Brian talks with former Major League Baseball player and Peak Performer Eric Byrnes, the day before they both compete in IRONMAN Arizona. Byrnes recently came out with a Documentary on his journey from a Major League field to 8 IRONMAN competitions as well as The Western States 100.
In this episode, you will learn about…
- What drove Byrnes to professional baseball and a career in sports broadcasting
- Byrnes’ unique path to professional baseball
- Byrnes’ thoughts on the Mental Game and exactly what it means to him
- The similarities of playing in a Major League Baseball game and competing in an IRONMAN
- Byrnes’ thoughts on success and what it is to him
PODCAST AUDIO BELOW
PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION BELOW
Byrnes: It’s not about the reward. The reward is a process. Once you understand that, the reward, the money, the belt buckles, the metals, everything comes easier.
Cain: Welcome to another edition of the Brian Cain Peak Performance Podcast. Today our guest, Eric Byrnes, was one of the most electrifying players of his time in Major League Baseball. His all-out all-the-time approach made him a fan favorite and a player whose hustle, drive, effort, and energy was emulated by high school and college players and programs all over the country. A 2013 inductee to the UCLA Hall of Fame, Byrnes always brings the juice.
[Bring the juice!]
Cain: Whether it’s playing in the outfield for the Diamondbacks, A’s, Orioles, Rockies or Mariners, working as an analyst for Major League Baseball Network, or in his endurance race career having completed eight IRONMAN triathlons – it will be his ninth in two days from now – and the Western States 100-Mile Mountain Race. Be on the lookout for a documentary about his journey into the world of extreme races called from the Diamond to the Rough which follows him through the Western States 100.
You can learn more about Eric at www.Byrnes22.com and on Twitter at @Byrnes22. Please welcome to the Peak Performance Podcast Eric Byrnes. Eric, thanks for joining us, man.
Byrnes: I need some more Brian Cain in my life. Can I get that intro every morning when I wake up out of bed and just get ready to charge?
Cain: We’ll create that as an alarm that you can play. Right now mine pops up and says “where is the beef jerky” as a tribute to Jocko Willard. But we can get that to pop up and play for you.
Eric, if you would, give us kind of your journey from St. Francis High School in northern California to where you are today now.
Byrnes: Well it’s pretty simple. Basically I grew up in Portola Valley, which is a small town in northern California, which is I’d say probably more known for – a lot of the pioneers of the Silicon Valley either grew up there or at least settled there in the Portola Valley Woodside area. So baseball or even sports in general wasn’t very popular. But I had this dream and vision of (when I was a kid) doing two things. One of them was playing professional sports and the other one was talking about professional sports. I used to sit around with my buddies and we would just debate whatever – football, baseball, basketball, tennis, this and that, whatever it was we were so passionate about it and we just let it eat. We fed off of sports talk radio. That was something to us. KNBR 680, the sports leader, was it for us.
To make a long story longer here, I ended up going to St. Francis, which was kind of a leap of faith for me because kids from my area – there weren’t a lot that went to St. Francis, which was known back then as the premier sports school really in the Bay Area. They had De La Salle across the bay. You had Serra, which was where Barry Bonds went, Jim Fregosi, Lynn Swann, Tom Brady. And then Bellarmine was also a good one. But St. Francis arguably was the best of the best when it kind of came to all-around sports.
So I ended up going there and playing football my freshman year. At the time – think about this, you’re a freshman in high school. I don’t even think I had gone through puberty yet. I’m just trying to kind of make my way. I’m in a school with – I think there was one other kid from my grade school that went there. All these other guys played Pop Warner; they were all friends and whatnot. It was really kind of a lonely place and I was just kind of trying to find my way. Athletically I have never seen anything like it in my life. Everybody were good athletes.
So after football season it was time to make a decision whether or not I was going to play basketball. I realized that if I have any chance of being good here for the first time in my life, I’m like I need to focus, narrow my focus a little bit. The decision I made (because basketball ran well into baseball season) was, hey look, I’m not going to play hoops – which my claim to fame (and still is today) probably – my greatest athletic feat was scoring 56 points in an eighth grade basketball game. Not kidding you. I worked with Tom Tolbert at KNBR 680 who played in the NBA for like 7-8 years. I always would give Tolbert crap because he had never scored 56 in a game.
But anyway, I ended up going. I went to the tryouts. Think about this. I told this story at St. Francis the other night when I went back and showed the documentary Diamond to the Rough. There were 50 kids – 50 – going out for a baseball team for 15 spots. Think about that.
Cain: This is a freshman.
