Yankees Magazine: On the outside looking in

Greg Bird flew high during his brief Big League stint in 2015. After a lost 2016, he's ready to lift off once again

October 28th, 2016
In Denver this past January, while he prepped for the 2016 season, Bird was focused on proving that his first seven weeks in the Big Leagues were just the beginning. He wasn't worried about rumors that he might open the season back in Triple-A. "You never know what can happen," he said, not knowing just how right he would prove to be. (New York Yankees)NEW YORK YANKEES

hit 11 home runs in 46 games in 2015 and started at first base in the American League Wild Card Game. But as high points go, a surprising, low-key moment demands attention. Consider a night at The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center on the outskirts of Denver in January. The returning hero, Bird stood before a banquet hall crawling with local baseball coaches and -- along with former high school teammate , who now pitches for the Baltimore Orioles, and their high school coach, Dean Adams -- shared stories and lessons from the Major Leagues. Bird was poised, endearingly cocky, and he was substantial. He was a New York Yankee, able to walk with the confidence and the self- assuredness of a citizen of ancient Rome.

The next day, he worked out at his old Grandview High School stomping grounds, young students peeking around corners and following behind him to catch a glimpse. He took some batting practice with an old coach. That afternoon, he visited a Topgolf driving range with some high school buddies, laughing with abandon, relishing each other's company, enjoying being home. Spring Training was about six weeks away, and then the rest of his life. Where would he fit on the team? Would he even keep his place on the 25-man roster with a healthy Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez holding down the first base and designated hitter slots? Bird wasn't too worried, and he wasn't willing to dwell on it.

"You never know what can happen," he said that day, Jan. 15. "I learned it last year. You always hear it. I learned it firsthand, and that's what I'm going into spring with. … I'm always itching to go. I just love it. I kind of make myself take some time away from it, but as soon as New Year's hits, it's go time for me. I can't wait. I'm ready to get going."

In that moment, in the Mile High City, Bird stood on the top of the world. He wasn't about to look over the edge.

Less than three weeks later, he lay on an operating table.

Baby Steps

It's a long fall from Yankee Stadium to the team's rehab facility in Tampa, Fla. Working out at 8:30 a.m. -- which might as well be pre-sunrise for someone used to a baseball schedule -- Bird is surrounded by seven other patients in the organization's MASH unit. It's early August, a bit more than six months post-surgery, and Bird is stretching with the tired, poor, huddled Yankees yearning to breathe free of Tampa. There are team logos everywhere, the walls plastered with photos of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and all manner of club royalty. Most of the guys are wearing apparel bearing the interlocking "NY." But the Bronx might as well be a million miles away.

Rehab is always a slow, frustrating process. Your brain wants to make giant leaps, but the doctors prescribe baby steps. A couple of throws today. A few swings tomorrow. But today is a good day; Bird's wing is feeling right.

The pain had been nothing new. Bird says he played through a barking right shoulder for about two years before the surgery. By that point, there was no hiding it anymore; his right labrum was a mess, and the pain was getting to be too much. When he was in Denver, ramping up his preparation for the 2016 season, Bird knew that he was dealing with something more than just soreness.

Looking back on it, he doesn't remember exactly what the doctor told him after surgery; he was still pretty out of it. But the low point of the whole experience came later that night, when his mother insisted that the surgeon level with her son. This wouldn't be a quick recovery; the season was gone.

"I've never really had baseball fully taken away from me," he said. "I [worked] the whole offseason to really get nowhere, to then start over and have surgery. That takes a little bit of a mental toll on you, I think, and it's hard for me, especially, because you want to change it. You want to change the situation."

After not being able to do anything at all for weeks following the surgery, Bird began the long process, ticking items off the checklist. He has very little input into what he does on any given day; his routine is carefully crafted by the team's doctors, trainers and physical therapists. But mostly, he has been adjusting to a weird sensation, or really a lack of one.

"Early on in your throwing, your body wants you not to throw," Bird said. "You throw it, and your body's like, 'Please don't throw it again.' And then you've got to throw it again, and then you throw it again, and then you throw it again. And slowly, as the days and weeks went on, there was less of that and more of, 'OK, that one actually felt all right.' To yesterday, where I threw and every once in a while you get one of those throws, but the majority of them were all right.

"A lot of people who've experienced it … what they told me is, 'It's not going to feel good,' but the key for me was every day when I got done, it got better. It didn't stay hurt."

After some throwing, Bird heads into the batting cage to take some swings with instructor Tom Nieto. Pop! Pop! Pop! Every swing is controlled, his body twisting slowly until his arms release explosively into the ball. He stares down at the target on the tee angrily before beginning anew. He takes 25 swings to an echoing soundtrack of mitts popping in the background, the rest of the players on the rehab squad doing their own work. Then he moves over to the arm bike and eventually into the training room, where he does even more stretching. It's boring work, but at least the music is terrible.

