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Byrnes a rising star on deck

If he ever chose to, Josh Byrnes could do the kind of name-dropping that would catch People magazine's attention. Former "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for example, was a neighbor and used to baby-sit for Byrnes.

"Their house was sort of diagonally in back of our house, and her half-sisters were exactly my age and my brother's age," said Byrnes. "We were neighborhood play friends. They were at our house and we were at their house, and we vacationed together once. She's about 10 years older than I am, and I haven't seen her since her big success. Probably the last time I saw her was during her `Saturday Night Live' days. But yes, she baby-sat for us."

That's not all. Yusuf Jackson, son of Rev. Jesse Jackson, was a prep-school classmate and friend. Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees, played second base for a rival prep school.

But Byrnes is so self-effacing that there are entire precincts of New England unaware that as assistant general manager of the Red Sox, he is Theo Epstein's most valued aide, and even less aware of the possibility that Byrnes could surface as a leading candidate to become general manager of the Washington Nationals once that team is sold by Major League Baseball, which could happen this summer, by the end of the year at the latest.

"He's a key voice in player personnel," Epstein said this spring of Byrnes, 33, whom Epstein hired away from the Colorado Rockies Dec. 7, 2002. "He's got as much a feel for evaluating and statistical analysis as anyone in baseball. He writes great reports, he has great people skills, and he'd probably be a general manager by now if he were better at self-promotion."

Byrnes, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and attended prestigious St. Albans School, is part of that young class of rising baseball executives that includes Epstein, of course, but also Mark Shapiro, Dan O'Dowd, Paul DePodesta, and Dan O'Brien, all of whom are now big-league general managers and all worked under John Hart in Cleveland's golden age of the '90s. Byrnes came to the Indians in 1994 as an intern to Shapiro, after running into Mark's dad, high-powered agent Ron Shapiro, at a Haverford (Pa.) College alumni game, where Byrnes was captain of the team and set school records in home runs and RBIs.

Byrnes was not recruited by Haverford coach Greg Kannerstein, who was surprised to receive a phone call from Byrnes's mother, informing him her son soon would be playing for him.

"I saw his potential to become a general manager," Kannerstein said, "when he told me straightforward, as a freshman, what we needed to do to improve the program. He didn't come across as a wise-guy freshman, he was very pleasant and respectful, and everything he said was absolutely right."

Byrnes had interviewed for a position with the Orioles but they had nothing for him at the time, so he was thrilled when Shapiro offered him a job as a minor league intern. Only one problem: Baseball soon went on strike, forcing the Indians to lay off numerous people. Byrnes begged to be kept on, and for a short while was practically working on his own dime before the Indians finally were able to give him a full-time position.

Byrnes was in the forefront of the Indians' embracing of video as an essential scouting tool, and helped prepare the scouting reports that contributed to Cleveland holding Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco to a combined 1 for 27 in the 1995 Division Series. He was the team's advance scout in 1995 and 1996, years in which the Indians led the league in wins and earned run average.

Bart Swain, who is now the Indians' director of media relations, used to share a house with Byrnes, and said he had little time for anything but baseball, watching videos and preparing reports at all hours of the day. In 1998, at the age of 27, Byrnes became scouting director, the youngest person ever to hold that position.

"Josh is so intelligent and has great personal integrity," Shapiro said. "He is so deserving of becoming a general manager."

After the '99 season , Byrnes joined another Indians alumnus, O'Dowd, in Colorado and became assistant GM in charge of the farm and scouting departments. "He has a great passion for the game," O'Dowd said, "and a real innate feel for the game."

Byrnes's name is prominent among possible GM candidates in Washington because he has a great connection with one of the most prominent groups bidding to buy the team, the one headed by Fred Malek. Malek, whose group also includes noted civil rights activist Vernon Jordan and has an ethnically diverse composition, likely would install Jeff Zients as president. Zients, like Byrnes, attended St. Albans, and the two know each other.

Byrnes also has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Orioles job in case Peter Angelos decides to make a change, and he undoubtedly will be mentioned for any GM opening in the near future.

"I've never been in a great hurry to get there," Byrnes said, "to be the youngest this or the youngest that. I've enjoyed these years developing the skills and experience I need to do the job well, but I do feel like I'm ready."

Historical significance at National park

A few vignettes from RFK Stadium last Thursday, when baseball returned to Washington.

Tom McCraw played with the Senators in 1971, and delivered their last hit and RBI. McCraw, now hitting coach of the Nationals, learned much of his technique from Ted Williams, the Senators' last manager. "I could hear Ted's voice out there," said McCraw. "I've been thinking about coming back here for the whole last year. I think about how strange, how really weird it is to be back here. Talk about coming full circle. Thirty-four years. That's a big damn circle."

President Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Said Nationals manager Frank Robinson, "My guys are not used to having the president attend their games. They asked me if they could each get to talk to him. I said, `Sure, he'll give you about a half-hour apiece. He's got nothing better to do tonight.' "

Having spent the last couple of seasons shuttling between Montreal and San Juan as the Expos, the Nationals are happy to have a place they finally can call home, though Robinson, for one, said he's still getting used to the place.

"I have a car in the parking lot, and it's not going to move until I know how to get around," Robinson said. "I'll tell you, this city frightens me driving."