Byrnes: This is high school freshman baseball. There are 50 kids. You know what our tryouts were? Play catch for five minutes. When you get them playing catch, we’re going to take half of you and we’re going to put you in the outfield. You are going to catch, I think it was maybe 1-2 fly balls, then we are going to put you in the infield, maybe it was 4-5 grounders, and that was it. Backed up with a pitching machine that was spitting balls out in every which direction and you get five swings. Then after that it was like okay.
I went in the outfield. I think I clanked one of the balls I was supposed to catch. I go in the infield, beat at a ball or two. I was just so nervous. Then I get to take a couple swings off the pitching machine, foul a couple off, swing and miss, pop a ball up, pop another one up. “Alright, Eric. Thanks for coming to and we’ll see you; the results will be posted tomorrow in the gym.”
So I went to the gym the next day and I just knew I didn’t make it. There is no way. How could I have possibly made the team? I told my mom. I said, “look, I’m almost positive that I’m going to get cut from this team; I can’t take this, I want to go to Woodside High School, I’m transferring.” It was just too much for me. It was too overwhelming. The competition was too good and the opportunity was too scarce. A lot of life is having opportunity, and if you don’t have the opportunity to prove yourself …
So I went through the next day and posted on the outside gym wall was all the names of the guys that made it. So I’m looking kind of huddled around. I’m looking from a distance. It’s like “Ryan, Brendan, Bryan, Matt,” all the way down to the bottom. Fifteen names. “Chris” was the last name. No “Eric.” I said, “it’s cool, I prepared myself for this, I’m going to Woodside High School no problem.” But guess what? I’m going to look at every one of these 15 guys and I’m going to mark them and I’m going to go out and prove that there is not one of these guys that was a better baseball player than I am.
I went back to look at the names, scan the names, make sure exactly who the guys were. I get to the last name and it was “Chris Byrnes.” B-y-r-n-e-s. I’m like, “Chris Byrnes? No way there is another Byrnes here; this doesn’t make any sense.” Did he screw up the first name? Did he screw up the last name? What is going on? So I went sprinting after the freshman baseball coach as he was walking away and I’m like, “Coach Ferrera, Coach Ferrera!” He turns around and goes, “what can I do for you, Chris?” I go, “nothing – I’ll see you at practice.” That was it. That was all I needed to know. I went from thinking I was getting cut from the freshman baseball team and having to transfer schools to obviously making the team.
Cain: 0:08:01 felt standard.
Byrnes: And my career kind of took off from there.
Cain: Wow. How about that. So you go from making it as Chris Byrnes and seeing the freshman team, then you end up getting drafted out of high school – so you obviously had a good career at St. Francis – and then made the decision to not sign pro with the L.A. Dodgers but go on to UCLA.
A lot of players that are listening to this or parents or coaches that are listening to this – there is always that debate of if you’re a high school kid do you sign and go and start your pro baseball career and get those extra three years of minor league baseball under your belt or do you go to college? Depending on who you talk to, you are going to get a different answer – sometimes it’s a dollar figure amount. Other times it’s a life experience amount, an education reason. Why did you choose to go to UCLA instead of signing pro baseball straight out of St. Francis High School?
Byrnes: I think it’s pretty simple. First of all for people listening to this – and I imagine that a lot of the people that are actually listening are young guys that are trying to find a way – I can’t tell you how important the mental side of baseball is and what that did for me. I just think that my parents instilled in me at a very young age what the most important thing in the world was: family first and then education. I knew I had a dream of wanting to play professional sports but I also knew that there was going to be a time and place for it.
My belief in myself and my confidence in myself – this was sort of where the mental game kind of really comes in is that you’ve got to be willing to walk. You’ve got to have this ultimate belief in yourself that this is not going to be – when I was a 38th round draft pick out of high school, a 38th round draft pick? I should have been a first round draft pick. Then I got drafted again in the fourth round by the Houston Astros after my junior year where a lot of people would sign.
I met with the scouting director of the Houston Astros at the time, and he had come back to Cape Cod to watch me play for a week. After the week he was like, “hey, Eric, I’d like to take you to breakfast” and we’re trying to negotiate a contract. The average of the round back then was like $150,000. So they had made an original offer of $90,000 which is nowhere even near the average of the round. Their excuse was that they had given too much of the money to Lance Berkman, who they had drafted in the first round. Great choice and great guy to give a lot of money to, right? But apparently it affected their second, third, and fourth round draft picks. Ironically, none of us ended up signing.
Here was my thing. It wasn’t about the money. I knew that $90,000 – and then you pay taxes on a bonus which is like $45,000. Even if it was $150,000 and you told me I’m going to walk away with $75,000, I’ll go blow $75,000 in a weekend. That wasn’t going to change my life. I understood that. I knew that. What I wanted was an organization that believed in me, that said, “hey, Eric, look – we’re going to give you every opportunity to succeed.” That is what I needed.
