6 feel-good stories to root for in 2020

A former coach, an Olympian and a big league veteran who won't give up

August 13th, 2020
Art by Tom Forget

There have always been all kinds of inspiring stories in baseball. But this year -- maybe because 2020 has been such a difficult one for so many -- there seem to be more that are gaining attention.

There are comebacks -- some from injury, some from being finished with the game altogether -- and there are others who've spent years and years playing at lower levels and finally found success on the big league stage. Here are six of the best.

The Impossible Comeback

From 2009-11, Daniel Bard was a lights-out, 100-mph-throwing reliever for the Red Sox. He was one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball in 2010, putting up a miniscule 1.98 ERA in nearly 75 innings. His pitches also moved ... a lot.

And then, starting in 2012, his arm stopped working.

“‘The yips’ is probably the easiest to understand for people,” Bard told MLB.com's Jon Morosi. “I couldn’t throw a baseball for half of ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17 -- and then you could probably count the time I was coaching, too -- for 6 1/2 years without thinking about where every part of my body was throughout that throw. Forget trying to hit the target."

Bard struck out 34, walked 37 and hit eight batters in 2012. The Sox sent him down and, after not figuring it out in the Minors, he was waived by the team. Four more teams took a chance on him, but finally, after six frustrating years -- where at times he felt he "was hanging on for dear life" -- he retired in 2017 at the age of 32. The D-backs hired him as a player-mentor.

Perhaps because of the time off not thinking about throwing, Bard's arm began feeling better by the end of 2019 while playing catch with D-backs players. Good enough that they all thought he should give pitching another shot. Bard's family was behind him, he threw some showcases for scouts and he was offered a Minor League deal by the Rockies. He made the club out of Summer Camp and 2,646 days after his last big league appearance, Bard was back on the mound during a July 25, 2020, game against the Rangers. He got the win, telling manager Bud Black once he was back in the dugout, "That was fun."

Bard has since become one of the best relievers in the game ... again.

The Late Bloomer

Donovan Solano has been in pro baseball since 2005 -- drafted by the Cardinals at the age of 17. But before this year, he'd appeared in just 451 total big league games. Yes, 451 games in almost 15 years. He played in 12 different Minor League cities, two different countries and for five separate franchises.

After no Major League action for the previous two seasons, the infielder got the call from the Giants in 2019 to temporarily replace an injured Brandon Crawford. In 81 games, Solano hit a surprising .330 with four homers, telling The Mercury News he had a "deal with God, and the deal was to continue working and persist and not give up when He opens a door."

This year? Solano, at the age of 32, has a .458 average and leads MLB in doubles (9) and OPS+ (216).

The Olympic Speedskater

Many players on this list spent years toiling in the Minor Leagues, hoping for that call to the Majors. Eddy Alvarez did that for the last six seasons, but before any of it, he was busy doing something else: He was an Olympic medalist ... in short-track speedskating.

The Miami kid who grew up playing baseball and skating began focusing on skating after turning down a college baseball scholarship. He trained for the 2010 Winter Games but didn't get there. He trained again for Sochi in 2014, made the team and won a silver medal in the 5000 meter relay.

Post-2014, he decided to shift his focus back to baseball, saying "it felt like home" once he picked up a bat again. The Marlins called him up this year and he's since tallied his first hit and played exceptional defense at second base.

The Indy League Inspiration

Tyler Matzek was selected 11th overall by the Rockies in the 2009 MLB Draft. He was a phenom -- rated the No. 1 pitching prospect in the country by Baseball America. And then, he lost his way.

“I’ll admit it, I had the yips,” Matzek told The Athletic.

The lefty spent years moving up and down the Minor Leagues trying to find his way back to a place where he felt comfortable. He threw 139 2/3 innings for the Rockies from 2014-15, but walked 63, uncorked five wild pitches and hit six batters. Colorado released him after the 2015 season, he was picked up and subsequently released by the White Sox in 2017 and then dealt the same card by the Mariners in 2018. He thought about quitting the game he loved at the age of 26.

He then signed on with the independent Texas Airhogs (yes, an ode to When Pigs Fly). Matzek didn't pitch well for them the first time around in 2018, but in 2019 he went 5-4 with a 2.64 ERA, 19 walks and 53 strikeouts.

The Braves took notice and signed him last August. He made the team, appeared in his first MLB game since 2015 and has been Atlanta's best reliever: a 2-1 record, 10 IP, 12 strikeouts, 1.80 ERA and just three walks.

The Grizzled Veteran Who Wouldn't Give Up

Remember this year's Winter Meetings? Matt Kemp showed up like he was a tourist lost on his way to the beach.

But Kemp wasn't retiring or on vacation. He was there to find a job.

After once being one of the best players in baseball, the 35-year-old's career -- mostly hampered by injuries -- had been up and down since 2016. He was released by the Reds after 20 games in 2019, humbly took a Minor League deal with the Mets (was again released) and showed up at the Winter Meetings to sign a Minor League contract with the Marlins. Miami released him on June 30.

But that wasn't it for Kemp. He could've gone home and been proud of what was a very good 14 years in MLB. Instead, he signed a Minor League deal with the Rockies and was selected for the Opening Day roster. They're in first place and Kemp's bat is one of the reasons why.

The Former Pitching Coach

This is where Caleb Thielbar was less than a year ago.

Apart from one mostly successful three-year stint with the Twins from 2013-15, Thielbar had played all over the place. Minor League deals with the Padres, Marlins and Tigers, plus three separate seasons with the independent St. Paul Saints. By 2019, he faced the fact that he might not ever make it back to the Majors, so he took a coaching position at South Dakota's Augustana University during a COVID-shortened season. He told MLB.com's Do-Hyoung Park just as much.

"I was pretty much over it," Thielbar said. "There had been so much hard work -- and honestly, I don't want to say too much about that -- but not getting a chance last summer was hard on me. I was pretty frustrated, and I was done with the game."

But he got a bunch of Minor League offers over the winter and couldn't turn one down from his hometown Minnesota Twins -- the only team he's seen any big league time with. He made the team and came in relief on Aug. 4 -- five years after his last Major League appearance -- and things got just a little bit emotional.