior” as it stopped in Tacoma.
Rowland-Smith has stared down some of the most ferocious hitters to come through MLB. The first batter he faced in his Mariners debut 12 years ago was Ken Griffey Jr., whom he struck out.
But right now, the thought of a hanging step is scarier than a hanging curveball ever was. After all, if that curveball got crushed in his playing days, at least he’d have a chance to throw another pitch.
“It’s that fear of the unknown. When I was pitching, if I didn’t do well people still understood that I have a skill-set and that I’m good enough,” said the Australian-born Rowland-Smith, a ROOT Sports commentator affectionately known as “Hyphen.” “But here, you get one shot and if you slip the entire world thinks — and I do care what other people think — that he’s not athletic enough to get past a few steps.”
In late April, Rowland-Smith’s boss at ROOT Sports asked via text whether he’d be interested in participating in “American Ninja Warrior.” Ryan was familiar with the show, but had never undergone any training that would prepare him for such an endeavor.
Not a big surprise, really. At 6-feet-4, 240 pounds, Rowland-Smith doesn’t fit the typical “Ninja” prototype. When you’re gliding on rings, climbing up ropes or pulling yourself up onto walls, having a tight end’s build isn’t usually conducive to success.
That’s why some of his friends advised him against competing when he first entertained the idea. The odds of him failing on the first obstacle seemed infinitely better than him making it to the last one.
But Hyphen also works with kids in his down time, and is constantly telling them to “be comfortable being uncomfortable.” So bowing out due to fear wasn’t an option.
“What am I going to do? Say no?” said Rowland-Smith, adding that encouragement from his wife, Amanda, ultimately sealed his commitment. “I have to.”
This wasn’t the first time Rowland-Smith, 36, took a deep breath before diving into the unknown. He had similar reservations about pursuing a broadcasting career, as self-doubt would creep into his head.
He feared his Australian accent would be a deterrent. He wasn’t sure a network would want to hire a guy who only played four and half seasons, where he vacillated between being a starter and a reliever.
But like an intern fresh out of college, he frequently put himself out there, racked up “reps,” and struck the perfect balance between being persistent and being annoying.
“A lot of former players have raised their hands and said they’d really like to become a broadcaster now that their playing days were over, but they don’t always back it up,” said Mariners senior vice president Randy Adamack, who championed Rowland-Smith when Adamack was the team’s VP of communications. “They don’t say it again when you tell them it’s going to take some time and work and that in many cases you’ll wind up as a substitute. But Ryan was persistent — and not in a bad way.”
Now Rowland-Smith is a regular on ROOT Sports’ Mariners pre- and postgame shows, and also appears on 710 ESPN. His two favorite pastimes — baseball and talking — have joined forces to create a dream job.
But speaking on the air is a lot different than swinging from bars 20 feet in the air. So once Hyphen signed up, he immersed himself in a world he’d never even considered before.
He started by working with former contestant Liam Buell, who made it to the “American Ninja Warrior” finals in the show’s second season. He continued by training at Sumner Ninja, a facility that owner Dave Anderson built because he wanted to compete on ANW, too.
In his final tune-up, Rowland-Smith’s focus was on the shrinking steps —floating blocks that grow smaller with each 5-foot pace — which he heard would be the first obstacle on his run. That was the impetus for his “avoid the meme” mentality, as he knew an early slipup could be immortalized by the internet.
But Rowland-Smith has also been trying to change that “I just want it to be over” mindset that plagued him during his playing days. He’ll tell you that his goal is to finish the course — but his real objective is to have fun.
“I know the minute I step out to the steps, if I don’t finish it, I’ll say, ‘OK, I want another shot at this until I do finish it,'” Rowland-Smith said. “But at the very least, I want to enjoy it and embrace it. I’ve gotten messages from people in that ninja community and it’s so awesome. … I want to get the most of that experience.”
Hyphen’s ANW episode will air Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC. How he fared is under tight wraps.
At one point, though, he will likely be uncomfortable. Which, of course, is the point.