Sure enough, I went to breakfast and it was the scouting director and one other guy. They sat there and they said, “hey, here is the deal – we gave all our money to Berkman, we’ve been watching you play for a week now, we think you’re a circus act in the outfield, you pull the baseball way too much, you can’t hit the ball the other way, you’re fast but you run funny and really awkward, so here is our $90,000 offer; take it or leave it at this point but it goes off the table tomorrow.” I’m like wow.
Cain: That is what they said?
Byrnes: I said, “so hold on; let me get this straight – you guys are telling me that you are going to basically offer me way less than the average of the round and then on top of that–” I said, “hold on, guys; this isn’t about the money, so what do you want me to do?” I said, “you want me to sign with an organization that already doesn’t believe in me for the minimal value of the round and I’m going to start with my back against the wall knowing your guys’ feelings about my game.”
Where in the manual of being a scouting director when you’re trying to sign a player does it say “let’s go ridicule him and demean him and then monetarily show him we don’t have any support for him either” and think that that person would sign? “You guys can go **** yourself.” I got up and walked out. That was it. That was the last time I ever spoke to the Houston Astros.
Cain: So you go back to UCLA for your senior year and then go on and get drafted and make your way up to the big leagues. Talk a little bit about that mental game or that belief that you had in yourself. Let me slow down here; I’m all jacked up. What is the mental game to you, Eric? What is the mental game of baseball?
Byrnes: Confidence. Belief in yourself. It kind of goes back to the story that I just told. I don’t respond the way I did without the confidence and without the belief in myself. Even going back to my freshman year, I don’t go back freshman year of high school and having that “I’ll walk, I’ll transfer schools, I need an opportunity, I need to play, I am going to be a professional baseball player.” I didn’t tell a lot of people. I told my mom. That was it. I kept it really low. I wasn’t parading around with a megaphone to all my friends.
But when I was 13 years old, my dad used to throw me in batting practice all the time. He knew nothing about baseball. Absolutely zero. He was a fourth degree black belt in kenpo karate. He’d take me out and we’d go to the town center of Portola Valley and just throw BP days and days and days. Just all day. Eventually, when I was 13, I was like there is only so much BP he can throw me. My parents are like, “hey, we got you a” – they thought they were all clever but they were like “we got you a birthday present, his name is Mike.” I’m like, “what do you mean his name is Mike?” “We got you a new friend for your birthday, Mike.” I’m like, “what?” Iron Mike.
Cain: Oh yeah.
Byrnes: So down below where we lived – our house the way it was situated was kind of up on a hill, and then down below in part of the property you couldn’t really see – was a batting cage with an Iron Mike machine.
When I was 13 years old, I cranked that thing up to 90 miles per hour, throwing as fast as it could throw. At first I had a tough time – foul balls off, foul balls off, foul balls off – and eventually *poof* I was ranking it, right? Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam! Well, guess what? When I got to face, I was a sophomore in high school. I had just got called up to varsity. I didn’t start with varsity when I was a sophomore. I got called up to varsity to face Dan Serafini. Dan Serafini was a first round pick out of Serra. He threw 92 miles per hour from the left side. A nasty little sink. There were 50 scouts in the stands, maybe more. I went there to face him. Everyone else 0:15:53 sample for right?
Byrnes: And I’m like no problem *whap whap whap* three bullets off of Dan Serafini. Barely anyone else was touching him. It’s repetition. It is a skill that was developed through hard work. Even during football season – I played football through high school but even during football season before school in the morning I’d still bang 50 balls before I went to school. I got home at night, the sun is going down, dark, whatever – I’d put on a few lights we’d put up in the cage – boom, just 50 more. Didn’t overdo it. I just loved to hit.
Well guess what? Guess what that created? Confidence. So when I got there against Dan Serafini as a sophomore in high school, still not sure if I – I’m barely going through puberty at this point and I’m hitting bullets off of 92 mile-per-hour fastballs when no one else is touching him. Now you’ve got 50 scouts in the stands going, “huh, who is this kid?”
I think people need to remember when it comes to the mental game confidence is created and developed through work. It’s like a test. Imagine studying for a test – and you know those tests. I went into several where I wasn’t prepared for the test and what sort of confidence did I have going into that test? So long as I did my work and I studied for that test and I was ready for that test I was confident. My mental game was exactly where it needed to be. It’s the same thing with the process of going up and playing in the big leagues. People go, “are you nervous?” Yeah, of course you are going to be nervous. This is natural nerves. But guess what? Were you scared? Not one bit. I prepared myself for that day. I prepared myself.
