Monday, September 16

Byrnes shows commitment, character rare for athletics


Tuesday, May 5, 1998

Byrnes shows commitment, character rare for athletics

COLUMN: Baseball player passes up pros for school, displays real
love of sport

My friend, I want to welcome you to a new and refreshing column,
free of the derision and frustration that so often fills this
space. One that will lighten your mood and renew your faith in
athletics. One that will allow me to rhapsodize about an athlete
who doesn’t do drugs, beat his wife, leave school early or any of
the litany of issues that drive us to distraction and give me
column material week after week.

I want to give you a belated introduction to Eric Byrnes,
starting right fielder for the UCLA baseball team, and resident
ironman/redneck/Giants fan.

Now, you may already know something about him. You may have seen
him stomping around campus wearing a t-shirt that, in an act of
blasphemy reminiscent of a certain Robert Mapplethorpe picture,
depicts an infant wearing a San Francisco Giants hat urinating on a
Dodgers helmet, with the slogan "Piss On The Dodgers" written
across the bottom.

You may be aware, if you’ve ever shaken his hand, that he has
forearms the size of frigging tree trunks, large enough to make
Arnold Schwarzenegger weep.

You may have heard, if you were around Rieber Hall three years
ago, some of the loudest renditions of "Country Boy Can Survive"
you could ever imagine. If you’re lucky, you missed out on the
Blackhawk Greatest Hits collection played at ear-shattering
levels.

So he may not be a complete mystery to our little community, but
Eric Byrnes is the perfect example of what we as sports fans should
hope for in an athlete.

Let’s ignore the 135 consecutive starts, and the fact that he
hasn’t missed a single game because of illness or injury. Let’s put
aside the school records for hits, runs and doubles. Let’s not
worry about the scars and scabs that bear mute testimony to his
aggressiveness and tenacity.

Let’s instead consider the fact that, in an age where we hardly
give more than a sad shake of the head or a resigned laugh when
some misguided child forgoes his collegiate commitments, we now
have a ballplayer who has passed up the pros on two occasions.

Four years ago, Byrnes had a chance to play the Kobe
Bryant/Korleone Young role and make a run at the big leagues right
out of high school. The chance was proffered when he was drafted by
the Dodgers after his senior year, but he came to UCLA instead.

Last year, he had a contract from the Houston Astros in front of
him, including a large signing bonus, after he was drafted in the
fourth round, but he nixed it and returned for his senior
campaign.

It wasn’t like there was much to come back to. He had put up
phenomenal numbers and made it to the College World Series, but
this years’ team promised little hope of similar success.

So why on earth would he pass up the mother lode for a senior
campaign with a mediocre team? If you ask him, you’ll get the
answer that will make your heart sing. You’ll hear words like
"degree," "commitment," "graduate" – and a phrase to stop Cuba
Gooding Jr.’s heart – "It’s not about the money".

I promise you, I’ve interviewed enough athletes to know when I’m
hearing a bunch of crap, or when I’m hearing genuine emotion. I’ve
listened to enough jaded basketball players and spoiled tennis
stars growing fat on huge Nike contracts to be able to detect the
company line, and there is no such fluff in a conversation with
Eric Byrnes.

If you’re still not convinced, seek him out one day and talk to
him. He’s not hard to find, just look for the Giants gear and
listen for the George Strait music.

Ask him what being team captain means to him. Ask him what it
was like to work out with Barry Bonds for two weeks. Inquire as to
how it felt to hit a home run on Senior Day last weekend. See if
he’ll show you how to swing a bat.

Ask him how much baseball means to him, and soak up the most
enthusiastic response you could ever wish for.

After you’ve done this, you too will be able to walk away with a
renewed faith in the ’90s athlete.

Shapiro is a Daily Bruin staff writer and columnist. E-mail
responses to [email protected]

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