An MLB return 7 years after the yips? Yes

Helping other players helped former first-round pick Daniel Bard make the Rockies' roster

July 18th, 2020

is asked to describe the most harrowing moment of his professional nightmare. Initially, he demurs -- though not because of a reluctance to share his story. In fact, the opposite is true: Bard, who speaks freely about his anguish in order to help others, has too many options from which to choose.

After reflecting for a moment, Bard answers with a location and time: Port St. Lucie, Fla., in 2017. He was on a Minor League contract with the Mets, the fifth team trying (and failing) to help Bard return to the form that saw him become a star reliever with the Red Sox from 2009 through 2011.

Beginning in 2012, injuries, ill-fated mechanical adjustments and bouts with performance anxiety had discombobulated Bard’s ability to complete a simple act he’d cherished since his childhood in North Carolina.

Throwing a baseball.

“I was trying to learn how to throw submarine,” Bard said this week, reflecting on the desperation he felt three years ago. “Not sidearm. Knuckle-scrape submarine. I was on their back fields in Port St. Lucie. They were super patient with me, encouraging. But I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I’m trying to throw bowling balls. I used to throw 100 [mph] over the top. Now I’m trying to trick people with topspin fastballs. It was tough. I’m not even trying to be the same thing I was before. I’m hanging on for dear life. Those were some trying days.”

Now, Bard is one of the most extraordinary people in an unprecedented baseball season. After performing impressively during Summer Camp and intrasquad games, Bard learned Friday that he had made the Rockies’ 30-man Opening Day roster -- more than seven years after his most recent Major League appearance, with the Red Sox on April 27, 2013.

Since then, Bard and his wife, Adair, have welcomed three children and moved to South Carolina. He retired in 2017 at age 32 and spent the next two seasons working as a player mentor for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bard was on the verge of reporting to a third Spring Training in a coaching role earlier this year, when instead he embarked on one of the most improbable comeback attempts in recent baseball history -- on the other side of Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. And as of Friday, the first chapter in that odyssey is complete.

“If you asked me five months ago, when I first decided that I was going to play again, ‘What does success look like?’ I think my answer would have been something like, ‘Just get on a mound and compete against pro hitters,’” Bard said in an interview Thursday, before learning he had made the team. “I didn’t think I was going to get an invite to big league camp. Everything has kind of surpassed my expectations of this.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I had a chance to pitch in the big leagues again. I knew if I was going to do it, that had to be my end goal. But at the same time, I was willing to do it if it just meant getting on a field, in a pro uniform, and competing against pro hitters again. I knew that might mean pitching at Triple-A for a little while, or going to indy ball for a while. I faced those realities and was willing to do those things.

“Fortunately, for some reason, everything has gone better than I could have planned. I’m really thankful for the opportunity here. I’m having a blast. And hopefully I get a chance to realize that goal.”

* * *

Let’s ask a practical and personal question: What vocabulary does Bard believe is most helpful in describing the scourge that devoured what should have been his baseball prime?

“‘The yips’ is probably the easiest to understand for people,” Bard answered. “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. That’s how it was ...

“Throwing a baseball is supposed to be an automatic action. For someone who’s done it as much as I have, it should be as automatic as walking for anybody else. And it was, for a long time. And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Imagine something as simple as walking becoming something where you had to literally think of the angle of your knee, the pressure you’re putting into the ground -- on every step. It would make walking very frustrating. It would turn into a grind. And that’s exactly what throwing became to me.”

So, what changed?

Bard points to two major developments: perspective away from baseball as a father, and a deep, increasingly scientific understanding of his own mental process.

Bard’s metamorphosis began authentically -- perhaps even accidentally -- while working for the D-backs, the Rockies’ division rival, over the past two seasons. He joined the organization as a player mentor and mental skills coach before Spring Training in 2018, largely because he knew key members of the Arizona front office from their time with the Red Sox: general manager Mike Hazen and assistant GMs Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter.