Cain: So you’ve got eight IRONMANs. You’re doing your ninth here in two days. What is the prep? Is it the same thing with going in and doing an endurance race, whether it’s the 100-mile race or an IRONMAN where you’ve done the preparation, you’ve done the training with run, bike, swim? Is it the same thing with the preparation in terms of you having done the work to go prepare for an IRONMAN triathlon?
Byrnes: Exact same thing. It’s not any different. There is no natural transition from playing professional baseball to going into the endurance world. Physically there is very little translation between the two. But psychologically very similar because it’s all about doing the work and doing the work that gives you confidence to go out there and have your best race on that given day. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.
That is what drives me, I think, in the training. Part of it is that fear of knowing that that test is there. That test is coming up. It’s what eventually got me going in school is I knew that in order to go to college I was going to have to do the work to do well on my test to get me into a good school and it all kind of became part of the plan. Ironically, as I got older, I became a much better student than I ever was at a younger age.
Cain: Talk about being a student for a second. One of the things you mentioned earlier off the air was how there was a time in your life where you just kind of were devouring books and you had a group of guys where you would go through Heads-Up Baseball and then talk about that. Talk a little bit about the importance of leaders being readers, and for the people that are following this, what are some of the best books that you like to read?
Byrnes: Wow. Yeah. One of the first books I really dove into and read probably 50 times over through the course of my entire baseball career was The Mental Game of Baseball by Karl Kuehl and Harvey Dorfman. Karl ended up being a mentor of mine when I played with the Oakland A’s and then even after. He was with the Indians at the time and I was with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but we would have a weekly call that we had scheduled. We would schedule it at different times on different weeks, but man, it was so incredibly beneficial having that somebody there to sort of balance some ideas.
It’s funny because sometimes when I was rolling we wouldn’t even talk about baseball. I sort of let him dictate the conversations. But ironically I had – well, I wouldn’t say ironically – there was no coincidence that I had my two greatest years in the big leagues when I was checking in with Karl on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, at the end of 2008 I think was when he got sick and he ended up passing away. It hit hard and it hit fast and I still miss him dearly to this day, but the lessons that he taught me in my life and my career are just invaluable.
The other one was Heads-Up Baseball by Ken Ravizza, is another one that I dove into with Scott Seal – a buddy of mine. We were roommates at UCLA and then he ended up transferring to Fullerton and he played there. We got into pro ball at the same time. During the off-season we just trained together, lived together. We’d go through books specific to baseball. We would read the hitting books, be it Charley Lau’s book or Ted Williams’ book. It was funny because the one thing I think that I always did a good job at was digesting the language that spoke to me, because not everything is going to speak to you so you have to be able to throw out a lot of what you hear in this game but digest the key things.
So since then as far as books I don’t know where to start. But one of the latest ones that I would recommend everybody read – and you’ll have to read it multiple times. The great thing about books now too – because of all the training that I do I go just about all audiobooks.
But Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance is something that I could dig into every single day. The overall message of making decisions on your own and not necessarily conforming to the societal norms – it’s also not saying be an anarchist but it’s an incredible message. So much to take in. I think the parallels – and it was written however long ago – but these parallels are incredible and it’s amazing how relevant it still is. The Scholar was the latest one that I read of his. I can’t get enough of Emerson. It’s amazing to me how relevant Emerson and his writings still are to this day.
Cain: I just started reading a book about stoicism, and it goes back to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus and these guys who were writing back in Ancient Greece. The book is called The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. It’s awesome. It’s a one-page-a-day read. Very short.
Talking about stoic, we think of stoic as somebody who is not emotional, somebody who is just kind of there. Their idea of stoicism is somebody who is so in control of themselves that they never let their emotions get the best of them, that they have the self-control, that they quickly identify what they can control, what they can’t control, and they only focus their time and energy and attention on things they can control – which is a lot of what I have learned through Heads-Up Baseball and Ravizza, but I didn’t realize it goes all the way back to the freaking Greeks. It’s written in a language that you can tell it’s ancient times but Ryan Holiday does a great job of translating that to making sense for what you’re doing today. It’s pretty cool.
Byrnes: I’ll check it out.
Cain: Ryan Holiday. It’s The Daily Stoic.
Other pieces of the mental game. You talked about the confidence that comes from preparation. What about routines? What are some of the routines that you had to help you go one pitch at a time, Eric?
Byrnes: I was very routine oriented. Before preparing for a game I had my whole routine of stretching that I would do. We’re talking (let’s say) 35 minutes before the game where it was the stretching to the sprints to jumping over the laundry basket in the clubhouse.
