Seventeen years after leaving Indiana, Michael Ryan's baseball journey continues
June 30, 2013 2:40 AM
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon and the summer sun has pushed the temperature to a blistering 90 degrees at Appalachian Power Park, a nine-year-old stadium in West Virginia’s capital city nestled among the peaks of the lush, green mountains that cover the state.

Indiana native Michael Ryan, the 35-year-old rookie manager of the Class A West Virginia Power, rips one ground ball after another to his infielders as the team prepares for that night’s game against the Hagerstown Suns. With each swing of the bat, the heat takes its toll and sweat dribbles down Ryan’s face and arms.

There’s still three hours until the first pitch and Ryan’s day isn’t yet half over.

His 16-hour day won’t reach its midpoint for another two hours. The work day won’t end until about 2:30 a.m., when Ryan finishes his reports on that day’s game, a 6-1 win, and prepares for the next one.

Practice ends and Ryan heads back to his office, a small room tucked away in the corner of the clubhouse. He has a desk, TV, computer and a tattered sofa. The sofa sometimes doubles as Ryan’s bed. When the Power have a day game after a night game, he usually sleeps in his office because there just isn’t time to get a full night’s rest at the hotel.

Glamorous? Not quite.

But it is professional baseball. And for right now, on this sweltering day in the minor leagues, Ryan is at home.

His heart, though, is elsewhere.

“I think about my wife and kids constantly,” he says.

They’re thinking about him, too.

o o o

Four hours northeast in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Alicia Ryan, a working mother of two precocious little boys, tries to keep the family ship afloat while her husband is managing the Pirates’ minor league team in Charleston.

It’s a marriage built on phone calls these days, as the Ryan family has had very few opportunities to reunite.

Since the season began in April, Michael Ryan has been home to see his family once. Alicia and the boys have been to Charleston a few times, but her hectic career as a nurse at Allegheny General Hospital has made it difficult to make more frequent trips.

“Normally, I’m excited about baseball season,” Alicia says. “But right now, I’m wondering if this season will ever end.”

That’s not to say Alicia is upset with her husband’s career choice — far from it. She’s his No. 1 fan, although the two sons she and Michael have — 4-year-old Brennan and 2-year-old Blake — also think their daddy is pretty cool.

But since Alicia first met Michael at the Rose Inn about 11 years ago, she has known baseball was always his first love. It’s as much a part of him as his right arm, the one he uses nowadays to throw batting practice to his players. Alicia understands Michael’s passion, and she understands that being a ballplayer’s wife isn’t what you might think.

“It’s not all roses,” she says matter-of-factly.

Since he first started dating Alicia in 2002, Michael has lived in such places as Edmonton, Alberta; Albuquerque, N.M., Richmond, Va.; Somerset, N.J.; Indianapolis; Salt Lake City; and New Orleans. For the most part, Alicia has been there for every move into a new apartment and every move out of town as Michael’s playing career continued along.

They married five years ago, and when Brennan was born the next year, the family finally settled in Pittsburgh. But because of his career as a player and now a coach, Michael hasn’t been around a whole lot. That absence eats away at him as the season drags on, and, because of that, he feels a measure of guilt that he is still in baseball — the only profession he’s had since he has been an adult.

“It takes a special, special woman to be the wife of a baseball player,” Michael Ryan says. “Right now, it’s tough as it’s ever been, to be honest with you. (Alicia) put her life on hold for me.”

But as quickly as Ryan used to drill fastballs into the gap in right-center field, Alicia shoots down any notion of resentment. Why? Because this is a marriage where a diamond represents so much more than love.

“People ask me all the time why I do this,” Alicia says. “But God blessed him with a talent for baseball. I would hope — actually I know — that if I had a talent like that, he’d support me.”

o o o

His wife and kids might not be close by, but Michael Ryan is still surrounded by family. Just not of the traditional sort. It’s a baseball family: 25 players and six coaches on a journey through the Class A South Atlantic League.

As the manager, Ryan is in charge of a lot of things, some on the field and some off. But unlike a manager in the major leagues, his job isn’t to win games.

“I love to win — I’m still competitive as heck,” he says. “But my job here is to get these guys to the next level. I have to help develop them into major leaguers.”

Just as a father hopes to raise his children into respectable adults, a minor-league manager aims to raise his players into bona fide major leaguers. To do that, Ryan treats his players (all between the ages of 18 and 24) like he treats Brennan and Blake: firm, yet compassionate. And most of all, consistent.

“He really is a players’ manager,” says Walker Gourley, a 22-year-old outfielder from Goldsboro, N.C. “He always has our backs and he always wants us to do well. I think if you ask all the players here, they’ll tell you the same thing: We like that he is the same every day. He doesn’t get too high or too low. The manager sets the tone for the team, and he is always the same.”

Maybe it’s easy for Ryan to be consistent with his players. The Power did, after all, finish 37-33 in the first half of the regular season, and six of the players were picked for the South Atlantic League All-Star Game. So he is doing something right.

But it’s more than that. Ryan is consistent because he was once one of them — a young ballplayer in the minors hoping to someday shine in the major leagues.

“He’s really a guy who we can look up to,” says outfielder Josh Bell, a 20-year-old phenom from Irving, Texas. “He doesn’t tell a lot of stories, but when he does, we all listen. He tells us those stories so we learn something. He’s been around and he’s seen a lot.”

o o o

In a 15-season professional career, Ryan played with at least 16 different teams ranging from the rookie leagues to the major leagues. He also spent a season in a California fall league, and he spent a few winters as a hired bat in Venezuela with the Navegantes del Magallanes.

