Wildcat catcher Billy Ryan ’02 gets the business and beauty of baseball.Under a warm March sun, Billy Ryan ’02, the Atlanta Braves’ new director of baseball operations, stands behind the batting cage in Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the team’s spring training home.
Swinging away in the cage is a young prospect, highly regarded by Baseball America after a good season last year in the minor leagues. Ryan notes the intense concentration in the player’s eyes as he waits for the pitch, then quickly whips the bat around and connects with a sharp crack that sends the ball in a high arc toward deep left field. Ryan smiles—he likes what he sees.
Later, when he meets with the team’s general manager and other members of the Braves’ think tank, he’ll have a report on the youngster, and another couple dozen hitters, fielders and pitchers he has watched over the last few days.
Since interning with the Texas Rangers in 2005—his first job in baseball—Ryan has seen hundreds of wannabe baseball players, and has learned what separates the men of steel from the boys of summer.
“The drive to succeed can turn a fringe player into a great player,” he says. “Most of the guys in the Baseball Hall of Fame had that drive. Lots of talented players never make it to the big leagues, because they don’t realize baseball is a game of failure. To succeed, they have to be willing to struggle. If they can fight through that and keep competing, then they could make it.”
He pauses a moment, then adds, “When I say baseball is a game of failure, I mean that if a hitter flies out 7 out of 10 times, then he’s got a success rate of 30 percent, and a career .300 hitter will get into the Hall of Fame. But if a doctor is successful with 30 percent of his surgeries, he’s not going to be a doctor very long. Or if 30 percent of a teacher’s students pass to the next level, that teacher will be out of a job.”
A lot of work will go into building the Braves’ opening day 25-man roster, as well as the rosters of the Braves’ top minor league clubs. In the next month, Ryan will read hundreds of scouting and player development reports, and spend many late nights hunched over a table with a coffee cup within reach as he tries to select the best of the best.
From Baseball to Psychology
Ryan grew up in Swampscott, Mass. His father, Bill, coached baseball and football at local schools, “but he never coached me,” he says. “I was always passionate about the game of baseball. Like every little kid who played in Little League, I dreamed of being a big leaguer when I grew up. The position I played was catcher—I loved being involved in every pitch. It was a leadership position.”
Recruited to Davidson, Ryan was a catcher and designated hitter for the Wildcats for four years. In his junior year, he led the team with a .342 batting average, earned Most Valuable Player honors, and was named to the All-Southern Conference team.
Unfortunately, he tore the labrum in his shoulder playing ball that summer, and after surgery, his shoulder was never the same.
“I was still able to play, but not at the same caliber,” he says. “I 99.9 percent realized I wasn’t going to be drafted by a Major League club, so I had to shift gears a bit. It was tough, because baseball had been such a big part of my life. And, like a lot of college athletes, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to what else I could be doing after college.”
He graduated with a degree in psychology in 2002 and joined Public Consulting Group in Boston as a business analyst. While he enjoyed the job, he couldn’t stop thinking about working in professional baseball.
The Competitive Edge
After pitching his resume to Major League teams, Ryan joined the Texas Rangers as an intern in the scouting department. A few years later he was scouting high schools and colleges in South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida for the Cleveland Indians. (He also did more than find players—he met Sara, his wife, at the University of Georgia. The couple is expecting their first child in July.)
“It’s challenging when you’re trying to evaluate an amateur player,” he remembers. “You’re watching someone who’s 17 or 18, and you have no idea what he’s going to be like as a person when he’s 25 or 26.”
Eager to learn the business side of baseball, he joined the office of the Commissioner of Baseball as senior coordinator salary and contract administration, and worked on issues involving the Major League Baseball Players Association, the players’ union.
“I went from driving a Dodge Charger through the backwoods of South Carolina to an office on Park Avenue,” he says. “I learned a lot, but missed the day-to-day challenge of working for a Major League team. Working in the Commissioner’s office was more business than fun. I wanted to compete—it’s why I love what I do. I’ve always been a competitive person; that’s what drives me. I enjoy the wins and losses, and even agonizing over losses.”
He learned how agonizing losses can be in 2010 as an assistant general manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that—in four years—went from first place in its division to the worst team in baseball. In November, 2014, Ryan went to the Braves, a team that has gone to the playoffs 17 times in the last 24 years.
“I’m still on the learning curve here, but I’m working with good people,” he says. “I’m one of the new faces brought in, and this organization is intriguing to me.”
Ryan honestly answers every question put to him, except one: Did he cry at the end of the film Field of Dreams?
“No comment,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s one of my favorite movies.” That said, it’s time to go back to work. He flips his sunglasses down, heads back out on the playing field and walks to the batting cage. There are several more young players he needs to watch.