MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL'S Lifetime Pass is a literal golden ticket -- about the size and appearance of a gleaming gold credit card, with its lucky owner's name stamped on it in big block letters. Players receive one only after they spend 1,376 days on big league rosters, the equivalent of eight seasons. With it, they can walk into any ballpark before any regular-season game and receive two free seats, courtesy of the commissioner, "in appreciation of long and meritorious service." For a player who carries one, the Lifetime Pass means baseball's doors will be open to him forever. He will always belong.
In July 2012, Tim Byrdak was close to earning his Lifetime Pass. He was also 38 years old, a journeyman lefty on his way to having worn 24 professional jerseys for seven major league organizations. But after an improbable late-career revival, Byrdak was making a million dollars to come out of the Mets bullpen, even leading the league in appearances at the time. "Eight years, that gold card, had become an important goal for me," he says. Then he threw a slider to Lyle Overbay in Arizona and felt his left shoulder go pop.
"It didn't really hurt," Byrdak remembers today. The sensation was closer to strange. Byrdak had overcome several medical hurdles during his quietly remarkable career, including Tommy John surgery in 2001. By the time the Mets had returned to New York, he was sure only some small repair awaited him. While he stretched out in an MRI tube, his wife, Heather, and their four children were flying in from the family home in Chicago, still hoping to see him pitch.
That was before the doctor broke some very bad news: Byrdak's anterior capsule was torn. He'd seen firsthand how devastating that injury can be; it had sidelined teammates Johan Santana and Chris Young. "I was shocked," he says. "Here are my kids coming in, expecting to see me play, and I have to tell them they might never see their dad play again." The family went for a long walk in Central Park, and Byrdak couldn't help doing the math: After nearly two decades in professional baseball, he would fall 22 days short of long and meritorious service.
"It was a very emotional time," he says. "A lot of tears."
Byrdak flew back to Chicago with his family to decide his next move. He tried to toss batting practice to his 7-year-old son, Nathan. "I almost hit him three times," he says. The game had already taught him what struggle felt like. In a 2003 Northern League outing, he'd walked 77-year-old Minnie Minoso, after Minoso had fouled a fastball straight back. ("I stood on the mound thinking: You just walked a 77-year-old man. It might be time to quit.") During a nearly five-year absence from major league money between 2000 and 2005, he'd installed insulation and worked the overnight shift at Target. Now, after almost beaning his son, Byrdak feared that even backyard catch would be out of his reach.
He elected to have surgery. Next came an arduous rehab. Last November the Mets signed him to a minor league deal. It looked like pity. It looks different now. On Sept. 1, after Byrdak had added three more minor league stops to his travels, he was called up from Triple-A Las Vegas. Now 39, the National League's fourth-oldest player soon pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in a blowout loss to the Braves. By so many measures, it was a meaningless game. And yet Byrdak couldn't feel his legs.
On Sept. 6, exactly one year after he went under the knife, Byrdak and the Mets played the Indians in Cleveland. Heather took the kids out of school and they drove from Chicago to meet him. It was a beautiful evening, warm and clear. Perfection stopped there. In the eighth inning, Byrdak jogged out from the bullpen with two men on; he walked the first batter he faced and then gave up a grand slam. He stood on the mound and watched it sail over the fence.
Baseball's endings aren't always storybook, and its calculus is not always kind, especially this time of year. Except that four children had seen their dad back in a major league ballpark after all, and now he was only 16 days from always belonging in one. Against every possible odd, Tim Byrdak was 16 days away from golden.