For the first time in years, Bard’s professional value no longer would be measured by the number of strikes he could throw. The lack of Major League success during the odyssey with the Cubs, Rangers, Pirates, Cardinals and Mets ceased to be relevant. What mattered now was Bard’s ability to listen, empathize, and offer counsel.

And he thrived.

“You could tell how great the connections were, in how he interacted with players and people across the organization,” said Mike Bell, the D-backs’ director of player development during Bard’s tenure there. “You’d see him talking with coaches, with young players, with older players, and they all felt comfortable around him. He’s a person players could relate with and share their ups and downs. I really enjoyed working with Daniel as a person, a friend and a staff member.”

D-backs officials will say that Bard was a crucial part of the organization for two seasons, without offering specific examples beyond that. Bard’s credentials in the field of sports psychology are in the form of lived experience, rather than a Ph.D. Still, his role required discretion -- so much so that confidentiality rules prohibited him from returning to the D-backs as an active player.

“There were a lot of private conversations he had in his position that you can’t share with the organization,” said Bell, now the Twins’ bench coach. “But you could see his impact in how players reacted to him. You’d hear them ask, ‘Is Daniel around today?’ Players wanted to be around him. As far as the depths of those conversations, I don’t know what those were. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for him to share those details, and I didn’t ask.”

And though Bard didn’t realize it at first, he was beginning to embody one aphorism cited by Bono, the music icon and (unwitting) baseball philosopher: “You preach what you need to hear.”

* * *

On occasion, Bard would initiate a game of catch with D-backs players who had signaled that they wanted to talk through a difficult subject. Bard found that the choice of an outdoor venue and familiar ritual as the backdrop for a sensitive conversation helped players feel at greater ease.

And as Bard focused attentively on listening and advising from his outfield office, he thought less and less about his throwing.

Which, it turns out, was the therapy he needed himself.

“Toward the end of 2019, I was on the field a lot, roving around to our Minor League teams, spending a little bit of time with our big league team, and I started feeling really good throwing,” Bard said. “I was playing catch with guys as a way to connect with them and get to know them. I got some comments from players like, ‘Dude, you’ve still got it.’ I’d say, ‘Nah, a good game of catch doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to translate to the mound.’

“I’d just laugh it off, but I did know it felt different. It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, I can play catch without throwing the ball 10 feet over the guy’s head,’ which is where I was five years ago. It was easy again. Playing catch is fun. It feels like a game. It doesn’t feel like this anxiety-ridden torture that it felt like for a while.

“I think removing myself completely from my identity as a player -- that feeling of having to get it right, having to fix it -- is what allowed me to feel that way again.”

At the start of the offseason, Bard set up a net in his backyard. And he kept throwing. Not just tossing. Throwing. With his two sons playing nearby, the throwing started to look more like pitching. Bard would return to the house and remark to Adair -- who gave birth to their daughter, Campbell, in November -- about how easily the ball was coming out of his hand.

That's great, she would say.

Pretty soon, Daniel had to clarify: I’m feeling good -- like, I need to get on the mound.

Adair was supportive -- and cautious, as well. So, too, was Daniel’s younger brother Luke -- a right-handed pitcher who debuted with the Angels in 2018 after six seasons in the Minors. As the Bards gathered for the holidays, Daniel was openly talking about a comeback. The idea was exciting to those who love him most, but they also recalled the heartache Daniel endured for half of the previous decade.

“We remembered how badly he had struggled,” Luke said this week from Anaheim, where he’s participating in the Angels’ Summer Camp. “It was to the point where, during some of those years he was in the Minor Leagues, your heart just broke for him when he couldn’t throw strikes. When he told us he wanted to make a comeback, we were protective of him. Our reaction was, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ But his confidence never wavered.”

Luke pointed to one seminal moment at the Showcase Baseball Academy in Charlotte, N.C., a popular workout facility for professional players living in the area. Daniel decided to throw a bullpen session there on a day when fellow pitchers with Major League experience -- including Emilio Pagán and Daniel Gossett -- would be in attendance.

