It’s freezing, and I’m sick, so naturally my thoughts travel to warm summer nights at Fenway Park. Daniel Bard just retired. It gives me something different, and inspiring, to think about.
If you’re not a Red Sox fan or a dedicated baseball follower, you have no idea who Bard is. He was a relief pitcher, a set-up man, who could throw nearly 100 mph in the days, not long ago, when almost no pitchers did. Through August of 2011, his third major league season with Boston, Bard had appeared in 181 games with a 2.42 ERA, and .186 batting average against him. The Red Sox went 123-58 in the games in which he pitched. In 186 innings, Bard struck out 202 of the batters he faced. A young man in his mid-20s, Daniel Bard could look forward to stardom, glory, celebrity, and millions and millions of dollars. Then, suddenly in September of that year, he lost it all.
Nobody took special note, even though his ineffectiveness down the stretch was major reason for the epic Red Sox collapse that shook the franchise and led to the exodus of the team’s popular manager Terry Francona (now the very successful manager of the Cleveland Indians) and its boy genius GM, Theo Epstein, now the architect of the suddenly championship caliber Chicago Cubs. Bard was just tired, everyone assumed. There was no apparent injury; nothing had changed. But the next season, Daniel Bard couldn’t throw as hard consistently as before, and more alarming still, he couldn’t get the ball over the plate. Suddenly, he wasn’t a good or even a barely acceptable major league pitcher any more; indeed, he was a dangerous one, hitting a batter or two almost every inning, along with lots of wild pitches and walks. By June, he was back in the minor leagues. Bard’s control got worse, and he sunk lower and lower into the low minors. Boston papers would report outings with unbelievable line scores: 2 innings, eight walks, four hit batters, five wild pitches, or worse. Bard tried surgery, meditation, mental coaches,, psychologists, changing his delivery. He was still young, so team after team gambled that they could get him back to his All-Star form–Texas, the Mets, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and the Cubs. Bard kept trying, and failing.
He had the mysterious ailment known as “Steve Blass disease,” named after the Pittsburgh Pirates 20-game-winner pitching star of the Seventies whose career unraveled after he woke up one morning unable to throw strikes. Blass’s travails were documented in many books and articles, and the cause of his collapse, as with Bard, remains a mystery. Blass has said that the frustration nearly drove him insane.
Can you imagine suddenly losing the single skill or talent that you most depended upon, that defined you to the world, that was your strength and your future, and never knowing how or why? I can imagine it, but I can’t imagine how I’d handle it. Daniel Bard, however, kept fighting, long, long after the length of time that caused Blass to give up, and another sufferer, St. Louis pitcher Rick Ankiel. In the four years since his release from the Red Sox in 2013, Bard pitched just 13 innings, allowing 35 earned runs while walking 46 and hitting 16 batters. Still, he persevered. When he wasn’t in games, he was examining videotapes, training, trying new approaches.
“I truly believed I was always really close to getting back to where I needed to be,” Bard told reporters this week after he finally gave in to reality. “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.”
Now Bard looks forward to spending more time with his wife and two sons, a 2-year-old and an infant.He plans on going back to school and finishing his management and society degree. He doesn’t sound bitter at all.
“I was able to pitch in the big leagues for almost four years,” Bard says. “Would I have loved for it to be fifteen? Yeah, that would be great. But I got four years. Four years more than a lot of really good players get….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 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 that Daniel Bard never made it back to where he wanted to be, but hell if he didn’t give it everything he had.”
That’s what I am going to remember about Daniel Bard.