Biertempfel: For some Pirates, big experience from Big Apple
New Yorkers have swagger. You can sense it in everyone from a cabbie at the airport to a billionaire trader on Wall Street. Ballplayers in the Big Apple have it, too.
“It's something completely different than playing in Pittsburgh,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It's different than playing in Baltimore or Atlanta or someplace like that. You go to New York ... it's a different world.”
Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are the biggest stages in baseball. Nowhere else is the media scrutiny as intense, the fans so demanding, the pressure to perform so extreme.
“It's different, but it can make you a stronger player,” Marlon Byrd said. “You can turn it into a positive because you know you've gone through it and made it.”
It's no surprise, then, that the Pirates took the final step from being a perennial loser to a playoff team when they imported some key players with New York ties. Byrd was traded from the Mets. A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin and Mark Melancon played for the Yankees. Each of those guys has brought something from his experience in New York.
“I got my ring there, you know? That's what I take from New York,” said Burnett, who won the World Series in 2009 with the Yankees.
Burnett has pitched in seven postseason games, all with the Yankees. Game 2 of the 2009 World Series was one of the finest performances of his career. Burnett worked seven innings, struck out nine and held the Phillies to one run on four hits.
Byrd broke into the majors with the Phillies, so he already was equipped to handle rough fans and tough media. But living and working in New York presents other challenges.
“City living,” said Byrd, who was raised in Marietta, Ga., which has a population of 56,500. “If you grew up in a rural area or in the suburbs, it's different. In New York, I had to walk two blocks just to get my car. There's nowhere to take your kids to play or your dog to run around. There's no grass anywhere except the field and Central Park.”
Martin spent five seasons with the Dodgers — another of MLB's marquee franchises — before going to New York in 2011. He found that life as a Yankee was demanding.
“When you play for that organization, the expectations can't be higher,” Martin said. “So you learn to cope with those expectations, with the fans and everything that goes along with it.
“They expect you to play hard. I've always been that blue-collar-type guy who's not afraid to get dirty and play hard, so it wasn't a tough adjustment. Even though I didn't have the best batting average (.224 over two seasons), I think the people there realized I went about my business the right way.”
Melancon was the Yankees' ninth-round pick in 2006 and made his big league debut three years later. Although he spent only parts of two seasons in the majors with New York before being traded, Melancon's formative years came with the Yanks.
“I was brought up in that organization,” he said. “So having that guidance from a young age, the expectations that they call for is definitely something I don't think I've seen in any other organization. There's something to be said for that.”
Bouncing between the minors and majors in 2009-10, Melancon said every game he pitched in Yankee Stadium felt like the playoffs.
Working in that kind of atmosphere sharpens you.
“I'm glad I went through it,” he said. “It made me a better pitcher and better person.”