The Best Gift in Life: A Second Chance
by Nick Alvarez -- BrooklynCyclones.com
Every minor leaguer has a goal: get called up to The Show. If you’re in independent baseball, your goal is different: Somehow join an affiliated team and prove you belong. Baseball didn’t think that Marty Anderson, Gunnar Kines and Leon Byrd belonged, so, they got cut — Kines once, Byrd twice— or not drafted at all, like Anderson.
Independent ball is different. The aforementioned trio of Cyclones can tell you that. They reflect on the relaxed atmospheres that foster an environment of self-improvement. Sure, the stadiums are a little smaller, the seats a tad less filled, but it isn’t all that bad, it’s still baseball.
They were told they weren’t good enough, and each of them strove to prove the naysayers wrong — and they did. Each of them have a distinctive story when they put on that Brooklyn Cyclones uniform, it feels earned. Just ask them.
Marty Anderson speaks with the confidence of a first rounder even though he was never drafted. It doesn’t matter that he had two go-arounds with small time colleges — one in Georgia, the other in Florida — and never found his footing. Anderson wanted to push himself and that’s why he joined a men’s league and eventually ended up with the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League.
For Anderson, it was always when he made it to the minors not if. After throwing a one-hitter against the Evansville Otters and making the Frontier League All-Star team, Freedom manager Dennis Pelfrey told Anderson that the New York Mets had bought his contract. He was finally getting his shot.
Just three days after signing, Anderson struck out 10 batters in relief over 4.1 innings against the Staten Island Yankees on July 7. Anderson chuckles when asked about the outing a week later. For him, it was expected. At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, he was never the biggest kid growing up. But, he did have a live arm and a bulldog-mentality given to him by his father.
His fastball sits in the high-80s, low-90s, a far cry from the flamethrowers that baseball is infatuated with. Anderson calls his “sneaky” and can get up on batters and cause swings-and-misses.
“When everything is just right,” Anderson said. “That’s when the strikeouts come.”
“I'm good enough to play affiliated. People were telling me that, ‘You just gotta work your way up. The right person has to see you.’ Well, my talent shows. That's all that it took. I'm here, I don't plan on going back.”
Gunnar Kines has never felt comfortable throwing a curveball. A tall lefty (6-foot-3), Kines predominately used his fastball and changeup to neutralize hitters. Drafted by the Miami Marlins two years ago in the 36th round, Kines toiled in the lower levels of the Marlins system as a closer.
He had a solid year, allowing just five runs in over 31 innings pitched. Yet, deemed expendable, he was cut after 32 games. Without hesitation, Kines joined the Schaumburg Boomers — another Frontier League team located just west of Chicago.
“I really liked their whole setup,” Kines said as he sat in the Cyclones player’s lounge. “I knew there would be a bunch of opportunities there. It's the same type of atmosphere and trying to improve your game.”
With the Cyclones, everything is program based. Starters operate on weight-lifting and throwing regiments. In Illinois, there wasn’t as much structure and Kines reciprocated the training he did with the Marlins. Kines started games and focused on his curve. He consulted his coaches and other pitchers, learning how they threw their curves and tried to emulate them.
After another strong season in which he went 4-1 with a 1.31 ERA in seven starts, Boomer manager Jaime Bennet called Kines over to the side of the dugout and gave him the news. His last game in Schaumburg was June 18. On July 16, Kines threw six scoreless, only allowing one hit against the State College Spikes.
Cyclones manager Edgardo Alfonzo has utilized Leon Byrd everywhere. A Swiss Army Knife with speed and an arm. In 18 games, Byrd has trotted out to second base, shortstop, and both corner outfield positions. The Cypress, Texas-native doesn’t care where he plays, as long as he’s on the field.
Five years ago, the Mets drafted Byrd in the 25th round out of high school. Byrd instead opted to play for Rice University and was selected three years later in the 10th round by the Texas Rangers.
He batted .203 in 53 games and was released on March 11. He still remembers a team coordinator calling him into an office and hearing the news. A few days later, Byrd got his second chance. The Los Angeles Angels surprised him with a phone call and another shot to get his career going. Following the 2016 Amateur Draft, Byrd was released again and returned home.
“This is year life's work,” Byrd said. “The only thing you've ever known. Anytime you get released its kind of a shot to your conscious and kind of a shot to the psyche. This could be it. You might not get to play anymore.”
On March 4, Byrd was at lunch with his father and family friend when he got a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize. It was the Mets again offering him his third, and maybe last, shot.
When asked about doubt creeping into his head, Byrd exhales and tilts his head backward. He used to feel pressure when he was younger, but now he perceives it differently. Byrd says he’s already gone through the worst of it and knows not to expect much. At this point in his career — 23-years-old and with his fourth team — there’s no point in worrying.
“After having all those times just being let down and seeing that I'm still living,” Byrd said. “It helps. You're scared until it actually happens, then you see it's not that bad.”