The night began just like any other. A gaggle of young talented athletes with hopeful futures took the field, while oversized 40-year-olds and their children pretended to watch them. Fleet-footed Dominican infielders gracefully roamed the grassy landscape like gazelles as monstrously large first baseman with hitches in their swings drop their back shoulders on hanging sliders. This is Low-A baseball, the first full-season step on a long Minor League journey towards The Show. It is a place where dreams are supposed to begin to actualize. But on this night, for Daniel Bard, it was an experiment in perseverance.
Daniel Bard threw the greatest pitch of all time. It was a 99 mile-per-hour two-seamer that broke like a reverse slider. Nick Swisher looked like a blind person because Daniel Bard wanted him to. For a two-year period Bard was one of the best relievers in all of baseball. With a fastball that sat in the high 90’s with sharp run and a slider that made babies cry, Bard could look absolutely unhittable at times. When the Red Sox tried to convert him to a starter to extract greater value from Bard’s studly arm, it all began to go downhill.
After two unsuccessful half-seasons with the Sox and then the Cubs, the Rangers scooped him up at the start of the year in a low-risk, possibly high-reward move. After spending some time in extended spring training rehabbing from an offseason rib surgery, Bard was sent to Low-A Hickory to begin his climb back up the ladder. In his first appearance, two days before we saw him, Bard faced four batters. He walked one, hit three, and exited the game before recording an out. Aware of his struggles two days prior we sat full of curiosity and anticipation amongst the otherwise mostly oblivious Hickory crowd.
On the very first pitch of the inning Bard nailed the West Virginia hitter in the back with a 95 MPH fastball. The next two batters each walked as Bard struggled to locate his fastball, slider, and past successes. He got behind 2-0 to the next hitter before throwing his first strike of the game, a 96 MPH cutter on the outer half that looked like it belonged in Arlington and not in Hickory. His next offering was an 80 MPH slider down the dick that the 20-something year old batter had no chance at. Another swing and a miss on a cutter under the hands and Bard had his first out of the year.
Bard quickly returned to his struggling ways. Two more walks raised the outing total to four and brought the Crawdads manager out of the dugout to pull Bard from the game. As Jordan and I watched from the stands we couldn’t help but think about what 31-year-old Hickory manger Corey Ragsdale could have possibly said to Bard. What does one say to a player in such a situation?“Good job! Good effort!” seems like the ruthlessly cruel, but falsely positive message to convey. The restless crowd sent Bard off with a tragically cynical cavalcade of cheers. After handing the ball to Ragsdale, Bard sauntered downtrodden back to the dugout, seemingly bewildered about the performance he had just presented. It was clear to us, and the real baseball watchers around us, that Mr. Daniel Paul Bard had a disastrous case of the yips.
Since our night of destiny with Mr. Bard, he has had two more incredibly horrific appearances. His season line: 18 batters faced, nine walks, seven HBP’s, and two outs (one K, one groundout). It’s practically on aNeighborgallian path. Only 28 years old, Bard is young enough to put it all back together, but history is not on his side. I asked the mysterious Tepid Participation (@TepidP), a guy who knows more about the Rangers system than almost anyone, if he thinks Bard can cure his yips.
“See, it’s hard man because everyone tells me that Bard is a great guy and he worked his ass off in the offseason too. But the thing about the yips is that almost nobody comes back from that. Last year I saw Cody Buckel have struggles a lot like Bard is struggling right now. And I asked 37 scouts last year about whether they’d ever seen someone come back from that kind of thing. I asked 37 guys and got 37 no’s. Obviously there’s still hope, which is why he’s still in Hickory, but sadly enough it’s really hard to be optimistic about a guy like that.”
Optimism. Hope. Possibility. These are the reasons Daniel Bard still puts his Crawdads uniform on every single day. Unlike Buckel, who has yet to reach the major leagues, Bard has already dominated at the highest level. He believes he could do it again simply because he already has. Unfortunately the events of the past tend to cloud the realities of the present and the inevitabilities of the future. Having seen him in person I can say there is an extremely low chance Daniel Bard ever pitches in the big leagues again. But just because his journey probably won’t end at the desired destination doesn’t mean his comeback attempt was exercise in futility.
As depressing as Bard’s inability to recapture his former level of play might be, there is something beautiful and uplifting about what he is doing. Even with an ERA over 175.00 and a BB/9 over 120.00 Bard continues to go back out to the mound. Beaten and battered, Bard bravely battles his own doubts and fears every time he takes the bump. Watching Bard hang on to his career by a string, clinging to the edge of the cliff with his fingernails, was a rare and refreshing experience that I will probably never see again.
While it was extremely uncomfortable to watch someone realize they are no longer good at the activity to which they have dedicated their entire life, it was inspiring and fascinating to watch Bard fight for his identity in front of 2,000 people who exhibited little sympathy for or awareness of his plight. When the Hickory manager walked out to the mound to pull Bard, the Hickory fans cheered, because they were sick and tired of walks. Jordan and I cheered too, but for a different reason. Daniel fucking Bard loves the game of baseball and is going to play it until someone tells him he can’t anymore. Bent beyond belief, but not yet broken, Bard delivered a catastrophic, yet amazingly admirable performance, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have encountered such a unique and revealing experience.
On that hot Saturday night in North Carolina, baseball beat Daniel Bard. But what keeps us riveted and keeps his dreams alive is the possibility that one day, Daniel Bard might beat baseball again.
Update: This morning, after I finished this piece, I received a text from Mr. Tepid Participation informing me that the Rangers had released Daniel Bard. His season ends having faced 18 batters in only .2 innings, while ironically enough never allowing a base hit. And now the road gets rockier for Daniel Bard as it’s hard to imagine another affiliated team taking a chance on him now. The journey back to the bigs is now even longer for Bard as the realistic scenario probably involves Independent League baseball of some kind. While the future doesn’t look bright, there is still a scenario present in Bard’s mind and all of our minds that involves Daniel Bard pumping lasers on a major league mound again. Crazier things have happened, right? I mean, Bartolo Colon hit a stand-up double yesterday. Who knows what Daniel Bard could do?