MESA, Ariz. -- Instead of pitching last summer, Daniel Bard rode a bike across Iowa. He then flew to Europe and drove around France, Switzerland and Germany with his wife.
"I said, 'I need a break.' And I took it, and it's the best thing I could've done," Bard said.
He needed the extended vacation because Bard had gone from being one of the best setup pitchers in the game with the Red Sox to struggling to retire Minor League hitters. Bard dominated as a reliever in the 2009-11 seasons before Boston tried converting him to a starter for 2012. It did not go well. The Red Sox moved him back to the bullpen after 10 starts, but he did not rebound. He was waived in September 2013, and the Cubs claimed him. He had early-morning bullpens with pitching coach Chris Bosio, but never pitched for the organization.
Everyone thought the problem was mechanics, and Bard kept trying to correct it on the mound. But his arm wasn't right. After talking with former teammate Josh Beckett, Bard was checked for thoracic outlet syndrome, which Beckett also had endured. Bingo.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, thoracic outlet syndrom occurs "when there is a compression injury, or irritation of the nerves and/or blood vessels in the lower neck and upper chest area." The condition is "common among athletes who participate in sports that require repetitive motions of the arm or shoulder."
Bard had the surgery in January 2014. The procedure involves removing a rib that is putting pressure on the nerve. About a month later, Bard signed with the Rangers and rehabbed in the Minor Leagues. On June 5, he made his debut at Class A Hickory but hit the first two batters, walked the next, then hit the fourth and was lifted.
"It was weird because I was physically healthy," said Bard, 29. "I'm like, 'Well, the ball's coming out and I'm throwing hard enough and I just have to get it in the strike zone,' but I wasn't ready to pitch in games."
Bard had a three-month guaranteed contract with the Rangers, which ended that June.
"Instead of being patient and getting things right on the side before throwing me into the games, we just kind of rushed it. And that's a lot my fault, too," he said. "It was all good intentions."
Across four games, he gave up 13 runs on nine walks and seven hit batters, retiring two of the 18 batters he faced. Bard was released on June 18. His agent said other teams were interested but Bard decided to take a break.
First up was RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a 470-mile non-competitive ride in July that included stops in Okoboji, Emmetsburg, Waverly and Winthrop.
"I'm not a cyclist," Bard said. "My father-in-law, he's into cycling, and he was scheduled to do it and had been training for months. Two or three of his buddies dropped out for different reasons and he was thinking of not going. I said, 'My schedule opened up. I'll do it with you.'"
Bard didn't own a bike at the time but bought one, trained for two weeks and began the weeklong ride on July 20. They slept in tents along the way and ate tons of ice cream at pit stops.
"I don't know if I'll ever do it again," Bard said. "It was something that helped me clear my head. It was something so out of the blue for me -- it was a good experience."
Next, he and his wife, Adair, decided to visit Europe. They began their trip in Spain and spent a month immersing themselves in different sights, foods and cultures.
"We figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have no jobs tying us down, no kids, and try to take full advantage of it," he said. "It was a really good experience."
But when he returned, Bard had to decide what to do about baseball.
"The way I looked at it was, I was going to pick up a baseball when I felt like it," he said. "Just relearning how to throw after that surgery was really frustrating. That's why I needed a break from it.
"Being able to do those things during a time when I felt I should be playing baseball, or everyone expects me to be playing baseball, was really liberating for my mind. It was like, 'I'm supposed to be playing baseball right now, but I'm riding a bike across Iowa.' Or 'I'm over in Europe for a month.' And it was really strange. Life goes on without [baseball]."
There are a lot of players who may have a hard time believing that.
"The emphasis put on everything we do here, we forget we're still just playing a kids' game," Bard said. "It's been fun this spring so far to come back with that passion and the desire to have fun every day."
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who ran the Red Sox when they selected Bard in the first round of the 2006 Draft, reached out to the pitcher late last fall. What made Bard's decision easier to come back to the Cubs was their hiring of Mike Cather as the Triple-A pitching coach. Cather was Bard's Double-A pitching coach in the Red Sox organization. He also underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
"When I had the surgery [in 1998], everybody was like, 'We don't know how to rehab it,'" Cather said.
What happened with Cather and Bard was that they basically lost feeling in their arm. Cather, who pitched for the Braves in 1997-99, said his arm would be totally fatigued by the time he was finished warming up.
"You're trying to make adjustments off of what you feel, but guess what? Physically, you're not there and not right," Cather said. "A lot of times you try new things and you can get lost. I think that's a big part of what happened with Daniel. He's been working with such a good mindset right now, it's very promising. Who knows where it will end up? I really like the progress we're having right now."
Bard and Cather have a great relationship that they've resumed in Cubs camp.
"[Cather] was watching my bullpen the other day," Bard said, "and he says, 'You're not breathing.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Your two-breath breathing routine. You used to do that -- every pitch, take a deep breath, get the sign, another deep breath, throw the pitch.' I said, 'You're right.' That's something even [Bosio] would never know because he wasn't with me back then. It's good to be around Mike and have both -- a set of new eyes and an old set of eyes -- to watch."
The breathing technique was something Bard and Cather had developed after the right-hander's Double-A season when they spent a winter in Hawaii.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon also knows Bard well, having had to deal with the pitcher in the American League East.
"He was good with the Red Sox -- he was really good," Maddon said. "He was a pain, and then obviously, things went a little sideways for him. ... My biggest job right there is to make sure he feels good about himself and where he's at. And when he shows up to work every day, he's confident about support. I believe that's so much more important than physical or mechanical adjustments."
After his travels last summer, Bard didn't pick up a baseball until October. By chance, he met Cody Satterwhite, 28, a pitcher in the Mets organization, who lives near Bard's offseason home in Madison, Miss., and who likes to throw a lot. The two clicked.
"It was one of those things that was meant to be," Bard said. "Normally, I'd be searching for a throwing partner."
No matter what happens this year, Bard has a better state of mind.
"I can't exactly pinpoint where everything started, but the combination of the physical nerve issue, combined with mechanics getting out of funk, combined with some bad results and getting demoted to Triple-A, Double-A -- it kind of all piled into one," Bard said. "I'm healthy now, I gave my mind a fresh start by taking that time off last year."
Healthy and invigorated, he's vying for a spot in the Cubs' bullpen.
"I'm going to give it my best shot and see what happens," Bard said. "I know when I'm healthy, I'm capable of making any roster. I'm not putting any timetable or goal on where I need to be, but in the back of my mind I know that, shoot, if I come out and throw the ball like I did three or four years ago, that I can make the decision hard for them. That's my goal."
Riding through the cornfields in Iowa in July may not be for everyone, but it certainly helped Bard have a better sense of self.
"He's here because he's not done yet," Cather said. "I think that's important, the motivation for him. Coming back now, he's put in a ton of work, and he's done such a good job in preparing himself for this endeavor. It's to his credit because there are a lot of people who would say, 'You know what, I'm good, wash my hands, had a great career, done.' He's not done yet, and I like that."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.