According to the Washington Times, when President Kennedy signed a ball for White Sox outfielder Jim Rivera in 1961 at the Senators' opener, Rivera upbraided him over his penmanship. "What kind of garbage college is Harvard where they don't even teach you to write?" Rivera reportedly told Kennedy. "Do you think I can go into any bar in Chicago and say, `The president of the United States signed this for me?' Take this thing back and give me something besides your garbage autograph." Kennedy, the newspaper said, laughed, took the ball back, and wrote his name again, legibly.

Perhaps no one was more impressed by Bush than reliever Joey Eischen, who was in the Rangers' lower minors when Bush was managing general partner, and was a throw-in in a deal for Oil Can Boyd. Eischen met Bush before the game. "I said my name," said Eischen. "Later we had pictures taken. He looked at me and said, `Eischen, right?' I said, `Yes sir.' He said, `Oil Can Boyd. Bad trade.' "

Etc.

Old sparring partners

Red Sox manager Terry Francona, whose choice words regarding umpire Greg Gibson after Thursday night's game against the Yankees will cost him some money, has some history with Gibson. Francona was tossed by Gibson June 15, 1998, when he was managing the Phillies and Gibson was still a substitute ump, after Gibson ejected Scott Rolen for arguing balls and strikes. In 2001, Gibson ejected Expos bench coach Ozzie Guillen on consecutive nights, the first time pointing into the Montreal dugout after calling a strike on an Expos hitter. Guillen was tossed the next day when he got into it with Gibson during the exchange of lineup cards.

Reliever brings the heat

Relievers are supposed to put out fires, not start them, but that wasn't the case with White Sox reliever Neal Cotts. Cotts burned a hole in the back of his uniform pants, near his left ankle, when he had his leg too close to a space heater. Said Cotts, "I didn't even see it. They told me I had a hole, and I had to come back [to the clubhouse] and change."

Contract puts Sheets to bed

The Brewers' signing of righthander Ben Sheets to a four-year deal worth $38.5 million was bad news for Sox fans hoping that he might become too expensive for small-market Milwaukee and thus would be trading-deadline material. That's not going to happen now, after Sheets signed the richest deal in Brewers history. Sheets was second in the NL last season with 264 whiffs, including an 18-K performance against the Braves.

Throwback night

Not only did Derek Lowe throw his first complete-game shutout since his no-hitter April 27, 2002, the former Sox pitcher also drove in two runs with a base hit and forceout in the Dodgers' 4-0 win over the Padres Friday night. That gave Lowe two more RBIs than J.D. Drew, the slugger the Dodgers signed in the offseason. Once again, Lowe wasn't wearing a Los Angeles jersey when he took the field: He wore a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, as the club was celebrating Jackie Robinson Day. It was the first shutout by a Dodgers pitcher wearing a Brooklyn jersey since Danny McDevitt beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2-0, Sept. 24, 1957 -- the final game at Ebbets Field before the franchise moved west.

Umpiring fraternity

Tim and Bill Welke are the first brothers to work on the same umpiring crew in the major leagues. Tim, the crew chief, is 10 years older and asked that Bill be assigned to his crew. "It's a lot of fun," Tim said. "Our mom and dad only have to search for one newspaper box score now to see how we did." John and Mark Hirschbeck are brothers but have not worked on the same crew.

It makes complete sense

The four complete games registered by Marlins pitchers this season exceed the total recorded by 10 teams last year. Dontrelle Willis has two complete-game shutouts, and A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett have one complete game apiece. But before anyone gets concerned that manager Jack McKeon is pushing his young staff too hard, be advised that all three were very efficient in their outings. Willis threw 97 pitches in his first complete game, 114 in his second. Burnett threw 103, and Beckett 110. "I'm not afraid to let him them go nine," McKeon said. "If they're within reason with their pitching count, I'm not going to go for this b.s. of bringing in a closer. If any of these guys are throwing good stuff with less than 100 pitches, go."

Stumbling team

Just when you figured nothing else could go wrong for the Devil Rays, the team's mascot, Raymond, fell while performing during last Tuesday night's game. The young woman inside the costume, Kelly Franks, sustained a fractured right arm.

So far, this Cub isn't bearing up very well

Nomar Garciaparra, who had a terrific spring and was supposed to supplant Sammy Sosa as the linchpin of the Cubs' offense, is fighting one of the worst slumps of his career. Garciaparra is batting just .171 (7 for 41) with as many strikeouts (7) as hits. He hasn't driven in a run since April 5, the second game of the season, he has one extra-base hit, and he is batting .091 (1 for 11) with runners in scoring position.

A similar slump in Boston would have produced headlines, but that has not been the case so far in Chicago, where the beat writers in both major dailies made only brief note of his troubles.

"You know he's a little off when Nomar strikes out, because he don't miss a ball," said manager Dusty Baker. "I'm not worried about Nomar."

Garciaparra used to go entire months without striking out seven times. In 1999, when he hit .357 and won his first American League batting title, he struck out just twice in 89 September at-bats. In the two seasons he won batting titles, 1999 and 2000, he had double figures in whiffs in just one month, August 2000, when he struck out 11 times. The most whiffs he ever has had in a month since his rookie year of 1997 was August 2003, when he struck out 17 times.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in these reports.

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