Things get better every day. The Arizona Fall League is in full swing. Spring Training seems close enough to touch. But the physical battle to reach this stage wasn't even close to the hardest part of the year for Bird.

Working With a Purpose

"We all understand that it's a lot more mental than people think it is," Chad Bohling said of the rehab process. The Yankees' director of mental conditioning and his staff work with players throughout the organization, helping them develop proper and effective mindsets that breed on-field success. Bohling works out of an office in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse, and he travels with the Major League team, but the mental conditioning staff based at the team's player development complex in Tampa also devotes a good deal of energy to working with injured players, helping them balance the mental hurdles that can run parallel to physical recuperation.

Let's back up a bit, though, because the story really takes shape in Colorado, at the Colorado Dugout Club Clinic back in January. To best understand the emotional toll the past year took on Bird, you need to know a bit more about his baseline, about how hard he had to work to reach the point where everything was taken away.

For example, there's the fact that he speaks a little bit of Mandarin Chinese. "He wanted to be a business major in college, so he took it in high school," said Gausman, his former high school teammate. But it goes beyond that. When he was younger, mostly playing catcher, he knew that if he made it to the Majors, he probably would be working with a lot of pitchers who didn't speak English. "He would tell us about how he had Rosetta Stone in his car so he could learn how to speak Spanish when he was catching," said Catrina Smith, who works in Grandview High School's athletics office.

Seemingly everything Bird has done, and every choice he has made, has been with an eye toward on-field success. The black bat that he swings? It's not just that he likes the color, or that he thinks it looks cool. "You can see foul ball marks," Bird explains of his preference for dark lumber. "I like direct feedback."

Speaking to the coaches in Colorado, Bird keeps going back to one theme: working with purpose. "I feel like there's this whole mentality now in baseball like, 'I gotta work. I gotta work, I gotta work, I gotta work,'" he said. "And what are you working toward? That's the thing that I always kind of ask. I can go hit for three hours right now and if I don't have a clue about what I'm hitting and how I'm hitting, I just wasted three hours. … Even in high school, I wasn't just hitting to hit. I had a purpose."

Smith, whose son played travel ball with Bird when they were about 13 years old, recalls that the kids on the team would text each other all the time. But Bird's contained way more than "LOL's" and emoji. "Greg sends out this three- or four-page text message about how the kids need to focus and pay attention," she recalls, laughing at the decade-old memory.

"I always tell everybody, he acts like he's 35," Gausman said after the clinic. "We used to have morning workouts in high school and I remember joking with him like, 'Hey Greg, did you have time to have your morning coffee and read the stocks?' You know, he was just always one of those guys, very mature beyond his age."

We're all told that maturity is supposed to prepare you for the tough moments life throws at you. But in Bird's case, a lifetime of working harder than other kids, of being more prepared than his peers, of doing everything with a purpose may have made the past year even more difficult.

Away from the Spotlight

In spite of the anecdotes from those who grew up around him, Bird is far from some all-work-no-play cyborg. He's extremely quick to laugh, easy with jokes. For a time last year, his short-lived Twitter timeline hit the perfect notes of lightheartedness, with a game Bird willing to play off any number of puns at the expense of his last name.

So as he sits in the empty Tampa Yankees clubhouse after finishing his rehab routine for the day, it's jarring to take in his subdued, melancholy tone. "The general population, they don't see," he said. "They saw me in October. And they'll see me again next year. They didn't see the whole process."

That surgery that begins the process -- holes drilled into his throwing shoulder, the humerus bone shaved down slightly, sutures anchored into the bone itself, then tied to the labrum to keep everything in place -- is mostly routine. The rest of Bird's year, though, was anything but.

"I'm sure I've complained about it many times," he said, looking back. "You have to accept the fact that you're rehabbing. That was hard at first. That was really hard. For a couple months there, I just felt like I was fighting it so much."

Bird recalls the emotional trauma, the inertia, when he couldn't bring himself to do anything. He's a purpose-driven guy who can normally unwind with a video game, but he couldn't bring himself even to do that. It all just felt empty and unfulfilling.

As unusual and uncomfortable as it might have been for Bird, though, it's nothing new to someone in Bohling's position. The Yankees' mental conditioning team tries to play a role in every rehab process, whether the player is struggling or not, and tries to help make sense of an unfamiliar situation by reinforcing the right mindset.

"The first three weeks to a month, you can't do anything," Bohling said. "They're not used to that. They're used to being involved, being active every single day. So they go from that extreme to an extreme where they can't do anything. Just sitting on the couch. I remember Derek Jeter talking about that -- he wasn't used to it.

