Originally created 02/26/03

Byrd returns to Braves as established starter



KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Paul Byrd used to pitch for the Atlanta Braves, didn't he? So who's this guy doing all sorts of funky contortions on the mound?

Winding up, he swings his arms wildly, then glances straight at the ground as he rolls toward the plate. From the stretch, he hunches over as if his back hurts. And there's no telling what position his arm will be in when he releases the ball.

"I called him Satchel Paige," said outfielder Chipper Jones, who remembers Byrd from his previous, more conventional stint with the Braves in the 1990s. "It was weird. You just don't see motion like that in this day and age."

That's not the only thing that's changed since Byrd's first tenure in Atlanta. In 1997-98, he was a fringe pitcher, the guy who would come in when the game got out of hand, maybe get an occasional start.

Now, he's one of the stalwarts in a rotation that has undergone a major overhaul but expects to remain among the best in baseball.

"Yeah, there's pressure," Byrd admitted. "When you lose guys like Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood, those are some big shoes to fill. But it's a lot better pressure than trying to get up for a game when you have no shot of making the playoffs."

Last season, Byrd was one of the best pitchers no one ever saw. He went 17-11 with the woeful Kansas City Royals, the most wins for a 100-loss team since Ned Garver of the St. Louis Browns was 20-12 in 1951.

"Sometimes, I might get 10 seconds on ESPN," Byrd said with a grin. "Just a courtesy clip."

He should get more pub with the Braves, who will go for their 12th straight division title with a pitching staff that looks a lot different compared to last season.

Four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux is the only certain holdover from the 2002 rotation. The Braves lost a couple of 18-game winners when Glavine signed with the Mets and Millwood was traded to Philadelphia. The team countered by signing Byrd and trading for Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz.

Byrd was eager to get back with the Braves, even though they cut him five years ago after he went 4-4 with a 5.56 ERA in limited mound time. He continued to live in the Atlanta area and took less money to re-sign with the Braves.

Certainly, Byrd is not the same pitcher he was during his first incarnation with the Braves. Picked up by Philadelphia, he went 15-11 and made the All-Star team in 1999.

Lingering shoulder troubles caught up with him the following year. He pitched dismally - 2-9 with a 6.51 ERA - before finally undergoing season-ending surgery.

"I was always scared to have surgery," Byrd said. "I knew guys who had surgery and you never heard from them again. If I known it would be like this, I would have had it sooner."

Byrd altered his pitching motion to reduce the strain on his shoulder and make him more deceptive to hitters. He now releases the ball from three different angles: overhand, three-quarters and sidearm. He is so unconventional that he can't throw from behind a protective screen in batting practice - it gets in the way.

Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone likes all the twists and turns that Byrd goes through on the mound.

"Part of getting hitters out is deception," Mazzone said. "Plus, he's not just throwing junk up there."

Byrd was actually excited when the Braves put him on waivers in August 1998. His opportunities to pitch were few and far between with a rotation that included Maddux, Glavine, Millwood, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle.

"I knew I had to get out of here to get my chance," he said. "There were too many quality pitchers here. Even though I was leaving a winning team, I needed a fresh start."

Since undergoing surgery, Byrd has greatly improved his control. Last season, he ranked second in the American League with 1.5 walks per nine innings. During his first stint with the Braves, he walked 29 in 55 innings.

"He's doing whatever he can to be successful," Jones said. "If that means being deceptive and funky, so be it."

Byrd, one of the most religious members of the team, also has shown a feisty side since he left Atlanta.

In 1999, he sparked fisticuffs by hitting former Braves teammate Eddie Perez, who was and still is one of his best friends. Two years ago, Byrd ended up on top of Robert Fick during a bench-clearing brawl; now, they are teammates with the Braves.

"Most people look at Jesus as Mr. Rogers. I'm not one of them," Byrd said. "There are times when you turn the other cheek. There are times when you don't. ... Part of the game is protecting your teammates."

As Byrd walked by in the clubhouse, Jones couldn't resist a chance to poke fun at the unimposing pitcher.

"Hey, Byrdie," he said. "You've got a little mean streak, don't you?"