Then the offseason came, and Ryan really made progress.
Long known within the clubhouse as likable and excitable, but not always reliable, teammate, Ryan did something remarkable this winter. Not only did he regularly attend new hitting coach Mark McGwire's hitting sessions in Southern California, he showed up on time. Every single time. For some players, this may not be a big deal. For Ryan, it's a breakthrough. And it's another sign of the maturing of a very promising player.
"I don't think he's ever hit this much in the offseason [before]," said double-play partner Skip Schumaker. "I don't know if he even hit in the offseason before the last couple weeks of spring [in previous years]. He hasn't been late one time, which is more incredible than anything I think. He's done a great job. McGwire's been working hard with him, and it's hard not to like Brendan Ryan. He's a good kid, works hard and I think there's going to be some nice improvements."
It's telling that Schumaker still uses the word "kid," even though he's only two years older than Ryan. The shortstop's development as a teammate has been a gradual process. The thing is, it really seems to be taking. Ryan gets it more every year. And if he can take the kinds of steps on the field in 2010 that he did in '09, the Cardinals will have a fantastic player on their hands.
Jimmy Rollins won the Gold Glove in the National League, and he's an outstanding defender. But it's hard to argue that he's a better defensive shortstop than Ryan. That part of Ryan's game is already there. His offense is coming. He believes that working with McGwire will help it get all the way there.
"I think if I take one percent of what he's given me, I'll be that much better," Ryan said. "I'm eager to get to the finish line, but with each swing, I think we're getting closer to where he'd like me to be. We're taking batting practice out at Saddleback Junior College, and I can see the backspin off the bat. It's not where I'd like to be, but we have all of Spring Training. But it's encouraging. I'm getting a lot of backspin on the ball. I'd like to repeat better swings more often."
Ryan, like most of his teammates, declined to weigh in on the controversy surrounding McGwire's admission of the use of steroids during his playing career. Instead, he repeated again and again his regard for McGwire as both a coach and a friend. He also pointed to another St. Louis slugger as a model for what he's trying to accomplish.
"I battle changing my stance every week," Ryan said. "So the first thing was, let's find a batting stance and let's stick with that. The funny thing is, I had a hard time finding out who I am. So I just kind of started doing what Albert [Pujols] did, and I started taking good swings. So I'm going to hit like Albert this year -- at least batting stance-wise. I'm going to try. That's what we've been doing. It feels good. He's got a pretty darn good swing obviously. If I can do an impersonation of that and fall just short, then I should have a pretty good swing too."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less