"Boredom is a huge thing for these guys. There's so much downtime. What do they do? Every day, they have routines that they're going through, for so many years that they've been involved in baseball. And now they have a lot more time that they're not used to."

Part of the mental conditioning staff's role is just to be willing to listen. And Bohling, who has a psychology degree from Wichita State University and a master's from San Diego State University, is more than willing to let players vent to him. But the department also takes a proactive role. Through videos and a spiral-bound volume of news clippings, Bohling inundates the players with a constant stream of before-and-after stories of athletes overcoming severe injuries. Periodically, the players are supposed to read an article, and then Bohling follows up. Maybe one day, it's a page split in two parts: the top half is a story about former NFL star Terrell Owens' career being in jeopardy; the bottom is a story about his return to the field. There are dozens more just like that.

But there's no easy fix for a player in Bird's situation. He had a great few weeks in the Majors, sure, but then he was gone, and the world kept turning. He could keep working, keep following the checklist, but he was accepting on faith that people in New York would remember him. He was a character in a Bruce Springsteen song -- wounded, but not even dead. "Just away," he said. "Just not part of anything. I think that was the lowest point. Whether or not you know it. Like, yeah, I'm still part of the team in a sense, but you can't help but sometimes think I'm not part of the team. I'm just here in no-man's land, kind of."

"They feel that people lose sight of them," Bohling said. "This doesn't mean that they don't care about them, but just out of sight, out of mind. They're not reaching out as much, they're not seeing them every day, it gets to be less and less as you go along."

As Bird sits in the Tampa clubhouse in August, describing his lost year, he mostly talks in the past tense. He's still smiling even as he recalls hard times, such as when he went to visit the team when it played a game against the Rays at Tropicana Field. He hung out with the guys in the clubhouse, but had to leave after an inning because it was just too hard to be on the periphery. Bohling urges players to fight through that feeling, though. Being on the outside can be tough, but he wants them to connect with their teammates, to get the feeling back of being a member of the team. It's the same reason the team likes to have its players rehabbing together at the Tampa facility. Sure, there are benefits to being able to closely monitor their workouts, but it also ensures that they are in a baseball environment, talking about the game with people who understand.

"Everybody else thinks you're a superstar playing for the New York Yankees," Bohling tells rehabbing players. "The reality is, you're human. The same human emotions that everyone has -- positive and negative -- you go through it, as well."

Left to their own devices, forced to live in their own heads, the players can dig a pretty deep emotional hole. "You get knocked down pretty quick," Bird said.

Part of the Team

A month later, Bird is up off the mat. On Labor Day, he came up to New York to spend a few days with the team, before his return to game action during instructional ball. He's dressing in the home clubhouse, using a locker that previously belonged to . In the 11 months he's been gone, the Yankees' roster has turned over and then some, veterans gone and replaced by a thriving crew of young prospects. It's about as optimistic a time as you'll find in the business-first Bronx, and Bird's buying in.

"It's been a long time," he said, beaming. "For me, I just like baseball. People said, 'Well, now you won't take it for granted,' but for me, that was never the case. But now it's back to doing what I love. And it's a reminder of what I've been working toward."

Back in the Bronx, Bird throws with coaches Joe Espada and Rob Thomson, and he takes ground balls at first base. He also poses with the rest of the Yankees for the 2016 team photo, a representation of a squad that he was ostensibly a member of all year despite not playing a single game. But mostly, he's happy to be back in his routine, working out with his teammates before a night game, shagging fly balls during batting practice and engaging in all the small sub-surface details that make up a Big Leaguer's life. Greg Bird may not be back quite yet, but at least he's back to being Greg Bird.

He's pain-free, and he knows that it's going to feel like he removed a restrictor plate when he starts playing again. It's easy and natural to let your mind wander; if Bird played like he did with a scrambled labrum, what can he do healthy …

But we're not there yet. Right now, Bird is still on the sidelines, still peering through the window. On Sept. 8, when rookie first baseman hit a walk-off home run to defeat the Rays, Bird was on the bench in a hooded sweatshirt. He had no more impact on the box score than he would have from his couch in Tampa. But it still felt different. He jumped up and joined the celebration, and it felt like the light at the end of the tunnel was growing closer.

"It's like talking on the phone versus talking in person," he said. "Being able to be here and watch it, and feel the emotion from everyone and see [Austin's] emotion and be a part of it, it was just exciting.

"Actually being here, being somewhat a part of it, is great."

Bird is beaming when he recalls the moment. It's a go-to smile for him, but one he definitively earned. The hardest part -- a year's worth of struggle both emotional and physical -- is in the rearview. The rest is just baseball. And he knows that he's really good at that.