I did not go outside to sprint, I think, hardly ever in my big league career, because what happened is as you start playing and you’re seeing all your peers there, it’s what you see today – which is I don’t know if it’s BS or not. It depends what side of the fence you’re on when it comes to fraternization but you see a bunch of guys playing grab ass out in the outfield. Well, look, I was there to play baseball and prepare myself for a game. I don’t need to catch up with this guy and see how the family is doing and everything else. And the guy on the other team. I wasn’t interested in that.
So I felt like that was always a distraction to me, so I would actually do my sprints underneath, in the tunnel, in the batting cage so long as it was available. I would jump over laundry baskets too and I had a whole routine of doing that. Then I would hit off the tee and it would just be five balls the other way, pull five balls, finish with five balls up the middle. And then I’d throw too, so I’d just grab some balls in the cage and I’d throw 10-15 balls whenever I felt like. Then I’d make sure I’d finish about five minutes before the game so I still had that *breath* – alright, physically I know I’m ready. Mentally let’s get here and let’s do it.
Cain: Awesome. Mental imagery. Anything you used at all in terms of visualizing yourself playing well? Maybe it was something you’d do at night before you’d go to bed or during the day when you’re at the stadium, kind of visualizing yourself taking at-bats off the guy who is going to be pitching you that day?
Byrnes: All the time. Every single day. That was another part of my routine that I would do. I would do it after the tee work. I would mentally have a vision of that pitcher that we were going to face that day and I would start with fastball. I’d go fastball away ball, fastball away strike, boom. So I’d imagine fastball away, just taking it. Nice soft hit ball. Fastball away strike. Bam. Shooting it the other way. Fastball middle, down or up, we’re at ball. Okay, fastball right there. Boom. I’d just imagine low line drives. Fastball in ball, fastball in. Boom. Drop the hit. Homer. Same thing. Curve ball down on a wide ball, curve ball outside corner, boom, base hit right field. Curve ball middle down in the dirt. Good take. Next one. Curve ball middle. Boom. Base hit out the middle. Curve ball inside. Take it. Curve ball inside. Homer. Same thing with the change-up. I would do that every single day.
It started – here is another book I would recommend. I’m trying to think. It was, I want to say The Mental Game of Tennis, but that’s not right.
Cain: The Inner Game of Tennis.
Byrnes: Inner Game of Tennis. The Inner Game of Tennis is one of the first mental books I read. When I was a kid, I was a big-time tennis player. You want to talk about, you think baseball players have – like that tennis game especially at a young age and you’re on that island by yourself, that’s heavy. So through The Inner Game of Tennis I learned the points of the visualizations. So I would play the match the night before. I would go sit in this chair in our living room.
My mom would always help me with it. She was like, “okay, just go ahead and visualize your match.” Well, I was playing against these ridiculously good tennis players. There were like – geez – Michael Jessup, Cory Guy, Misha Palecek, Ryan Walters. All four of these dudes went on. Palecek, Walters, and Jessup were like 1, 2, 3 at Stanford. Cory Guy was the number one player at Santa Barbara. All of them went on to play professional tennis in some capacity. These are a lot of the guys that – I was competing against these dudes.
Byrnes: It was just super heavy and we did a lot traveling or whatever, but that is where I learned the mental side. Then I slowly transitioned that. I’m like, “okay, if I can envision playing these matches, why can’t I envision what the game is going to look like tomorrow in baseball, what my at-bats are going to look like?” So I started doing that. I truly believe that is where my baseball career really took off in a sense is when I was about 12 in All-Stars and going through that mental imagery of doing it. Again, when you stand at the box – what did I say? What is the mental game? That game is confidence and belief. But what gives you confidence and belief is that fact that you have done the work. Well, guess what? When I got in the box, I had already been there. I had already done it. I’m comfortable. I had seen it.
Cain: Did you do the same thing when you were getting ready to run an IRONMAN? Do you see yourself crossing the finish line already and all that? I know that you have already done eight, but when you go back to doing your first one, was it the same process seeing yourself crossing the finish line and all that?
Byrnes: I did it yesterday sitting in the float tank. A float tank is this tank filled with whatever. Now I like putting myself in positions – when I can find that quiet time I went through the whole race, went through the beginning, what is it going to be like jumping in. I don’t care how many you do. The best never stop preparing. It’s not like – if I didn’t have a little anxiousness and a little fear – that is normal. You want that. That is why I do these. If I lose that, it’s not going to have the same luster.
