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Slick-fielding veteran Brendan Ryan relishing his chance at contributing for first-place Yankees

Ryan has performed well in utility role for Yankees

Brendan Ryan (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

Brendan Ryan (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Last weekend in Chicago, Brendan Ryan recorded his first three-hit game in more than two years, but nobody will remember that. Instead, people will remember when designated hitter Adam LaRoche, pitching for the first time in his 12-year career, struck out Ryan in the top of the ninth inning.

“Kind of fits, right, with the mustache?” Ryan said afterwards. “That’s the kind of at-bat I feel like I should have, you know? Ridiculous.”

For much of his career, Ryan’s offense has been that sort of joke. He’s had three consecutive seasons with a batting average below .200, and it’s only because of his elite defense that he’s remained in the big leagues. But this year Ryan has showed some spunk at the dish. The sample size is small — the product of two stints on the disabled list — but through 48 at-bats in a utility role the Southern California native has hit a respectable .271/.314 /.438, and his .752 OPS is higher than the likes of Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury.

“It’s kind of a product of being in a stellar lineup, at least that’s my opinion,” said Ryan, who has almost an entirely new setup at the plate with his hands lower and stance a bit more closed.  “That and I’ve been working with Jeff our hitting coach and Alan (Cockrell) everyday and we’ve just been trying to take a small step forward every week to maintain what we’ve ironed out in previous weeks. And facing lefties consistently, that never hurts.”

Although he did hit .292 with a .740 on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) in 486 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2009, there’s really nothing in Ryan’s recent history that suggest his current success is sustainable. But the Yankees seem committed to giving him an opportunity to prove otherwise, and Ryan is just trying to enjoy everyday after dealing with a multitude of injuries throughout the year.

“When that calf injury hit in spring training I thought my year was over,” Ryan admitted to me in the Yankees locker room. “And now to be a part of the second half and back with the guys not stuck in Tampa is a lot better, trust me.”

Just before reporting to spring training, he hurt himself lifting weights. He sustained a calf strain in the Yankees’ last exhibition game, suffered from dehydration while rehabbing in Tampa, and missed the first 58 games of the regular season. In mid-June, he headed back to the disabled list with a strain in his upper back. Right before the All-Star break the Yankees called up youngster Rob Refsnyder and it looked like Ryan’s days in the Bronx were numbered.

But he has come back and played well in a platoon role at second base with Stephen Drew. He has played mostly against southpaws, but it’s his glove that makes him so valuable. Ryan is still arguably the best defensive middle-infielder in baseball, despite what Gold Glove voters want you to believe. The slick-fielding Ryan has been annually snubbed of the award, but The Fielding Bible panelists awarded him their own Gold Gloves in 2012. Ryan really is a defensive marvel, but he didn’t become a defensive wizard without the help of a few people.

“I give a lot of credit to my dad and brother, a baseball family,” said Ryan, whose late father, Jim, was a semi-pro infielder who holds the single season record for most hits with a wooden bat at Loyoloa Marymount University. “Getting into pro ball I got to work with a guy named George Kissell, who’s since passed but he’s a legend in the Cardinals organization. From him I got to work with Jose Oquendo, who’s the third base coach there now and probably the best infield guy I ever met in my life. I felt like he took me from a guy who can some tough plays in the minors or whatever, to making the consistent routine play, over and over and over to where a Tony LaRussa, or Eric Wedge or Joe Girardi could trust me.”

Off the field, Ryan is a popular over-the-top personality in the clubhouse. He keeps teammates laughing with impersonations of Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Harry Caray and a mustache straight out of a 1970s porno.

“I just started like twirling it a little bit,” Ryan said about eventually shaving it off. “I don’t know what to do. I’m kind of playing it day by day.”

But his frenetic intensity and humor hasn’t always played so well on other stages. Ryan was suspended from his college team, Lewis-Clark State in Idaho, four different times and finally kicked out of the program by longtime coach Ed Cheff. When the Cardinals traded Ryan to Seattle in 2010 the deal came amid talk that Ryan lacked focus and had become hard to take as a teammate. He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a child, but he doesn’t believe that it’s something that has hindered him on the baseball diamond.

“I’ll get locked in on something and all my focus goes to that, whatever else is happening around that may not get the attention it needs, but when I step on the field I just feel at piece and at home,” Ryan said. “Everything seems to come into focus and I consider myself an intelligent baseball player. I never really had any problems out there with missing signs, missing a pitch or anything that would jump off the page.”

Ryan has worked hard to show that the clubhouse funnyman can channel his energy into winning baseball when it’s time to get serious. So much so that plenty of people believe Ryan has the people skills and baseball acumen to transition into a coaching role once his playing days are over.

“I’ve actually heard that from a couple of umpires that said they can see that happening and then if I share that with a teammate they’ll just laugh in my face,” said Ryan, 33, who is in the final year of his contract. “To some capacity I’ll never not be involved with baseball. It could be maybe up in a booth, but I like the competition side though. So if I can’t play anymore at some point, which will obviously be the case, there is a lot of enjoyment that comes through helping someone who wants to get better.”

But Ryan has a lot of baseball left in him and right now he’s doing exactly what the Yankees have asked him to do.  During the dog days of August and an ever-tightening pennant race, it’s nice to have a guy like Ryan around to keeps things loose in the clubhouse and he will continue to come to work with a smile on his face.

“Laughing is always a good thing and laughing is a big part of my day,” said Ryan. “Just enjoying company, enjoying your teammates and it’s not hard on this team. I haven’t really been in an environment like this and I’m very thankful for it and we’re having a blast.”

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