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Yankees Magazine: Something to Prove

Greg Bird is back to being healthy and productive -- and he's intent on staying here
Yankees Magazine

Greg Bird was in no rush to go anywhere. The first baseman had just completed a morning workout with several of his teammates on a back field at the Yankees' Spring Training complex in Tampa, Florida. The two-hour fielding and batting practice session ended around 11 a.m., just in time for Bird to take refuge from the hot Florida temperatures that were escalating quickly.

For much of the workout, former Yankees first baseman and current Spring Training instructor Tino Martinez -- whose postseason heroics and other accomplishments in pinstripes earned him a plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in 2014 -- was standing on the same field. He was watching every move Bird made.

Greg Bird was in no rush to go anywhere. The first baseman had just completed a morning workout with several of his teammates on a back field at the Yankees' Spring Training complex in Tampa, Florida. The two-hour fielding and batting practice session ended around 11 a.m., just in time for Bird to take refuge from the hot Florida temperatures that were escalating quickly.

For much of the workout, former Yankees first baseman and current Spring Training instructor Tino Martinez -- whose postseason heroics and other accomplishments in pinstripes earned him a plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in 2014 -- was standing on the same field. He was watching every move Bird made.

As the players scattered in different directions following the session, Martinez was asked about the team's current first baseman.

"He can man the position very well," the Tampa native said. "But he's a lot more than that. Watching him at the plate, I feel like he's one of the best all-around hitters I've ever seen. He's got a great swing, and he will hit for average and power. He may not get as much attention this season as some other players in the Yankees' lineup, but he will produce."

Bird's sanctuary on this early March day -- like so many other days in Spring Training - was not his air-conditioned apartment, but the team weight room. There, Bird completed his second workout of the day, this one spanning nearly the same amount of time as the team practice.

Afterward, as soon as the 25-year-old arrived in the home dugout for an interview and photo shoot for this story, it became obvious that no topic could dim the optimism he had for both the 2018 season and for the rest of his playing career. Despite a rash of injuries that have kept Bird off the field for more time than he's been on it since his Major League debut in August 2015, the first baseman's outlook seemed virtually unaffected. Bird acknowledged that he had some bad luck, but he was also able to put things in perspective.

"Being hurt is no fun," said Bird, who missed the entire 2016 season following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and was then forced to sit out for nearly four months in 2017 with an ankle injury that required surgery. "I felt like I let my teammates down, and when you're not playing, you're really anxious to get back. But as tough as it was, I never felt like I couldn't go on to have a long and healthy career in the Majors."

Like the interview for this story, most conversations Bird has had with reporters over the past two years have included questions about his health -- or lack thereof. Knowing that having to talk about how his body feels on a daily basis is as much a part of the comeback trail as physical therapy, Bird realized that adopting a carefree attitude about it was essential to his peace of mind.

"At first, I got caught up in it more than I should have," he said. "When you're being asked the same questions all the time, and you're constantly telling people that you want to stay healthy and that you want to be out there for a whole season, you get to a point where you feel like you can only say those things in so many ways. But now, it's at a point where I just say that I'm going to do my best to stay out there. It's just about letting it happen now."

Unfortunately for Bird, the injury bug bit him again a few days before the end of Spring Training. After experiencing discomfort in his right ankle, he was sent to New York for an MRI that revealed a bone spur, which required a procedure that would sideline him for nearly the first two months of the season.

"This injury was really difficult to deal with mentally," Bird said after returning to the big league lineup on May 26. "I was hoping to ride the momentum from the end of last season and just keep it going this season. So, to end up being in what has been a familiar place -- rehabbing an injury in Tampa -- was hard."

But just as he remained confident when dealing with more significant injuries over the last two seasons, Bird did the same this time around.

"The more time that goes on after I'm healthy, the less significant all of these injuries will seem," Bird said. "I'm sure that, like it does in other situations, time will help me put this far behind me."

Bird's performance last season -- albeit in a minimal amount of time -- helped him remain optimistic about this season.

Bird was activated on Aug. 26, 2017, after missing 103 games. Although he had not faced Major League pitching since early May, he collected 22 hits and eight home runs down the stretch.

"That was an important time for me," Bird said. "I had a feeling that we were going to make a run and that the games in August and September were going to be important. My main goal was to contribute, but I was also able to use that time to prepare for the postseason."

Bird proved to be ready for his first extended playoff run. He collected an RBI single and a walk in the Yankees' come-from-behind victory over Minnesota in the American League Wild Card game. A few nights later, he hit a two-run homer in Game 2 of the AL Division Series against Cleveland. Although the outcome of that contest didn't go the Yankees' way, falling behind in that series and being able to rally back by winning three consecutive elimination games was an experience that Bird believes was invaluable for him and his teammates.

"The biggest difference between those games and the regular season is that you have to be able to focus on the task at hand and nothing else," Bird said. "You can't think about yesterday or tomorrow. You can't even think about the next inning. You have to focus completely on the pitch that is about to be thrown. At first, it was easy to get caught up in all of the other things going on, but I tried to focus on nothing but what I needed to do in the moment.

