Barrows on Sports: Curveball
Last summer, Daniel Bard, former Charlotte Christian and UNC Chapel Hill boy wonder, seemed headed for stardom as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. This summer, he’s floundering. A story of sudden loss and the uncertainty that follows
Daniel Bard is a twenty-seven-year-old pitcher from Charlotte who is struggling to find his place with the Boston Red Sox, and he’s struggling, to put it bluntly, in ways that are agonizing to watch.
His story is about promise and disappointment, about being good at something and then, almost inexplicably, not being good at it.
Before we proceed, let’s play a game of baseball trivia.
What team can claim the three most significant pitchers in history? The Red Sox. Starting in 1890, Cy Young amassed 511 wins, more than anybody else before or since; eight of his prime seasons came with the Red Sox, and the trophy given annually to the sport’s best pitcher is named for him. Shortly thereafter, Babe Ruth emerged as one of baseball’s top pitchers and the toast of Boston. Then somebody realized he could also hit, and the Red Sox sold him to the New York Yankees, where his home-run exploits jolted the nation’s attention from the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal and turned his new team into what it still is today: the most successful professional sports franchise in the land. Lately, Roger Clemens, the most revered pitcher born in the past ninety years—and quite probably the most reviled as well—starred for the Red Sox in his first thirteen seasons. When Clemens retired in 2007, after winning a record seven Cy Young awards, he and Barry Bonds were the poster children for the era that installed the phrase “performance-enhancing drugs” in baseball’s vernacular.
Red Sox pitchers are measured by not just their earned-run average but by how they stack up against a century-old mythology, against tradition. This is a different context than pitching for the Kansas City Royals or the San Diego Padres, and for Bard it’s a nettlesome one.
Which franchise has put together the longest streak of consecutive regular-season sellouts ever in U.S. big-league sports? The Red Sox. When last I checked, toward the end of June, the number was 749 and counting, a figure that falls as short of capturing the intensity of Boston’s relationship with the team as it would to describe Picasso’s Guernica as 281 square feet of canvas. These words also fall short: preoccupation, infatuation, obsession. The Ted Williams tunnel stretches beneath Boston harbor. Without a pithy comment about last night’s game, you’re at a conversational disadvantage anywhere, even at Harvard and M.I.T. It’s tough to find a neighborhood pizza joint or dry cleaner’s that doesn’t have photos on its wall of old-timers Carl Yastrzemski and Dom DiMaggio. The Green Monster, Fenway Park’s thirty-seven-foot-high left-field wall, is more famous than most of the city’s politicians—and more beloved.
No place, except perhaps St. Louis, is more loyal to a single franchise than Boston. In larger cities (New York, Chicago, L.A.), the baseball allegiance is split between two franchises, and St. Louis fans, reared in the tradition of Midwestern Niceness, are neither as demandingly impatient nor as downright ornery. Bill Buckner, once a Rex Sox first baseman, made an error that lost the 1986 World Series and ultimately was forced to move away from Boston as a result of the abuse hurled at his family. “Had they been around today,” the Wall Street Journal wrote this year in describing the fickleness of Red Sox followers, “Paul Revere and his horse would have wound up getting traded to the Marlins.”
Boston is as big a stage as baseball has, and Bard is in his fourth year there. In high school, he was a hard-throwing prodigy for Charlotte Christian School, and next, at UNC Chapel Hill, he was so eye-catching that Boston selected him with its first-round draft choice in 2006. Until late last season, he had his share of positive moments as a relief pitcher for the Red Sox, yet his performance in September, and the club’s as a whole, was a catastrophe. Then, as this season opened, the team hatched the plan to turn him into a starter. That has gone badly, too.
Final question. This one isn’t pure trivia in that the answer is subjective. Because I’m making up the rules, I say it qualifies.
What is the hardest route to success in the major leagues? Starting pitcher. Baseball as we know it dates to 1876, when the National League was organized. If we stipulate that making it as a starter involves both winning games and enduring for more than a handful of seasons, it’s neither irrational nor arbitrary to set the bar for success at a hundred victories. In 126 years of Major League Baseball, here’s the number of pitchers who have reached that level: 585.