Am I more comfortable because I have eight under my belt? Of course I am. Of course I am. But I also still know that in order to get my best result I need to go out there and run through this. What is it going to be like? There is going to be a lot of contact in the swim. Imagine and visualize and even feel for every stroke I’m going to come down and I might get hit. Or what is happening when the guy is grabbing on my legs behind me? Am I going to kick him off or am I going to relax? I went through it.
Then getting on the bike and visualizing the transition. What exactly do I need when I get out of the water? When I actually get out of the water I am going to unzip the top of my wetsuit. I am going to take my watch off. I like to keep it clean. If you pull everything over the watch and the thing is stopping and everything – boom, watch off, wetsuit top off, but I’m going to keep everything on waist down. They have wetsuit strippers there that actually will take the whole thing off but I want to keep mine on because I‘m going to have some little booties.
I’m going to get a good run to grab my transition bag, get in the transition where I’ll have my helmet, short little socks and my bike shoes ready to go. But guess what? I’ll have a towel laid out too. I’ll have a towel in there so I can take the booties off without getting grass all over my feet, so when I put on my socks there is not going to be grass sitting there for the next nine hours or whatever it’s going to be. All of that is prepared for. All of that is thought of. The bike computer is going to be on the bike. There is just so much. The nutrition, making sure the nutrition in the bottles are lined up. You need to be very meticulous about that.
Then I visualize the bike. Ideally, in the first loop of the bike that we have tomorrow I want to control my effort. I’ve had a tendency to go out guns blazing and then progressively each lap get slower. It usually happens anyway but I’m going to try to ride as consistently as possible through the entire 112 miles, which then I believe will allow me to have my best run and ideally my best run I’ve ever had in an IRONMAN. So it should be fun.
Cain: Yeah. Sounds like you’re – and I haven’t viewed your documentary from the Diamond to the Rough, which is unbelievable, and anybody listening to this has got to check that out. From the Diamond to the Rough. If you’d let them know where they can get that, that would be great. In that you talked a lot about the joy is in the process. What does that mean?
Byrnes: So the reward. We like the reward, don’t we? The reward is one of the reasons why we do what we do in any industry. It’s your payday. It’s making your money. In the endurance world it’s a medal at the end of an IRONMAN. It’s a belt buckle at the end of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. That is the reward.
For my kids they love it. It’s the trophy. They’re out there and they’re playing. It’s a trophy. So when we’re kids I don’t think – we know the reward is there and we think we’re chasing the reward. When you’re in baseball and you’re playing baseball and you think you’re chasing the money and everything, and then I got to endurance sports and it was like I thought I was chasing the medal and the fact that I could say, “oh, I’ve done eight IRONMANs” and everything else. I think it really hit me when I did the Western States 100 that it’s not about the reward. The reward is the process. I think that once you understand that the reward, the money, the belt buckles, the medals, everything comes easier. But that is simply a result of you fully embracing the process.
So going forward here, man, I just did an article yesterday. I talked to Susan Slusser from the San Francisco Chronicle. They’re going to do a big story about Diamond to the Rough and it’s interesting because when I was explaining that to her – and every time I explain it as I explained it to you today – it rings so true, yet I think sometimes through the course of your life you don’t get it and you don’t understand it. But guess what? It hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed since you were nine years old and you’re running around a Little League field or you’re running around a soccer field or anything else.
We thought we were chasing the trophy but we weren’t chasing the trophy. The absolute reason why we do it is because of the exhilarating emotional feelings that we get from being out there, being out on the racecourse, being out on the baseball field. That is what life is about. That is living. That’s it.
Cain: When you cross the finish line of those IRONMANs or of the Western States 100, you carry a jersey of a former Arizona State football player, Pat Tillman. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with Pat and then why you carry that jersey, why that is so important to you?
Byrnes: Well, Pat played for – he went to Leland High School in San Jose at the same time I went to St. Francis. We would watch him (I’m not kidding you) and we would just gawk. From his junior year. Junior year, senior year. It was just like, is this guy for real? He was an undersized dude that just – I mean he was blowing dudes up on defense. He was given the football and was just running around guys, he was running over guys. It was like, how often is it that you get a group of high school kids in this totally uncomfortable state in your life, all this testosterone and macho bravado and everything else, where you could get a group of high school kids that were playing on the best high school football team in the area? We’d look at a guy on this other team and go, “that dude is the baddest dude I have ever seen.” He had blond locks flowing out of his helmet.
So basically what happened is, I think the first time we met, was we saw him at a Leland/St. Francis volleyball game. A buddy of ours – we were scared to go up to him. We were like, “dude, that’s Tillman over there, that’s Tillman over there.” So a buddy of ours by the name of Zach Wahls was like, “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to do it” and he went up, walked across the gym. He was like, “hey, Pat, I’m Zach Wahls – I go to St. Francis, football player. I just wanted to meet you and say how much we respect you” and this and that.
