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Merced native Dusty Ryan's big-league dream comes home

Detroit Tigers Dusty Ryan warms up relief pitcher Clay Rapada in the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins during a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)
Detroit Tigers Dusty Ryan warms up relief pitcher Clay Rapada in the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins during a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia) Merced Sun-Star

OAKLAND -- Dusty Ryan remembers the first time he set foot on the baseball field at the Oakland Coliseum.

He was 12 years old, sitting with his family in the bleachers on the Fourth of the July.

"There was a fireworks show after the game and they were worried that some of the fireworks might land in our section," Ryan said. "So they let us come down on the field and watch."

That memory was fresh in his mind as Ryan returned to Oakland for the first time as a member of the Detroit Tigers.

The former Golden Valley and Merced College star was in the starting lineup Tuesday night at catcher against the Oakland A's.

"It's weird coming to Oakland," said Ryan, as he sat in the visiting dugout before Tuesday's game. "I'm usually in the stands watching and now people are watching me.

"I don't know how old I was, but I remember coming here and Rickey Henderson was out in left field. I yelled his name and he turned around and waved at me. I remember coming to watch Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco."

Tom Ryan remembers those days.

It's been a little different that past couple days making the trip to Oakland to watch his son. Tom sat in the stands, proudly wearing his Tigers hat, while snapping every picture he could with the large camera strapped to his neck.

Tom captured every moment.

Pictures of Dusty taking batting practice.

Pictures of Dusty stretching next to starting pitcher Armando Galarraga before the game.

Pictures of Dusty at the plate against Oakland A's starter Gio Gonzalez.

"It was weird walking across the bridge coming over from BART," Tom said. "It was even weirder when we realized he was playing. It's an amazing feeling to see him on the field. It's been a long road and a lot of hard work."

It was the first time Dusty has played in California since he signed with the Tigers organization out of Merced College and the first time his parents have seen Dusty play in a Major League uniform.

Ryan's parents weren't going to miss this chance.

They had planned ahead for this week, requesting the week off from work back during spring training, knowing Detroit would be in Oakland. Just in case Dusty was back with the Tigers.

Watching Ryan just take batting practice on the field Monday before the first time was a thrill for them.

"It's pretty emotional," said his mother Debby. "It still doesn't seem real, yet. Not even after last year. It's pretty awesome."

The Ryans weren't the only Mercedians to make the trip to Oakland. Ryan had former high school classmates, teammates, coaches and other family members in the stands during the first two games of the series and more making the trip today.

"There's been people who I didn't even know were coming," Ryan said. "It's weird to hear people calling my name. I don't know if it's someone I know or if just some random person."

The 2002 Golden Valley graduate was called up in September last year and hit .318 with 2 homers and 7 RBIs in 44 at-bats.

However, he was sent to Triple-A Toledo to start this season.

"I only got nine at-bats during spring training," Ryan said. "They already had their mind made up I was going to Toledo to get more at-bats and more experience."

After a slow start, Ryan was hitting .259 with 7 homers and 23 RBIs in 46 games before the Tigers recalled him up on June 19th. Ryan took over for a struggling Dino Sardina as the Tigers' backup catcher.

"I haven't seen him all that much, but he's a big, strong kid, who can hit for power and has a strong arm," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "He's improved on his catching. He still has a ways to go on blocking some pitches. He's a good prospect because he has a strong arm and he can hit for power.

"How much will he hit? We'll see. If he hits, he can be a regular for a long time."

The second time around with the Tigers is a little different for Ryan.

He's not as nervous. He knows what to expect and it helps there are more young players on the team that he played with at Toledo.

The toughest part may be adjusting to a backup role, where he might only see live pitching once or twice a week. He's hitless in his last 10 at-bats, including an 0 for 3 performance on Tuesday, since doubling in his first game against the Brewers.

"I have to catch well first," Ryan said. "When I do play, I have to go out and do what I can and hope things go well. I haven't been a backup catcher long, so I'm still learning. I just have to keep working and stay prepared."

Ryan will do everything he has to do to stick around this time. There are still those moments he can't believe he's wearing a big league uniform.

"All the time," Ryan said. "All the time. I definitely can't complain about anything. I'm taking it all in. I get to travel all over the place and play in great ballparks. It's pretty cool."

Hopefully there will be many more return trips to Oakland in his future.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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