"There were people there -- my situation was nothing compared to what they had going on," Byrdak said. "Everybody had a story there and we all needed a job. It was mind-boggling."
Two years earlier, in 2000, Byrdak had been a Major League pitcher. But Tommy John surgery thrust him out of the game, leaving him without a contract, with a pregnant wife, with one child already at home and a rising mountain of credit card debt.
"We had bills to pay," Byrdak said. "We were in survival mode. We knew we needed money."
2010 Spring Training - null
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He could have quit baseball altogether and searched for a steady job elsewhere. Instead, Byrdak installed insulation with his father-in-law during the day, while his wife, Heather, worked jobs as a waitress and at a shopping mall. Still scraping for money, the couple was browsing at Target in Orland Park, Ill., when Heather noticed the chain was hiring. She suggested that her husband apply.
"If that didn't work out, who knows what we would have done," Byrdak said. "We didn't have the education. I left school early to start baseball and never got a chance to go back. We were in a really tight spot, but my wife told me, 'If you really think you can make it back, I'll do whatever I've got to do to support us.'"
Even if Byrdak never throws another pitch in the big leagues -- and already there are indications to the contrary -- this story has found its happy ending. A winter stocking shelves gave Byrdak's elbow time to heal. A rebirth in independent ball led to a tryout with the Padres. A stint at Triple-A Portland led to a trade to Baltimore. And it was there that Byrdak worked his way back to the Majors at the age of 31 -- five years after his last big league appearance, nearly eight years after breaking in for the first time with the Royals.
Last month, after three happy and largely successful seasons with the Astros, Byrdak inked his latest contract -- a Minor League deal with the Mets. He is guaranteed nothing here in Spring Training, battling against Taylor Tankersley, Mike O'Connor and Oliver Perez for one, maybe two lefty specialist jobs in the bullpen. But Byrdak had only just arrived in camp when Mets manager Terry Collins raised eyebrows by calling him a "slam dunk" to make the bullpen.
His journey, then, does not appear quite finished.
"It's a privilege to have this uniform on your back," Byrdak said. "I had to learn it the hard way. Not that I ever took the game for granted as it was, but to know the struggle of how hard it is to stay at this level -- it's really tough."
Though doctors first told Byrdak that he needed Tommy John surgery back in 1997, he made a career-altering decision by opting against it. By the time Byrdak made it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee in '98, his ulnar collateral ligament was like an overextended rubber band. He finally blew out his UCL in 2001, at the age of 27, necessitating surgery and, by most accounts, ending his big league career.
Next came the long nights at Target and the circuitous journey that followed, which even now is not without frustration. Forget guarantees -- after posting a 3.53 ERA over the last three seasons in Houston and holding lefty hitters to less than a .200 average in two of them, Byrdak found himself wondering if teams would come calling. Though the Astros told Byrdak they wanted to keep him this winter, they ultimately opted to search for a cheaper replacement. The Mets were Plan B, viable only after the 37-year-old Byrdak realized that no club was going to give him a big league offer.
"That's kind of the way it was dealt out in the cards," he said. "We do it year by year. The past couple years have been kind of nice, but even still, there's always that question mark where, if they want to get rid of you, they could. You're never locked into a contract or anything. You've got to fight for it.
Byrdak spends his mornings now with a newspaper open on his lap, reading from cover to cover, one leg crossed over the opposite knee. He is stationed along a bank of lockers annually reserved for Minor League unknowns -- this year's batch includes Tankersley, O'Connor and right-hander Boof Bonser, all of whom are fighting for jobs.
At times, Byrdak misses his family -- "you watch your kids grow up through pictures," he says of his four children -- but he's nonetheless working to enjoy all of this. Driving up to Cape Canaveral last week, Byrdak watched the blastoff of the space shuttle Discovery. Three days later, he pitched a clean inning in his exhibition debut against the University of Michigan.
"It all worked out in the end," Byrdak said. "But knowing where we came from, with credit card debt and just not having money, being able to bounce back and being back in the big leagues and fighting for it -- that's what we're here for."