Brandon Lyon signed a minor-league contract with the Los Angeles Angels in February as an invitation to spring training, not a ticket home to the Salt Lake Valley.
In early April, when the Angels made him one of their last cuts and assigned him to the Salt Lake Bees, the former Taylorsville High School star faced a dilemma about whether to keep pursuing pro baseball at age 33. The fact that he would be pitching in Salt Lake City definitely played into his decision.
And he came here, anyway.
Lyon initially viewed the homecoming theme as more of a burden than a blessing. Performing at Smith’s Ballpark is familiar and fun for C.J. Cron, the former University of Utah first baseman who’s on his way up in the Angels’ organization. But how was Lyon supposed to enjoy wearing a Bees uniform at this stage of his career, having pitched in 572 games for six major league teams over 12 seasons?
He almost stayed in St. George with his wife and three children, rather than pitch in front of his parents and others who have followed his career closely. But baseball won him over again. As with any kid who grew up in Taylorsville’s baseball culture, the game is lodged in him. Accepting the Triple-A assignment is partly “a matter of getting it all out of me,” he said.
Sitting on a couch in the Bees clubhouse, Lyon explained of retirement, “I didn’t want to regret anything. If there was any doubt … I wanted to make it 100 percent. I still have that doubt.”
He’s made a nice living, with contracts totaling about $26 million. Lyon would make anybody’s list of the top 10 homegrown Utahns in pro baseball history. His career parallels former Taylorsville teammate John Buck’s, the difference being that even though Buck is catching for a sixth team (Seattle) in five seasons, he’s in the big leagues.
The ex-Warriors were together with the New York Mets last year, but Lyon was released in July and finished the season with Boston’s Triple-A affiliate. He signed with the Angels and almost made the final roster, but manager Mike Scioscia made other bullpen staffing choices.
Lyon deliberated until the last moment, arriving just in time for Salt Lake’s April 3 opener. His wife, Sara, didn’t try to influence him. “I don’t know if she would rather have me home or here; she really didn’t tell me,” Lyon said, smiling. “She didn’t want to have me home and regret a decision.”
So here he is, and he’s somewhat resembling the Lyon of old, the reliever who starred for Arizona in the National League playoffs in 2007. Salt Lake’s veterans are in two categories. Some are guys whom Scioscia likes to have readily available, almost like a practice squad. Others are just filling out the Triple-A roster. Lyon is trending toward the favorable description. He’s made nine appearances for the Bees with mixed results. He left a bases-loaded mess for another reliever to solve in a recent win at Tacoma, but came back with three scoreless innings in two games against Albuquerque this week.
“Nothing but praise” is Bees manager Keith Johnson’s review of Lyon. “He pitched in the big leagues as long as he did for a reason.”
Multiple reasons, actually — a variety of pitches that enabled Lyon to get hitters out, even while lacking a powerful fastball. The game’s evolution to hard-throwing relievers is such that Lyon is not sure where his career would take him, if he were just starting in pro baseball.
In that sense, he’s glad to be where he is at 33, even if his original career trajectory had him in Triple-A at 21. But not being in the majors “is tough,” he said. “I know what it’s like and I know what I’m capable of doing at that level.”
That’s also why he’s at this level, while being both home and away.