Byrdak's flight from retail to relief

PITTSBURGH -- New York Mets left-hander Tim Byrdak dressed as a Hulk Hogan lookalike one day this spring training, complete with bleached handlebar mustache, blond receding-hairline wig, do-rag and pro-wrestler tights.

His proudest achievement, though, in keeping a clubhouse mood light occurred two years earlier with the Houston Astros. Byrdak parked teammate Bud Norris' four-door 1996 Acura on the warning track in center field for batting practice at Minute Maid Park, placed a bull's-eye on the windshield and posted a "For Sale" sign on the vehicle.

"He had been talking about buying a new car," Byrdak says. "We're like, 'Bud, you're in the big leagues, you can afford it now, OK?' He's like, 'I don't know.' So I stole his keys and I drove his car out and put a bull's-eye on it."

The 38-year-old Byrdak is just as serious about his pitching as he is about his comedy.

A decade ago, out of baseball following Tommy John surgery and cash-strapped, Byrdak was working the overnight shift restocking the sales floor at a Target in Chicago. He then would drive 30 minutes and sleep in his car in his in-laws' driveway for an hour. A wakeup call in the form of a knock on the window from his father-in-law would ensue and they would get started on morning installation work until midday.

Now, Byrdak has become one of the driving forces behind the Mets' early-season success. The Mets open an 11-game homestand Thursday against the San Diego Padres with a 24-20 record.

Mirroring the role Pedro Feliciano performed before him as a left-handed relief specialist, Byrdak has become indispensable.

Byrdak has stranded an MLB-high 21 runners this season (among the 26 he has inherited). He is holding lefty hitters to a .115 average. And his 26 relief appearances put him on pace for 96, which would break the single-season franchise record.

That record was set by Feliciano for three straight years in Flushing -- 86 in 2008, 88 in 2009 and then 92 in 2010. Feliciano then departed for an ill-fated two-year, $8 million deal with the Yankees that has been short-circuited by shoulder woes undoubtedly related to extreme usage in Queens.

Tuesday night at PNC Park, Byrdak again successfully faced one batter to help fuel a Mets victory. He struck out lefty-hitting Pedro Alvarez to end the eighth inning and strand the potential tying run on base in what became a 3-2 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Manager Terry Collins generally has restricted Byrdak's usage this season to a key late-inning matchup rather than full innings, out of concern last year's full-inning appearances took a toll when combined with the frequency of Byrdak's use.

Collins now has resolved to use recently promoted rookie Robert Carson in some upcoming lefty-on-lefty situations to spare Byrdak such an extreme volume of usage. But it will be a challenge for Collins to resist the temptation to use a proven option such as Byrdak in order to try to preserve his availability for the entire season.

Since Mike Marshall made 106 relief appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974, no reliever has finished with the 96 appearances for which Byrdak is currently on pace. The closest: Salomon Torres in 2006 and Kent Tekulve in 1979 both reached 94 appearances with the Pirates.

Byrdak calls an upper-90s appearance total "feasible," although he acknowledges being aware of the injury fate that befell Feliciano.

"They always say you only have so many bullets in that gun," Byrdak says. "I just look at it as if I can maintain my elbow program (since Tommy John surgery), and try to keep everything as strong as I can for as long as I can, if at any point I do break down maybe it's a lot later on. Or maybe not even at all. Hopefully that's the case."

Collins notes Byrdak is more efficient warming up than earlier in his career, which should preserve some shelf life. Byrdak agrees.

"I used to be a guy that would get up there and just fire, fire, fire, fire -- and within 10 pitches be like, 'I'm ready,'" Byrdak says. "Now it's like, those 10, I can still say, 'I'm ready.' But the intensity won't be there until the situation calls for me to be out there."

Byrdak thought he had re-established himself in 2010 with the Astros, but when that offseason came, he had no major league offers. He settled for a minor league deal with the Mets and made the major league roster.

Last August, he agreed to a one-year, $1 million extension. Given his 2011 success, and contracts like Feliciano's that have been thrown around for lefty specialists, it seemed like Byrdak had sold himself short.

Byrdak, the Mets' player representative to the Major League Baseball Players Association, disagrees with that assessment. Regardless, he notes, he loved playing for Collins and likes the clubhouse atmosphere and wanted to remain.

"With my age, I doubt that I'll ever see a multi-year deal -- even though you do have Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver and those guys (getting those contracts)," Byrdak says. "I'm comfortable knowing what my price range is, what I should be expecting market-value-wise. They gave it to me here and I was happy to stay.

"Being later on in my career, the comfort factor plays a lot into it. You don't have to worry about going to a new place and learning a new city, learning new a system, the ins and outs of everything."

Byrdak recalled this week his tale from being out of baseball to a renaissance at 38 years old. He underwent Tommy John surgery on June 7, 2001, while pitching for Triple-A Buffalo, which was then a Cleveland Indians affiliate. Back a season later, Byrdak had a 6.23 ERA as a reliever at Double-A Akron when the Indians acquired Cliff Lee along with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips from Omar Minaya's Montreal Expos for Bartolo Colon. Lee was assigned to Akron and the Indians dumped Byrdak.

Byrdak went to work restocking the Target overnight. He pitched in independent ball in 2003, then finally returned to affiliated baseball the following year at Triple-A with the San Diego Padres, after enlisting the help of scout Bill Bryk, who had once wanted to draft him when Byrdak was pitching for South Suburban College near Chicago.

Byrdak became a bona fide lefty specialist in Houston in 2010 under manager Brad Mills, who was joining that staff from the American League where he had been acquainted with precise bullpen roles.

With the Mets this spring, Byrdak nearly was not ready for Opening Day. He underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee on March 13, and made it back in time for the April 5 opener against the Atlanta Braves.

"Being 38, not knowing how many Opening Days I have left, I really wanted to push the envelope, because who knows career-wise what's going to be around the corner?" Byrdak says. "Being 38 I wanted to make sure I was out there for Opening Day. I lucked out."

In spite of his comedic clubhouse nature -- which included wearing a Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey from New York to Toronto last week with a borderline obscene name rather than "BYRDAK" printed on the back -- Byrdak is deadly serious about his pitching. That was evident in Houston during last month's visit, when he began jawing with former teammate Carlos Lee from the mound, after Lee blurted something indistinguishable at him.

He does not joke about what it means to be back on a mound considering his employment 10 years ago involved the graveyard shift at Target.

"If we never got back to this level, (my wife) Heather and I probably would have been in some serious financial trouble," Byrdak says. "We had accumulated so much credit card debt that we had to borrow money from my mom and dad to get out of. It took me a while even to pay them back when I was back in the big leagues.

"I've always told people this: When you have the jersey taken away from you, you appreciate having the jersey that much more. And I think that's what I'm doing now. I appreciate it more. I want to have as much fun with it as I can for as long as I can."