That was pretty cool to see because just like 4-5 years later Zach Wahls was the sixth round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals after going to Dartmouth and playing for four years, and Pat Tillman was the seventh round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals after going to ASU and playing for four years. Then they roomed together with the Cardinals here.
Cain: How about that.
Byrnes: In 1998 when I first signed with the A’s and I’d come and like – man, I’d do anything to hang with the – I’m low-level minor leagues. I’m the bottom barrel structurally and I’m hanging around some NFLers with Pat and Zach. My time actually getting to know Pat was very limited. I spent very little time with him hanging out with him. The times that I did you could tell there was something just special about him. Then he ended up, obviously after 9/11, deciding to walk from football and join the Army Rangers.
From there I wanted to do the same thing. I was just like everybody else that was emotionally moved by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We wanted to fight. Pat did an interview. He was like, “what have I done, my great grandfather fought in World War I, my grandfather fought in World War II, my dad fought in Vietnam” – he was just going through it. He was like, “what the hell have I done?”
[Tillman: My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has given up – has gone to fight in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that, and so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for.]
Byrnes: You could tell. This was the day after 9/11 when he did this interview. I had the same feeling. I always had these visions. Mike Seal, who happens to be in the condo right now staying with me, him and I have always talked about being Navy SEALs. That was always our fascination. But guess what? Here I was after 9/11 just busting into the big leagues. Was I willing to give it all up to go to Afghanistan and fight for our country? I wasn’t. I didn’t have the balls to do it. You know what? Pat did. It’s a shame of how it ended because it didn’t have to. The whole thing with the friendly fire and the cover-up and everything else was disgusting, but in no way does it diminish the sacrifice that he was willing to make for the sake of your ass and mine.
A couple years ago – a couple years, 10 years ago now in 2006 when I was with the Diamondbacks, I got a call from Richard Tillman, Pat’s youngest brother, and he knew I had always talked well about Pat, pumped Pat up, and he knew how close Zach and I were and he invited me out to the statue unveiling out at the new stadium in Glendale. There was a group of only about 50 family members and friends for the statue unveiling and I was fortunate enough to be there and watch it and really got close with the family – Marie, his widow; Kevin, his brother, who he went to Afghanistan with who also was an Army Ranger; Richard; and a couple of his best friends, this guy Ben Hill and Dallas Carwood who were running the foundation at the time. I basically at that point knew that I was all in with doing whatever I could do to make sure that the next generation of kids knew exactly who Pat Tillman was and the sacrifice that he made.
It’s not to diminish sacrifices of other people and other 18-year-old kids that are signing up around the country to go serve our country, but there is something to say when you don’t have to go and you’re at the height of your NFL career and you have a multimillion dollar offer on the table and you walk. That was something special and I just want to continue to celebrate that and celebrate the foundation, which has gone on to do some really good things with education and providing scholarships for military members and their families and basically grooming these people to be game changers in society – which is exactly what Pat was.
Cain: That’s awesome. I had the privilege to run the Pat Tillman race one time at Arizona State. For people that are listening to this, it’s a short 5K race but there are probably 25,000-30,000 people that show up at Arizona State Sun Devils Stadium for that race they do every year. If you’re looking for something to get you going and something to remind you that we live in the greatest country in the world, show up for that race. It’s unbelievable. Walk it or do it, but it’s something that you’ve got to do. If you’re listening to this podcast, go online right now and Google “Pat Tillman Race Arizona State University,” find out when it is, and go smash it. Go do it because you are going to get a lot out of that experience and that opportunity.
Eric, last question for you here. I really appreciate your time today. It’s been fantastic. One of the most fun podcasts we have ever done. 40 years old, eight IRONMANs in, Major League Baseball career, been an analyst. You’ve got a book that you’ve written that is going to be coming out that I can’t wait to read – it’s going to be off the charts. You’ve got a documentary. You’re married. You’ve got children. How do you define success for you right now? In baseball it’s easy. It’s a statistical thing. Everybody can determine if you have success based off of numbers. How do you define success in your life right now?
Byrnes: A successful person – and I feel like I’m having success. I’d say I’m winning (I’m not sure that that’s the right word) when I’m able to embrace the moment. We don’t live in the moment today. It’s very difficult sometimes and we’re so consumed with social media and we want everything quick and we want everything fast and it’s the Millennial generation. And I get it. I live this fast-paced life. I have a lot of things going on.
