Rob Ryan experienced a cliché first-hand.
The former Shadle Park and Washington State baseball player was in the Major Leagues three years after concluding his Cougars career.
However, he spent the last three years of his nine-year professional career trying to get back in the “Bigs.”
“As they say,” Ryan said, “it’s easy to get there, harder to stay.”
If it wasn’t for the weather – miserable in Washington for the past month, decidedly better at any spring training venue – Ryan, 36, would be completely at ease even though his career didn’t end quite how he would have scripted it.
“Each spring I kind of get the itch, especially after this winter. It’s tough,” Ryan said recently. “I turn on spring training games to see what’s going on. After nine years it gets in your blood; you feel that’s where you’re supposed to be, especially when it’s about 80 degrees down there.”
Then one of his three young sons comes bounding up and he knows he’s where he should be.
Rob and Tiffany, another Cougar, live in the Seattle area where Rob is in medical sales. They have three children, Rex, 5, and 3-year old twins Brock and Bryce.
Ryan retired after the 2004 season, even though he had a minor league offer from the Florida Marlins.
“We had moved back to Seattle to be closer to our families, the grandparents (Dan Ryan, former Greater Spokane League secretary, is retired in southwest Washington),” he said. “The job kind of fell into my lap and it was a Seattle-based job. That’s when I made the decision. I had to make the phone call. It was very hard to make.
“A week later Tiffany found out she was pregnant with twins, so it was kind of a blessing, to tell the truth. Dragging three little ones through Triple-A, even the big leagues, is difficult. I felt it was good timing.”
Ryan was an All-GSL player for Shadle Park. Getting recruited by Bobo Brayton and becoming a Coug was close to as good as it gets.
“Then as the years go on and you play in summer leagues you realize you can hold your own with those guys,” he said. “That’s when you say why not give it a shot in the professional ranks?”
Ryan hit .298 for the Cougars in 214 games, which is sixth on the all-time career list. His junior year, when WSU played Southern California for the Pac-10 berth in the NCAA tournament, Ryan was second team all-league after hitting .329.
A left-handed outfielder, Ryan was drafted in the 26th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1996. He started his career with Lethbridge, Alberta, of the Pioneer League, moved up to Single-A in 1997 and then jumped to Triple-A Tucson in 1998.
In 1999, 2000 and 2001 he bounced between Tucson and the Diamondbacks. He got into 20 games the first year, 27 the second and one the third before getting traded to Oakland, where he played seven games.
Ryan never returned to the majors but had quiet the odyssey.
Boston purchased his contract midway through 2002 but released him at the end of the season. He started with Toronto in 2003, was released, but San Francisco picked him up. After the season he was cut loose again but hooked on with Florida for 2004, then was shipped to Houston.
Outside of 30 games with Florida’s Double-A team, all the rest were Triple-A stops: Tucson, Scottsdale, Pawtucket, Syracuse, Fresno, Albuquerque and New Orleans.
Ryan’s numbers in nine professional minor league seasons, basically seven of them at the Triple-A level, were solid. He hit .283 with 104 home runs and 61 stolen bases.
“You’re evaluated on your numbers,” he said. “When I was in Triple-A putting up numbers that justify getting an opportunity and the opportunity doesn’t come it wears on you. You wonder what do I have to do to get a chance?”
In his 55 Major League games he had 64 at-bats with 15 hits, including two home runs, and batted in seven runs.
“As I was coming up, going through the process, from that standpoint I feel I probably over achieved,” Ryan said. “I was a 26th round draft pick and I made the Major Leagues in three years.
“I feel like I attained my goals, did what I wanted to (but) I was never in the right place at the right time. In my prime years I was with organizations that were stacked with outfielders; veteran outfielders. When I was coming up it was tough to break through.”
He said his success was more mental than physical.
“In the back of my mind there was a little bit of proving people wrong,” he said, explaining how athletes are pigeon-holed by the opinions of others. “People brand you, what type of player you are, what level you’ll get to. It’s a little sad. … It’s just an opinion.
“Proving people wrong and the desire to be there, play against the best in the world, was a goal for me.”
Still, there are no hard feelings.
“Looking back on it, the overall experience, baseball in general, the travel, the big league stadiums, the people you interact with, it was a great experience,” he said.
Ryan’s welcome to the majors moment was an at-bat against the New York Mets.
“I stepped into the batter’s box, looked behind the plate and Mike Piazza was catching,” he said. “That’s when you realize you’re in the big leagues.”
And a favorite memory?
“My first hit in the big leagues was a home run and we ended up wining 2-1 in Pittsburgh,” Ryan said. “You only get one first hit in big leagues. To have it impact the team was kind of cool.”
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