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After 5-year odyssey, Daniel Bard calls it a career

A dominant reliever, a struggling starter, and a comeback that never quite worked. Daniel Bard discusses it all with SB Nation.

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by J Rogash/Getty Images

When Daniel Bard took the mound for the Gulf Coast League Mets on July 2, it had been 1,527 days since his last appearance in the majors. And though he didn’t know it that day, facing the GCL Nationals with the midday sun beating down in West Palm Beach, it’d be the last time he’d ever take the mound in a game.

At 32, Bard was easily the oldest player on the field for the GCL matchup between fMets and Nationals prospects. Three weeks after signing a minor league deal with New York, Bard was facing a Nationals lineup that included one 16-year-old, four 17-year-olds, two 19-year-olds, a 22-year-old, and a 23-year-old.

The results, as they so often had been since that last major league appearance in April 2013, were ugly. He faced nine batters but recorded only two outs. In addition to walking four, he hit two batters. The final line: four runs in two-thirds of an inning.

For Bard, the outing represented one of the final setbacks in a five-year odyssey that has seen six different organizations try to fix the inexplicable loss of control that ended his successful stint with the Red Sox. Once one of the premier relievers in all of baseball, Bard was by the end of 2013 a poster boy for the so-called “Steve Blass disease,” in which pitchers suddenly lose the ability to throw a baseball accurately.

One major surgery, three arm-slot adjustments, and five minor league contracts later, Bard’s outing in West Palm Beach would be the last of his professional career. After some more tinkering with Mets coaches at the team’s facility in Port St. Lucie, the right-hander decided to retire in mid-August.

“Some days would be great, and some days ... the results just weren’t there,” Bard recently told SB Nation. “I ran into enough of those days where I said, ‘Is this really worth me being away from my family?’ Once that answer was no, it was a really easy decision for me to decide to come home.”

The beginning of the end

Bard’s retirement came a lot quicker than many would have expected in 2010, when he was coming off a successful first big-league season in Boston. Over 74 2/3 innings that season, Bard posted a 1.93 ERA and struck out 76 batters as Boston’s setup man and was considered the heir-apparent to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Bard, who was born in Houston and attended high school in Charlotte, was a standout at the University of North Carolina from 2004 to 2006, logging a 3.86 ERA in 47 appearances (45 starts) as the Tar Heels reached the NCAA tournament in all three seasons and were the national runners-up in 2006. The Red Sox took Bard with the 28th-overall pick in the 2006 draft, finding hope in a proven college arm that could quickly rise through the minors.

After five effective months in 2011, Bard’s struggles began at the end of that season, when he walked nine batters in 11 September innings as the Red Sox collapsed out of playoff contention. That winter, the Red Sox decided to convert Bard into a starter, a move that many still believe to be the turning point in Bard’s career.

“I don’t think it was the move to starting alone that did it,” Bard said. “That’s just kind of the way it happened with the people who were involved, maybe. I think most of the people involved had good intentions.”

Bard attributes his initial struggles to a combination of physical and mental roadblocks, as he was suffering from a mild case of thoracic outlet syndrome despite being completely unaware of it. He didn’t suffer from the normal hand numbness that comes with TOS, leaving the condition undiagnosed for years before he underwent surgery in January 2014.

“It was kind of just a perfect storm of the physical issue and the results taking a turn for the worst quickly,” Bard said. “That affected my mental state. I stopped trusting myself and trusting what I was doing. I started getting into just figure-it-out-and-fix-it mode, which is never a good place for a pitcher to live.”

For Bard, who describes himself as an analytical thinker who likes to know how everything works, overthinking led to issues in all facets of his game. Even simple tasks like playing catch became hard for him. Game situations were even worse.

“I’d get in a game and start out throwing really well and then throw one pitch that goes up under a guy’s chin, which is a totally normal miss,” Bard said. “I missed there hundreds of times when I was in Boston and throwing great, and it was effective.

“But when you have that seed planted in your mind ... you think, ‘things are going great, things are going great — whoooooop. I just sailed one under his chin. Oh, crap.’ And then it’s a subconscious thing that kicks in. The next pitch from there, you just feel that freedom go away. There’s something in your body that tightens up.”

