He went from being on the back-and-forth shuttle between Omaha and Kansas City to stocking shelves at a Target store to help make ends meet. His wife worked two jobs while she was pregnant with their second child to help put food on the table so that he could keep his career alive by playing independent ball four years ago. They were potentially headed for bankruptcy until the Orioles called him up. He earned his first Major League win in Baltimore last year and went on the disabled list five days later for elbow surgery.
He never takes a trip to the big leagues for granted. So when he received the call Monday morning to take a car from Pawtucket, R.I., to Boston and meet up with the Tigers, it was the next stop in an emotional ride. He was tucked away in a corner in the visitors' clubhouse at Fenway Park, right by an pipe running down the wall, but to him it might as well have been the best seat in the house.
"I told my wife my story's kind of like Rocky Balboa in that last movie," Byrdak said Monday. "Every time I get up to the big-league level, I'd have an injury and have to prove myself all over again in Triple-A level to get back up there. [I] came back from Tommy John [elbow reconstruction surgery and] made it back up in Baltimore. [They] found a bone chip in [the elbow], get sent down to Triple-A Toledo again. You've got to keep proving yourself. That's all you can do."
His first elbow surgery came in 1996, two years after the Royals drafted him and a year after he established himself alongside Glendon Rusch as two of the top starters in the Carolina League. He battled back from surgery to Kansas City's bullpen in 1998, albeit for a week-long stint. Three more big-league stints followed in 1999, then a month in 2000.
A year later, back at Triple-A, he underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back in just over a year, struggled at Double-A and was released.
That's when Byrdak and wife Heather had a decision to make.
"We sat down after I got released by Cleveland," Byrdak said, "and she asked me, 'Do you think that you can get back?' And I said, 'You know what? I really do. I want to give it a shot.' She said, 'Well, then, we're in it for the long haul.' The sacrifices that she made, that's the only reason why I'm here."
Heather worked as a bartender by day and at a clothing store by night, and it still wasn't enough to meet the expenses. They had to borrow on the hope he'd get back to the big leagues. Not until last year could they finally pay off the price of pitching in the Northern League in 2003, trying to get a team to give him a look.
"I guarantee that if I didn't get called by Baltimore a couple years ago, we would've filed for bankruptcy," Byrdak said. "Everyone [at home] says I'm rich, and I say, 'Trust me, I'm not rich.'"
Last year was the first time he had made a Major League roster on Opening Day. He took care of another first a couple weeks later, when he retired the only batter he faced April 14 against the Angels. Baltimore's victory gave him his first Major League win in his 93rd career appearance, ending what remains the third-longest winless streak to start a career in the last 50 years.
After his next outing, he was on the DL again with bone chips. A bad August left him outrighted to the Minors and looking for a job again. He still wanted another shot. The Tigers, needing left-handed relief, gave him a call last fall.
He helped himself this year with six solid weeks at Triple-A Toledo, where he had scattered four earned runs with 25 strikeouts over 22 innings. When they needed his help this time, he got the ride. And Heather got a phone call. Hours later, Byrdak made his Tigers debut with Detroit's best performance of the night in a 7-1 loss to Boston, two scoreless innings capped by a slider to strike out J.D. Drew.
Whether or not he lasts long this time, those are the calls that keep him going.
"You take this job as a blessing and not as [an entitlement]," Byrdak said. "Any locker up here, I'll take it."
Loosen up the arm: Byrdak's chance to pitch Monday night came thanks in part to heavy bullpen work Sunday night. It wasn't just a third-inning exit from starter Virgil Vasquez that taxed the Tigers' relief, but the struggles of the three relievers that followed Vasquez's big-league debut.
Both Jason Grilli and Wilfredo Ledezma were unavailable Monday after throwing 56 and 47 pitches, respectively, on Sunday night over a combined 3 2/3 innings.
"The kid that started had a tough time, but that wasn't the thing that was upsetting," manager Jim Leyland said. "You've got guys that are supposed to come in and hold it, keep you in the game, or at least give you some innings. They pitched 3 2/3 innings and threw 103 pitches. I'm not mad at anybody, but the fact is that's just not acceptable."
It wasn't a criticism, Leyland cautioned, but a fact of the situation.
"Because," Leyland said, "that's what happens when you get into a bad streak and your bullpen's beat up. But I talk about this all the time: Anytime you start tinkering with your pitching, you get in trouble. It's not always the best staff that wins. A lot of times, it's the healthiest."
On the other side: Byrdak's arrival meant Vasquez's departure, but the youngster at least had a flight to Boston and his first visit to Fenway Park. He rejoined the Mud Hens in Pawtucket on Monday night before they returned home Tuesday morning.
Polanco rests: Second baseman Placido Polanco had Monday night off after playing all three games over the weekend on the artificial surface at Minnesota. That, plus a late-night flight, prompted Leyland to rest Polanco and his back.
Coming up: The Tigers have a Tuesday date with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (4-3, 1.79 ERA), currently the owner of the lowest ERA in the American League. Justin Verlander (3-1, 2.83 ERA) will start for Detroit. Game time is 7:05 p.m. ET.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.