So, yes, Bell is right when he says Ryan has seen a lot. He’s seen players come and go. He’s played in tiny ballparks and in baseball cathedrals. He hit a home run live on national TV and regrettably topped a lowlight reel when he lost a fly ball in the sun and got plunked in the face while with the Minnesota Twins in 2003.

Regrets? Ryan has none. He turned a childhood dream into a career, and it’s something that can never be erased from the record books. It will always say that Michael Ryan was a professional ballplayer.

“I spent four years in the majors,” Ryan says. “A lot of players wish for that, but I got to do that.”

And if you ask for the best days, when the sun seemed to shine the brightest on his career, Ryan quickly throws out three dates from the 2003 season:

• Sept. 1: In his second stint with the Twins, most of the 22,208 fans stuck around for Ryan’s final at-bat against Anaheim to see if he would get a triple to hit for the cycle. He lined out to second base and finished 3-for-4 with a single, double and a homer — and a standing ovation.

• Sept. 17: In a nationally televised game on ESPN against the rival Chicago White Sox at the sold-out Metrodome, Ryan hit a one-out home run off Jon Garland in the third inning to give the Twins a 1-0 lead as the teams were mixing it up in a pennant race. “It was so loud in there,” Ryan recalls. “I couldn’t hear anything when I was going around the bases.”

• Sept. 27: Ryan went 4-for-4 against the Detroit Tigers on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Afterward, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire told Ryan he had been picked for the team’s postseason roster.

Those are the moments Ryan quickly can produce. But for every moment in the sun, there were times when it rained on Ryan’s parade. He chooses, though, to keep those moments tucked away.

“I don’t really remember much of the bad stuff,” he says earnestly. “But if you ask about all my good (at-bats), about my home runs, I remember all the details.”

Bell and Gourley relish the stories Ryan tells about his good days in the major leagues. What they don’t know yet, and what Ryan earnestly hopes they never learn about, is the heartbreak.

“It’s just part of the game,” Ryan says. “But I don’t like it. These kids don’t know what they’re in for. A lot of them know how it can be but they don’t know how severe.”

In his years on the diamond, Ryan felt plenty of heartbreak. It comes with the territory when you’re a ballplayer. Sometimes your best isn’t good enough and you don’t make the team.

“That was always hard,” Alicia says, “but he always just said ‘baseball is my life.’”

o o o

Of all the times he got cut, the most painful came in 2007, when he was in spring training with the Pirates — the team he grew up rooting feverishly for.

He had signed with the Bucs as a free agent in the offseason and from the start was on a hot streak. His statistics show a player with an outstanding spring: At 29, he led Pittsburgh in runs scored (17) and doubles (six) and hit an eye-popping .396.

But on the last day of cuts, the Pirates stunningly crossed Ryan’s name off the roster in favor of other, younger players.

Ryan was crushed.

So was Alicia.

“That was his biggest dream,” she says. “He had made it so far. He was just … broken. He tried to keep it together. It was really surprising and shocking at the same time. He had done so well and they told him they had to protect certain players or whatever the line was. He was so devastated.

“And I just felt terrible.”

Depressed by the rejection, Ryan languished for a season at Triple-A Indianapolis before the Pirates released him at the end of the season.

“That was absolutely a tough year,” Ryan says. “I played well enough to (make the team), and they told me a couple times I would be getting called up. But then something happened and I didn’t.”

That could have been the end of Ryan’s career. Lesser men might have given up.

But he didn’t give up, and the phone continued to ring with offers to play. In 2010, Ryan got back to the major leagues when the Los Angeles Angels brought him up from their Triple-A team in Salt Lake City. He stayed there for 22 games before being shipped back down to the minors.

And after his final game, on Sept. 4, 2010, Ryan became a free agent for the final time.

His playing career is over now. But Ryan takes a lot of satisfaction in knowing he kept at it when the dark days seemed to never end.

That’s a lesson Ryan can willingly pass along to his players these days.

“It would have been tough to walk away if I hadn’t gotten back to the majors,” he says. “To end it at the highest level meant a lot to me.”

o o o

Some of these are memories Ryan only thinks about when he’s asked. He long ago packed away his bats and caps and the memories of more than 1,500 professional games played all over the Western Hemisphere.

This is the second part of Ryan’s baseball journey. His focus now is ahead. Not necessarily his own, but of the 25 players he now calls his family.

He doesn’t miss those sleepless nights when he worried if he was about to get sent back to the minors. He doesn’t miss the pressure of having to play well to get a promotion.

Michael Ryan is finally at peace.

“I don’t miss it one bit,” he says. “I see the grind they have to go through, and I remember what I went through, and I don’t miss it. It’s a tough life and I don’t miss that at all.”

Last season Ryan was a bench coach for the Altoona Curve, the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate. He was hired over the winter as the Power’s manager, completing his transition from player to coach. Ryan says he is as relaxed these days as he has ever been, and Alicia Ryan says she has seen a change in her husband.

“He’s just an easy person to talk with,” she says. “He’s pretty laid back. He doesn’t let things get to him. I thought he’d be more flustered but he’s done really well.”

Indeed he has done well. Ryan has the Power near the top of the standings, and he has a number of players who might someday soon dot a major league roster, thanks to his guidance.

If it’s true that loving your job means never having to work a day in your life, then Michael Ryan is living the life of a drifter. He goes from town to town leading his family of ballplayers to the diamond. Some day, he hopes, that road leads him back to Alicia, Brennan and Blake. Then the journey will be complete.

But first, Ryan has a game to manage. The sun will go down and the temperatures will drop. Night will come and Ryan’s long work day will continue. In a couple more hours, he will finally get some rest.

Then it’s back to the stadium to do it all over again.

A glamorous life, it is not. But it is the one Ryan has chosen for himself.

“I get to watch baseball every day,” he says with a grin. “It’s all I know.”

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