For many student athletes, getting paid to play their sport is a dream. Left-handed pitcher Ryan Byrd, who graduated from SIUE in the spring, will not only be paid to play baseball but will also get to experience a different culture by playing in Belgium.
Byrd received a call on June 18 with an offer to play for Mont-Saint-Guibert-Phoenix. The team is part of the Royal Belgian Baseball and Softball Federation. Byrd received other offers from Germany and Netherlands.
Byrd said he chose Mont-Saint-Guibert-Phoenix because it belongs to the highest league in the country and would allow him to play against the top teams of surrounding countries.
“I was pretty excited because they called me on my birthday, and so I was kind of in shock,” Byrd said.
Baseball landed in Belgium with the arrival of U.S. and Japanese soldiers in the 1920s, according to the KBBSF-FRBBS website. The rules of baseball will be the same as in the U.S., but otherwise Byrd said the Belgian culture will be new for him.
“I tried to think about what I should expect, but I have no idea,” Byrd said. “I don’t know anything about the culture of Belgium. I don’t know how things are done over there, so I’m kind of going in there blindly and just knowing that I’m going to be playing baseball. The only thing that I know that’s going to be the same are the rules of baseball.”
Since graduating from SIUE, Byrd has been playing for the Bancroft Bandits in Iowa. His teammate and roommate Nile Ball, of Decatur, Georgia, said graduated high school seniors tend to come to Iowa with one goal: to be noticed by professional teams.
“It’s pretty straight-forward, there’s no in-between,” Ball said. “Either you want to play pro ball or you don’t, and you come out here to try to make that happen.”
Both Ball and Bancroft Bandits coach Michael Keeran encouraged Byrd to seek international opportunities. Having received offers himself as a result of baseballoverseas.com, Keeran referred the site to Byrd.
“Ryan wanted to go overseas. Actually, I think that was something that really intrigued him was playing baseball outside of the United States,” Keeran said. “He mentioned it, so I told him about the website and he made a little profile. It’s basically kind of like Match.com for baseball. If a team wants you, they’re going to message you, and [you] tell about yourself and [they tell about] their organization.”
Before going to Iowa, Byrd played for the Chico Heat, Spokane Falls Community College, Bismarck Larks, Wisconsin Rapids Rafters and SIUE. Keeran said he believes Byrd’s experience playing for good programs as well as Byrd’s ability to mentally assess the game has contributed to him being noticed by international teams.
“I think from a physical standpoint he checks all the boxes, but what separates him [from other players] is what’s up top and some of the intangibles mentally,” Keeran said. “He’s very smart when it comes to the game of baseball, and he knows what he wants to do when he’s on the mound.”
Ball, who is also a pitcher, said not only does Byrd’s left-handedness make him stand out but also his ability to maneuver the ball in many different directions.
“Most pitchers are right-handed, so him being a lefty already makes him unique,” Ball said. “Then, he’s got what we call the side-arm delivery, and so he makes the ball move all over the place. He doesn’t throw incredibly hard, but he has so much movement that he’s able to keep [other players] off balance and he’s able to keep them from seeing the ball well, so he’s able to get guys out.”
Byrd began his travel Tuesday anticipating a new culture.
“I’m looking forward to experiencing a new culture and a new part of the world that I’ve only ever read about,” Byrd said. “So, I think that’s going to be fun: seeing how life is in other places.”