Bard became the latest well-known case of a pitcher with “Blass disease,” joining its namesake and more recent players like Rick Ankiel and Ricky Romero. The phenomenon, which is also referred to as “the yips,” causes a pitcher to inexplicably lose his ability to throw a baseball accurately and has affected just a handful of players in major-league history.

Though the onset of the issue is relatively mysterious, Bard understands it as a player’s overthinking and mechanical adjustments causing neural pathways in the brain to be burned.

“It’s a strange phenomenon, and the crazy thing is, with the more people I talk to, is how little people know about it,” Bard said. “People can explain it to you, like telling you what’s happening in your brain and why it happens to some people and doesn’t happen to other people. They can explain what’s happening, but no one has a reliable way of saying how to make things better.”

Bard intentionally avoided seeking advice from Blass and Ankiel, despite both ex-pitchers having gone through similar issues.

“I didn’t really want to talk to those two names because neither of them really ever overcame anything as far as pitching goes,” Bard said. “It basically ended both of their pitching careers. Here’s the thing: I had been through it before.”

Familiar territory

In his first professional season in 2007, Bard had more walks (93) than innings pitched (91.2). A 2006 first-round pick out of UNC, Bard had become what he describes as “the worst pitcher on his Lo-A team.”

“I didn’t want to admit it at the time but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Bard said. “I never struggled throwing strikes and all the sudden I was walking more than a guy an inning.”

Gabe Kapler, who was recently named manager of the Phillies, was Bard’s manager with the Class-A Greenville Drive in 2007. Kapler said he was impressed with Bard’s “electric arm” and athleticism, agreeing that Bard’s control issues were not physical in nature.

“His download on it being a mental thing for him is probably the accurate one,” Kapler said. “He’s got it better than anyone else. But we certainly wanted to support the shit out of him.”

That support included Kapler and other Sox staffers asking endless questions in an effort to uncover how Bard’s mind operated. While there weren’t a ton of clear answers, changing Bard’s mental process on the mound became the organization’s focus.

Once the season was over, Bard consulted with one of his minor league coaches, Mike Cather. Cather aimed to reframe Bard’s identity as a pitcher, from someone who was constantly thinking on the mound to someone who simply throw the ball.

“[Cather] was like, ‘just get on the mound, be a cocky MF’er, and just pick up the ball and chuck it,’” Bard said. “‘See what happens. Who cares what happens?’”

A year and a half after working with Cather, Bard was in the majors with Boston. He broke into the bigs in May 2009, starting a run of success that lasted almost three full seasons. Kapler, who came out of retirement and spent the 2009 season with the Rays, wasn’t surprised by his former player’s success.

“I remember him being really gritty and grinding through some real challenges with his command,” Kapler said. “I remember him being as resourceful as he possibly could be. I would use the word ‘grit’ when it comes to Daniel Bard. He never gave up and continued to fight, fight, fight.”

Bard, on the other hand, was surprised. And he thought that his early major-league years would foreshadow a long career in the bigs.

“You look at your own performance and you’re like, ‘wow, that’s pretty good’ because I had been so bad two years before,” Bard said. “You’re just on autopilot in the best way possible. From like 2008 through 2011, I was just able to check into that autopilot mode really well on a really reliable basis. I kind of figured I was going to do that until I was about 40 and just go from there.”

The long road back

Instead, Bard’s tenure with the Red Sox ended two months before the team would win a World Series in 2013, beginning a four-year journey set mostly on the back fields of extended spring training. After being initially claimed by the Cubs in 2013, Bard would be released and signed by a new club on five different occasions, spending time with the Rangers, Cubs (again), Pirates, and Cardinals before landing with the Mets.

Bard would appear in just 13 innings over that four-year span, allowing 35 earned runs while walking 46 and hitting 16 batters. Yet he continued to motor on, trying anything and everything to get back to the big leagues.

“I truly believed I was always really close to getting back to where I needed to be,” Bard said. “Always really close. Even, believe it or not, the longer it went on ... the last two years I always thought I had made a lot of strides in the offseason.”