As Daniel’s fastball reached the mid-90s, with command of his breaking pitches, he sensed the affirmation in the looks of those around him. Once he threw for scouts in a formal showcase, a dozen Minor League contract offers arrived, with invitations to Major League camps. And while his appearances in the Cactus League intrigued Rockies officials, the sharpness he’s shown since returning for Summer Camp reflects the fine-tuning that occurred during live batting practice sessions in Greenville, S.C., during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I’m encouraged and I’m optimistic,” Colorado manager Bud Black said recently. “I think that what we saw in Spring Training really led us to believe that you know this comeback could happen. ... This is a different animal here now. He’s come back after three months away and three months of training back home ... and showing sort of the same things he showed in Scottsdale -- a chance to be a contributor.”

* * *

No matter how many innings Bard throws in the Major Leagues this year, he will have an important role in the sport, now and in the future: He can speak about mental health and mindfulness in ways that previous generations often did not -- with the potential to help people across the baseball family.

“The yips is a funny thing,” Bard said. “I’ve experienced many levels of it and had the opportunity to try to help some guys through it from the coaching side. I learned a ton going through that.

“I think some people are definitely more predisposed to it. It’s the way people’s brains work. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a certain level of self-awareness. It’s a certain level of self-consciousness that’s built into who you are. It’s just like someone with weak hamstrings who would go to the weight room and work on their hamstrings in order to reach their potential. For somebody with that predisposition to be overly self-aware, it’s something you have to work on. You have to spend time, really getting to know yourself, and know when you’re heading down a path that might not be productive for you ...

“The more I learned about it, it takes the stigma away. ... It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s just something that needs to be dealt with. I don’t think there’s a magic pill for everybody. I don’t think that’s the case, but I do think there’s a variety of things that can help and play their part in getting you back to feeling ‘normal.’ I hope that gives anybody out there who’s struggling with something similar, the hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, because oftentimes it can feel pretty hopeless.”

Bard’s work with the D-backs was particularly meaningful to Bell, one of his bosses. Bell, an infielder who played 19 games for the Reds in 2000, said he went through his own challenges with mental health during his playing career.

“I really struggled as a player,” said Bell, a third generation Major Leaguer and the brother of Reds manager David Bell. “I went through the yips, and that really held me back from what my ultimate ability was. It got to the point where I couldn’t throw the ball 10 feet, from third base to the pitcher’s mound, when we were throwing the ball around the infield. It was a struggle for me.

“I went through a lot of ups and downs as a player, from anxiety to depression to different things. I was playing in an era when it wasn’t always a cool thing to need help. I didn’t care, though, and I leaned on a lot of different people I had around me. I was very open with coaches and players about what I went through. I knew I needed help at different times in my career and life.

“In the era before me -- the ’80s and maybe even the early ’90s -- it was not a good thing to go through any kind of emotional or mental struggle. People just carried a lot of weight on their shoulders, people who had struggles we’ll never know about. I think because of the things I went through, my dad appreciated that more than a lot of the people who played in the ’70s and ’80s. He was very sensitive as a manager and understood those things.”

Bard said baseball culture has “come a long way” in the last 10 years in creating the venues for players to discuss mental health. “It’s not taboo to talk about anymore,” Bard said. The combination of high financial stakes and social media scrutiny mean that healthy ways of handling pressure are more important than ever before.

Luke Bard is proud of his older brother, marveling at how it’s been nine years since he saw Daniel pitching this well. “He’s in a great spot,” Luke said. “He’s confident. He’s a new man.”

And with the unique 60-game schedule in 2020, Luke acknowledged the Bard family has noted one series in particular: Angels at Rockies, Sept. 11-13.

So what would it mean for him to complete that comeback with an appearance in a mostly empty Coors Field, during a season unlike any in the game’s history, with gratitude as the overwhelming emotion as he stands on the mound?

“In some ways, I’ve already felt it,” Bard said. “Having those outings in Spring Training, putting on a big league uniform in these Summer Camp games and facing our Rockies lineup -- which I think is as good as anybody out there -- it feels like it’s already happened.

“That’ll just be another step in the right direction, but on a daily basis, I feel that way. It’s unbelievable to get this opportunity again.”