By 2010, Bard was firmly established as one of baseball's elite relievers. His dominance carried over into the following season when, between May 27 and July 31 of 2011, he set a club record by making 25 consecutive scoreless appearances.
Daniel Bard. Who'd have believed it? The news was pretty much buried because it was announced during the middle of the World Series, but he is the National League Comeback Player of the Year for 2020.
How about that?
You might remember Bard as the flame-throwing young set-up man out of the Red Sox bullpen a decade ago. His prospects back then seemed limitless. That was before his career descended unaccountably into the depths of ignominy. It seemed to be all over for him when he announced his retirement back in 2017. By then, not many noticed or even cared. He was written off as just another hard-throwing guy whose career sputtered out after some early success.
When he came up to the Red Sox from Pawtucket early in the 2009 season as a 23-year-old prospect, he hit the ground running. His 100+ mile-an-hour fastball made him virtually unhittable and he quickly took over as the set-up man for all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon (whatever happened to him, by the way?). By 2010, Bard was firmly established as one of baseball's elite relievers. His dominance carried over into the following season when, between May 27 and July 31 of 2011, he set a club record by making 25 consecutive scoreless appearances. Daniel Bard was the master of all he surveyed.
Then, with no warning whatsoever, it all just disappeared.
He began having control problems that rapidly developed into a full-fledged case of the Yips. He couldn't throw strikes anymore. By September of 2011, only a month removed from his record-setting scoreless streak, he became the poster boy for the Red Sox epic collapse of that month when they blew a seven-game lead in the American League East and failed to even make the playoffs. Bard's ERA for the month was an astronomical 10.75, and his won-lost record was an abysmal zero and four.
The next year, the Sox tried to convert him to a starter, but the control problems persisted. Added to that was a dip in velocity. By June, he was headed down Interstate 95, back to Pawtucket. He lasted even more briefly in Boston in 2013, being sent down in April after two failed appearances. That September, the Red Sox finally threw in the towel when they designated him for assignment.
His fall had been sudden, swift, and puzzling. He had not suffered any physical injuries or traumatic events in his life. Had his problems been mechanical? Perhaps. Had they been mental? Arguably. Were they mysterious? Absolutely.
There were those in baseball who remembered Bard from the good days. One of them was Theo Epstein of the Cubs, who had been general manager of the Red Sox. He picked Bard off the waiver wire but then released him, only to pick him up and release him again. Numerous failed auditions for other teams followed. His downfall reached its nadir in 2014 when, in two appearances for the Single-A Hickory Crawdads, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers, he faced 18 batters, walked nine, hit seven, and retired only two. His Earned Run Average for the tryout was -- are you sitting down? -- 175.50.
Finally, in 2017, after one last failure with the Gulf Coast League Mets, a rookie level team, in which he gave up four runs in just two-thirds of an inning, he faced the harsh truth.
The dream of a comeback was dead.
Bard officially retired at the end of the season and determined to get on with his life.
This is where the story gets interesting.
Mike Hazen, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, had spent 10 years in the Red Sox front office. A local product -- he's a graduate of Abington High School -- he knew Bard well from their days together in Boston and knew him to be a quality guy. Hazen offered Bard the opportunity to become a mental skills coach in the Diamondbacks' system, mentoring young players as they grappled with the uncertainties and anxieties of life in the minor leagues. Bard accepted and, his own career behind him, dove into the job.
He hit on a strategy of playing catch with young players as he talked with them about the highs and lows of the game, their ambitions, and their problems. He found the games of catch to be an effective way of connecting with them as he traveled around the D'backs' minor league system -- and he found something else.
His arm felt free and loose as he threw the ball while advising the kids. Gone were the anxiety and self-doubt that had plagued him for so long as he struggled to rediscover his lost control. He was hitting his targets. He still had velocity. For a while, he shrugged off suggestions that he should still be playing, having put that behind him. But his love for the game was rekindled during those games of catch.
Through mentoring others, he had unlocked the secrets of what had been holding him back.
He decided to give the game one more try. With thanks, he resigned from his job with the Diamondbacks after the 2019 season. Last winter, he held a tryout for major league scouts, and the Colorado Rockies liked what they saw enough to invite him to training camp. Shortly before the abbreviated season opened, they made him a part of their active roster.
When, on July 25, the now 35-year-old player was brought in to pitch against the Texas Rangers, it was his first big league appearance since April 17, 2013. He threw 1.1 scoreless innings.
Before the truncated season was halfway over, he was named as the Rockies' closer. In 23 appearances, he walked only 10 batters. He had been to baseball hell and made it all the way back.
The Comeback Player of the Year announcement might have been drowned out by the World Series this year -- but it was a better story.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.