Bard’s journey was marked by constant ups and downs, from touching 97 with the Pirates and Cardinals to having to mentally grind through a simple game of catch.

“I’d come off the field being like, ‘holy crap, that’s it. I’m back ... it’s there.’”, Bard said, “and then it wouldn’t stick around for long enough.”

The frustration with his inconsistency caused Bard to consider retirement at numerous points during the process, but his wife, Adair, and various coaches encouraged him to focus on the positive and keep going. The closest he ever came to retirement before August was in mid-May of this year, when he was released by the Cardinals and told Adair that he would give it two more days for a team to call or he’d move on from baseball after 11 pro seasons.

Less than 24 hours later, Bard received an unexpected call from the Mets. Impressed with what they saw out of Bard throwing sidearm during spring training, the club offered Bard a minor league deal and he was on his way to the team’s facility in Port St. Lucie within a week.

Mets officials suggested an even more drastic change for Bard’s delivery, converting him to a submarine pitcher. Bard was skeptical of the significant velocity drop that came with the change, and after two months, pulled the plug on the experiment.

“I said, ‘Look, I don’t really believe in this anymore. I appreciate all the time we’ve put in, but if I’m gonna do this, it needs to be from where I’ve had success,’” Bard told team officials. “The fact that I was still running into the same roadblocks from a completely different arm slot was just reinforcing what I kind of already knew. I was just still running into the same problems throwing strikes.”

Bard tried many methods to try to fix the issue, including meditation, breathing exercises, and multiple mechanical changes. He worked closely with Mets mental skills coach Derek Swartout-Mosher in Port St. Lucie.

“It was mainly just listening to him and listening to his past experiences, what he’s worked on before, and what has and has not had an impact on him,” Swartout-Mosher said. “It’s about trying to present new ideas based on research I’m interested in and different ways to think and approach the game. It’s a conglomerate of information that all comes together to try to help him form a new way to think.”

Swartout-Mosher’s focus was to get Bard back “in flow,” trying to help him to get his brain and body to work in unison to make him as effective of a strike-thrower as possible. Though Bard was never able to get to a point where he was able to do that on a consistent basis in games, he still takes pride in the steps he took back to his major-league goal throughout the process.

“There were some times where I’d get on a mound in a game and I could not throw a strike,” Bard said. “I couldn’t throw a ball near the plate. I hit rock bottom, which was getting on a mound in a game and having no idea where the ball’s going.”

Bard’s comeback peaked in early 2016, when he appeared in four major-league spring training games with the Pirates. Though he never quite got back to the majors in a regular season game, the scoreless innings he tossed with Pittsburgh represented a the realization of a personal goal for Bard.

“If you had seen me in some of those moments where I couldn’t throw a strike, you would’ve thought I would never even do that again,” Bard said. “While that’s not where I was in Boston, for where I had been, looking back, that was a pretty big accomplishment.”

The future

With his playing career behind him, Bard is enjoying spending time with Adair and his two sons, a 2-year-old and a newborn, at their home in Mississippi. He plans on going back to school in the next couple years, finishing his management and society degree in Chapel Hill as he moves on to the next phase of his life.

“I kind of thought I’d make that decision and that phone call to tell who I needed to tell that I needed to retire ... and I’d have regret right away,” Bard said. “It wasn’t there. It was just relief.”

Bard’s perspective is that he was lucky to even reach the majors, considering his struggles with control in 2007.

“I was able to pitch in the big leagues for almost four years,” Bard said. “Would I have loved for it to be 15? Yeah, that would be great. But I got four years. Four years more than a lot of really good players get.”

Bard’s career will be remembered as one of the strangest in recent baseball history, an odyssey marked by extreme peaks and valleys.

But what does Bard himself want his legacy to be?

“As a player, I think there are some people who will remember me for coming in at Fenway and throwing really hard and handing the ball to [Jonathan] Papelbon,” Bard said, “but I’m equally if not more proud of the way I responded to some really difficult circumstances.

“Everyone who was part of that journey can say,” Bard said, “that Daniel Bard never made it back to where he wanted to be, but to hell if he didn’t give it everything he had.”