"Everything that happened against Cleveland, you take with you," he continued. "It taught me that you have to be mentally tough. I like to experience things like that and learn from them. Going through that series will definitely help me and all of our other young players. As a group, we pay attention to what we need to do, and we help each other. You could really see that happening during the ALDS."

The Yankees' comeback may not have happened without Bird's Game 3 heroics. After Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco matched zeros with Masahiro Tanaka for 5 2⁄3 innings, Indians skipper Terry Francona turned to All-Star relief pitcher Andrew Miller, who had been acquired from the Yankees in 2016. Leading off the seventh inning, Bird deposited the left-handed Miller's third pitch into the right-field seats, giving the Yankees a 1-0 lead. The normally stoic first baseman erupted in emotion as he rounded the bases and celebrated with his teammates in the dugout.

"That was a crazy night," Bird said. "We were having fun out there, and we wanted to be able to keep playing. When your team is facing elimination, anything you can do to help is exciting. The excitement that came out just happened spontaneously. That was as thrilling as anything I had ever done on the baseball diamond."

The Yankees' bullpen kept Cleveland off the board, securing the 1-0 victory. And after defeating the Indians in Games 4 and 5, Bird and his teammates advanced to the American League Championship Series. Playing in 13 postseason games made for a memorable experience.

"For me and a lot of guys on our team, there's not been anything like last October," Bird said. "It's something that I'll never forget. For the most part, we were just a bunch of kids out there playing ball, and it was a lot of fun. When you get to experience a time like that with a group of people you get along with so well, it makes it that much more special."

While the journey was enjoyable, the team's ultimate destiny - losing to the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS -- left Bird with bittersweet feelings as fall turned to winter.

"Losing stunk," Bird said. "Especially when you're one win away from the World Series, it's really tough to deal with. But when you get that close, the relationships among players get stronger. We were really proud of what we accomplished last season, but at the end of the day, we're competitive, and we wanted to be in the World Series. I was able to get over it pretty quickly, and I feel that a lot of the players shared the same mentality. We hated losing, but we were all anxious to get going again. In the end, I think coming so close and losing actually made us a stronger team."

Once Bird flew away from New York City for the offseason, he wasted little time in preparing for 2018.

"From about mid-November to the end of December, I only did weight training and some physical therapy," Bird said. "The physical therapy was not to rehab any injuries, but just to get stronger. After the new year, I started hitting and throwing, while still working out four times a week and doing physical therapy three times a week. The big emphasis for me this offseason was getting stronger and quicker and basically just being ready to hit the ground running at the start of Spring Training.

"This past offseason was more normal compared to the last few," Bird continued. "I wasn't dealing with rehabbing my shoulder or ankle. I was instead able to figure out what I needed to work on and really fine-tune those things. I was able to build off of where I was when the season ended."

Now that Bird is back to full health, he's hoping to settle into the role he has long coveted: everyday first baseman. If he can stay on the field and continue to improve, it's easy to imagine Bird reaching the high ceiling the organization believes he has.

When the Yankees selected the 6-foot-4, left-handed power hitter in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, the idea of him launching baseballs into Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field excited the organization's brass. And although Bird has played in just over 100 games since his 2015 debut, his propensity to hit the baseball in the air as opposed to on the ground has only added to the anticipation of seeing what he is capable of over an extended period of time.

According to Fangraphs.com, Bird hit ground balls only 30.2 percent of the time he made contact in 2017. That percentage was eighth-lowest in the Majors among players who had at least 150 at-bats.

"I think your sport finds you when you're young," said Bird. "And then, if you're lucky, the right team finds you when you're a little older. This team and this organization fits me really well. When I was growing up, I would have never guessed that I'd be playing for the Yankees. I wasn't a fan of the team growing up, but I always appreciated their tradition. Since I've been here, I've realized that there is no better place to play. The more I'm around this team, the more I just smile because it fits me."

Beyond the confines of Yankee Stadium, the humble ballplayer, who was born in Tennessee and moved to Colorado when he was 10, has also discovered a love for the Big Apple.

"Living in New York City is what I have enjoyed most since coming up to the big leagues," Bird said. "I didn't really enjoy spending time in cities when I was younger. They seemed too big and too crowded, and there was too much going on. But living in New York City and spending time there has been awesome. New Yorkers care what you do, and they keep you honest. That's something that's important in sports. You have to always understand that there's a way you have to carry yourself on the field and off the field. Fans in New York City hold you to that standard. There are no days off, and I like that."

After going 0-for-4 in his first game back this season, Bird put together a seven-game hitting streak that included two home runs, three doubles and his first career triple. In those games, the Yankees went 6-1. For Bird, hopefully it was just the beginning.

When made aware of Tino Martinez's comments about him in Spring Training a few months earlier, Bird smiled during an early June interview in Toronto.

"It was an honor for him to say that," Bird said. "I have so much respect for Tino and what he accomplished. It's comforting when you hear someone who played the game for as long and as well as he did giving you a compliment. Now, I have to go out and prove it."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Greg Bird