How Black sees Bard's improbable return

July 27th, 2020

It was Sunday morning in Texas, and Rockies manager Bud Black was talking about -- who is one of the great stories of any season, short or long, just by being a part of it in the summer of 2020. If you follow baseball and love it, you know that Bard, who could throw 100 mph for the Red Sox when he was a kid at Fenway Park, made his first appearance in a Major League game in seven years on Saturday, earning the win for the Rockies over the Rangers. He did this after losing the strike zone in his prime and ultimately losing his baseball career.

“This just doesn’t happen in our sport,” Black said.

The Rockies gave him a chance in the spring. Now here he is, his fastball back up in the high 90s again at the age of 35, throwing 20 of 25 pitches for strikes against the Rangers. The Rangers gave him a comeback chance in 2014 in the Minor Leagues. Bard walked nine batters and hit seven batters in two-thirds of an inning. The next year, in the Cardinals’ organization, he walked 13 batters and hit five in three innings. It was like that. Black is right. Pitchers don’t come back from that. Rick Ankiel finally became a position player.

What happened to Bard was labeled “Steve Blass disease” after Blass, the pitching star of the 1971 World Series for the Pirates, stopped being able to throw strikes. Blass was in the Minors by 1974 and out of baseball for good by ‘75. He never came back from the pitching yips. Now Bard has made it back this far.

“But the thing about Daniel is that he wants to be more than a good story,” his manager Black, a former pitcher and pitching coach, said Sunday. “He just wants this to be the beginning of the story. Mostly what he wants to do is win.”

Black sent Bard out there on Saturday, with two on and two out in the fifth inning, because he wanted to win. But as he watched Bard get out of the fifth inning and then make it through the sixth, he also watched what he was seeing as a baseball fan. If you aren’t rooting for Bard to not just get here but stay here, and for a long time, check your heart.

“Only he knows what was going through his head out there [on Saturday],” Black said. “Daniel and anybody else who’s ever been through what he went through. Then he was out there. All those eyes on him. And then he’s throwing 98 and 99 [mph] and throwing strikes.”

Bard got Elvis Andrus to fly out to end the fifth. In the sixth, the Rangers got two runners on and didn’t score. In the middle of all that, Bard struck out Rougned Odor on three pitches: 97, 98, 98.

Black, who has been one of the best citizens of the game for a long time, was then talking again about what Bard had been through.

“The only way I can describe it is that this all just looks right,” Black said.

Bard was the kid with the big arm setting up Jonathon Papelbon for the Red Sox over a decade ago. There finally became a debate in Boston in those years whether Bard should replace Papelbon as the Red Sox closer. Even in 2011, when Bard ended up with a 2-9 record out of the bullpen, he pitched in 70 games and set a Boston record with 25 straight scoreless appearances. The next year he walked 43 batters in 59 1/3 innings and hit eight more. He had more walks than strikeouts. He pitched two games in April 2013 and didn’t pitch in the big leagues again until Saturday in Arlington. Before he retired in 2017 at just 32 years old, he pitched 9 1/3 innings in the Minors for the Cardinals and Mets and had 24 walks and four hit batters.

Fast-forward to Scottsdale this spring. The Rockies have given him a chance. He is one of thirty pitchers in camp, one of four pitchers throwing a side session one morning with Black watching. And that first morning, Black saw pretty much what he saw against Odor on Saturday.

“Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-eight,” Black said.

Black had seen video on Bard. He had heard from scouts. But now the old pitcher and pitching coach had his own eyes on him. Here is what Black says he saw in Scottsdale:

“I saw the same delivery he used to have,” Black said. “I know it was what we call a nine-pack that day. Nine mounds, nine home plates. Lot going on. But I saw him throwing free and easy. And I heard what I heard in the catcher’s mitt.”

When baseball came back for Summer Camp, Bard made Black’s team.

“This is the realization of a dream I’ve had for a long, long time, and one that almost went away,” Bard said when he learned he would be on the Rockies’ Opening Day roster.

Bard and his wife, Adair, have three small children now. He has a wonderful life away from baseball. Now he has his baseball life back.

“He just keeps checking off one box after another,” Black said.

A lot happened over the first weekend of baseball being back. Lot of good stories, all over the map. Not one better at the beginning of the short season than Bard’s long journey back to that mound at Globe Life Field on Saturday.