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Byrnes living the dream, even out of baseball

Eric Byrnes is, by his own admission, a "career journeyman." He is also a very wealthy man. Byrnes earned roughly $40 million in a major league career that apparently ended with his release by the Seattle Mariners two Sundays ago.

He will make $11 million this year, even if he never takes another professional at-bat. Such is the beauty of guaranteed contracts.

But if your first instinct is to moan about overpaid athletes, please hold the bitterness and hear me out.

Eric Byrnes gets it. Really, really gets it.

He fits two criteria that matter most to fans: When he played, he played hard. And now that he's done, he fully realizes how lucky he is.

During a telephone interview on Tuesday night, I asked Byrnes what he planned to do today. This is what he said:

... Surf. (I'm told the waves have been good lately.)

... Play 18 holes.

... Pull on the uniform of the Dutch Goose and represent the venerable Menlo Park burger-and-beer joint in a slowpitch softball league.

... Read his daughter a bedtime story.

When Byrnes says that he's "really excited for life after baseball," this is what he means.

"I was never afraid for it to be over," he said. And it sure sounds like he means it.

Good for him. If you had a nice house in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and more money than you could spend, your Wednesday would sound a lot like that, too.

So this is how Eric Byrnes can be an everyman, even as a 34-year-old retiree. There is serenity in his voice, because he gave what he had to the game without confusing batting average for self-worth. Now he figures that it's time to enjoy himself.

What a novel concept.

"I always looked forward to the day it was done," he said. "Not because I didn't enjoy the game. Not because I didn't love the game. But through all of these years, my motto was the opposite of, 'Baseball is Life.' It's not, for me.

"I don't want to make it sound like I'm unappreciative of the game. It gave me a lot of what I have, especially financially. I'm in a position where I retired before both my parents. I'm very grateful for that.

"Am I retired from baseball? Yes. Am I retired from life? Not even close."

So, what will he do with his time?

Let's start with softball. It's too irresistible to begin elsewhere. Since Byrnes grew up in nearby Woodside, Calif., he is now playing with the same friends he met on local Little League fields in the 1980s.

As with the Mariners, Byrnes is not an everyday man for the Dutch Goose. Key difference: The Goose doesn't play every day. In fact, tonight marks only Byrnes' second appearance since his release/retirement on May 2.

Byrnes has a surprisingly sharp recollection of last week's debut.

"I played left-center field," he noted with pride. "I probably made one of the better catches of my career. A sinking line drive. I believe the bases were loaded. Big situation. The ball ended up in shallow right-center field, but I caught it.

"I was going full speed. I did everything but the full layout."

Byrnes had a decent day at the plate: 1-for-3 with an RBI single. He was intentionally walked, too, which sounds like a horrible breach of beer-league etiquette.

But Byrnes is even more miffed about his second at-bat. He smacked a line drive to center - "a bullet," he said - only to see a defender jump, knock it out of the air, and corral it, defensive-back style, in front of the wall.

The worst part?

"The center fielder was the shortstop on my Little League team," he said. "I kind of came to the dugout complaining, 'Hey, that's how my season's gone so far.'"

But the news wasn't all bad.

"We won - I think 15-14 or 16-15," Byrnes said. "The greatest part, man: Where do you think we went afterward?"

We can only guess.

"Win or lose," Byrnes said, "the burgers taste good, and the beer is always cold at the Goose."

This much is certain: Byrnes had much more fun last Wednesday than his former team, which dealt with the latest Milton Bradley fiasco then. Now, the Mariners are facing two weighty questions about icon Ken Griffey Jr.: Was he asleep in the clubhouse during a recent game? And can he still hit?

Byrnes may be enjoying his distance from such worries, but he can't claim that his current place was part of The Plan, when first conceived.

He signed a three-year, $30 million extension with the Diamondbacks during a career year in 2007. He was supposed to be a franchise cornerstone. Then the injuries started and the hits stopped. The deal won't expire until the end of this season. And the Diamondbacks, not the Dutch Goose, are paying him.

Since the contract went into effect, Byrnes batted .210.

"The past couple years, to be quite honest, baseball wasn't a lot of fun," he said.

Now, it appears that his lone connection to the majors will be through television work. He's a natural on camera but doesn't want a fulltime gig - yet.

You're surprised?

"It's about enjoying my life," Byrnes said. "It's about being able to get up in the morning and be there with my wife - she's eight months pregnant - and our little girl.

"I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to let baseball define who I am as a person. At the end of the day, I am who I am."

So, he's going to surf, golf, play rec softball and enjoy a postgame drink with his buddies. It sounds like a beer commercial. Instead, it's Eric Byrnes' new life. Excuse him while he enjoys the hell out of it.