But you mentioned I have three kids. I have a 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old. I’m married. I do everything I can to be a good father, good husband. And then I have a job that is 3,000 miles away. So I live in California at Half Moon Bay about 20 miles south of San Francisco but I have a place in New York City and MLB networks is in Secaucus, New Jersey, right across the river about 15 minutes away. My life is constantly in flux. We have a place in Tahoe as well. We’re about to go up too after this and spend just about all the winter there.
You mentioned the documentary. That has been a lot and dealing with that and going through the editing process and everything else. Not to mention the training that goes into the IRONMAN races and the 100-mile run. What I’ve learned through all of it is that you can only be in one place at one time. So if we are sitting here and doing the podcast, I need to be here. I can’t worry about these 15 other things going on. I’ve noticed that I have the most success in my life when I am able to bring it to the now, and I think that is what matters is to embrace the moment. It’s as simple as that. As simple as that.
Cain: Awesome. Eric Byrnes, you are off the podcast hot seat, my friend. Fantastic. Again, you can get more Eric Byrnes at www.Byrnes22.com and on Twitter at @Byrnes22. Eric, thank you for your time. You were off the charts. Thank you.
Byrnes: Thanks, dude. One last thing for the film. The documentary.
Byrnes: This is not a monetary play for me. I’m not doing this to make money off this thing. There is a special message in there that is very family oriented. One of the things that Susan Slusser – when she was doing the article yesterday, she was like, “I just was amazed by the doc; I just figured it was going to be this athlete vanity piece, and it’s anything but that.” If there is one thing that I would recommend to people, it’s go to www.Vimeo.com/OnDemand/DiamondToTheRough. Watch this documentary. I think it hits so many different people on so many different levels that the only thing I care about on this is I want eyeballs to see it.
Again, this is not a monetary plaything. This isn’t an ego thing or anything else. There is a message within that documentary I think that will resonate with a lot of people and it could help change somebody’s life.
Cain: What is the message, Eric, that you want people to get from the documentary?
Byrnes: It’s about the process. It’s not about the reward. It’s about embracing everything that is important in your life that helps you enjoy that process. It’s about family. It’s about giving your kids every opportunity to succeed. It’s about setting an example for your children and influencing them and not force-feeding them anything but allowing them to make their own decisions. But guess what? You have a 100% responsibility to set that example for them, lead them to the right direction, and let them find their own path.
One of the main ones is you’ll always need to have an idea of what is next and find what is next and find your happiness, find your zone, find something that is going to motivate you each and every single day. I think really the last one is do something physical that will help. When you get out and do something physical – it doesn’t have to be a 100-mile run. Not even close. I don’t care if it’s walking around the block twice. Get outside. Clear your mind. Clear your head.
As a kid that grew up with severe ADHD, I can tell you even now with all the information that is coming – I’ve got a buddy of mine that scans brain tissue. He could show me a brain of an ADD kid without exercise indoors and it looks like a tiny little penny. Imagine 20 minutes of moderate exercise after being outside; that ADD kid’s brain is lit up like a freaking giant pancake. We’re not any different. Some people are more extreme. Maybe people with ADD are more extreme in what that can do for you. This is something that – the idea and thoughts that people are cancelling PE is disgusting to me. The lack of physical activity amongst our youth is disturbing.
But again, the overall message is enjoy the process and embrace the moment.
Cain: I thought it was awesome that you’re – the career transition piece too.
Byrnes: It’s big.
Cain: As a pro athlete, it’s all of a sudden you’re – the quote the guy says in there, which I think is beautiful – he says, “you’re a dragon slayer and now there are no dragons to go slay.” Whether you are an athlete, whether you are a – if you are in the military – Marcus Luttrell said the same thing, that when his Navy SEAL days came to a close that there were some dark times. He had to find out what is next – like the shirt that you are wearing in the documentary. For him it was taking a dry erase marker and writing down his goals on his bathroom mirror so he could see them. He said that is kind of what got him going away – was seeing something, having a vision, having a tangible past and I’m going to go and attack. Whether it’s preparing for a game, preparing for a seminar, preparing to go to combat, or preparing to wake up and make your kids breakfast, what is your task for the day that you’re going to sign your name with excellence on and go out there and keep moving forward?
Having worked in athletics, there are a lot of guys that when that career ends, there are some dark times because everything you’ve always done – hitting a ball, running, diving, making a catch – that doesn’t necessarily translate to what you’re going to do now for the rest of your life to be successful. However, who you became and who you needed to become to be successful as an athlete, that same process, that same mindset, that same drive, that same attention to detail will help you if you take that with you into what you do.
Cain: So it’s trying to figure out how do you help guys to channel that.
Byrnes: That’s awesome, dude. Thanks, Brian.
Cain: Awesome Eric. I appreciate you.
Byrnes: That was outstanding. Thanks again.