Sometimes, in the worst of it, the last person to believe in you is someone else.
You’re the one with the broad shoulders. The 100-mph fastball. The name across your back.
She’s the one who sees the tears, the darkness, the big mess it’s all become, and says, “As long as you feel like you have a chance, keep doing it.”
Daniel Bard, 35, has not thrown a big-league pitch since that day at Fenway Park, more than seven years ago. There were nine of them, the pitches, that day, actually. Eight were balls. He retired nearly three years ago, wrung out from trying, from failing, from trying again.
On Friday evening, not long after being told he’d made the opening day roster for the Colorado Rockies, and asked who would be proudest of him on a journey of a thousand wayward pitches, Bard said, “my wife,” Adair.
“Without question,” he said. “Mostly because I think she has had to live it the closest with me. I think going through — it’s hard for me, I’m getting emotional thinking about it — just thinking about the support she consistently offered me. Through my signing five or six minor-league deals without really having anything to show for it, to my decision to retire back in ’17 and move on without knowing what was next, she couldn’t have been more supportive.”
Bard had contracted the yips. Or they’d come for him. It’s hard to know which. Soon enough, it doesn’t matter which. After three years with that ferocious fastball on the back end of a bullpen in Boston, Bard lost command of that fastball, couldn’t throw strikes, fought it in places such as Pawtucket, Rhode Island (29 walks in 32 innings) and Portland, Maine (17 walks in 12 ⅔ innings) and Caguas, Puerto Rico (9 walks in ⅓ innings). It wasn’t any better in Hickory, North Carolina, or Palm Beach, Florida, or Springfield, Missouri.
Felled by the sort of wordless anxiety that had silently dragged down plenty before him, great pitchers and good ones and those who’d barely gotten started, Bard retired at 32 years old.
“She might have been relieved at that point,” he said of Adair, “after all we’d been through.”
He went to work as a mental skills coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose general manager, Mike Hazen, had been an assistant in Boston. It means something to a young man frozen by fear to be reminded of the courage required to try. Bard had peppered a lot of backstops with “try.” He’d also been among the better relievers in the game for a short while. Like the yips, that doesn’t entirely leave you either. It can’t. Otherwise, there’d been nothing to chase. He’d tell those young men he understood, that he’d been there, to keep trying.
“If you haven’t stood on a — not just a big-league mound, could be a minor-league mound or a college mound, either way you got a bunch of eyes on you that matter to you,” he said. “And you stand out there and things don’t feel right or you feel completely unprepared for the situation, like your ability’s kind of betrayed you, that’s an unusual and pretty terrible feeling. It’s good to know that other people have felt it, too.”
Sometimes in the course of that job, he’d put on a glove and stand in the outfield, where perfect didn’t matter, and play catch with a guy. Come around last summer, that guy would say something like, “Hey, ball’s comin’ out of your hand pretty good.” Then another guy. Pretty soon they were all saying it. And pretty soon he was feeling it, too. When the season ended, and with the help of his brother, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Luke, and his dad, Daniel, walked back up to the top of a mound in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“But, still, probably wouldn’t have put more than a 1 percent chance at trying to pitch again,” he said. “Just wanted to do it for my own personal … just wanted to see what it felt like to get on a mound again.”
By January, he was throwing in front of 15, maybe 20 scouts. He took a minor-league deal with the Rockies, got an invitation to big-league camp, threw hard strikes, went home for a few months with everyone else, returned and threw strikes again.
He’d have just as much an idea of why the yips set him free as he did knowing why they came in the first place. What he knows is today, this day, this pitch, it feels natural again, like he was born to do it, like the ball wants to be a strike and he only has to let it.
“Looking back on it,” Bard said, “my best days I had, during my previous struggles, the best days I had were not even close to my bad days now, is the way it feels. So that’s a good feeling.
“To be in the locker room this year, I knew I was different on the mound. Obviously, nothing was guaranteed as far as a job during the regular season, but I knew that and I was OK with just coming out and being myself and wherever it took me.”
He has a chance. Again.
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