How Charlotte’s Daniel Bard Regained His Place on the Mound

After years of ‘yips,’ the former UNC star won Comeback Player honors last year—and started this season Thursday as the Rockies’ closer
(photo By Matt Dirksen)
Charlotte Christian alumnus Daniel Bard, shown here throwing batting practice during spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona, finished the 2020 season with a 4-2 record and his first major-league victory in eight years. COURTESY COLORADO ROCKIES.

Daniel Bard stood on the outfield grass of Coors Field in Denver and exchanged long tosses with a fellow Colorado Rockies bullpen pitcher. It was early afternoon on July 21, several hours before a practice game. Their pitching coach, Steve Foster, walked up. “Daniel,” he said, “when you’re done, I need to talk to you for a minute.”

This was one of the last days of summer camp, the second round of training to prepare for an abbreviated Major League Baseball season with COVID restrictions. The Rockies had invited nearly 60 players to compete for spots on the team’s 40-man roster. None had a story like Bard’s.

Bard grew up in Charlotte and dominated at Charlotte Christian School, then as a three-year starter at UNC Chapel Hill. The Boston Red Sox drafted him in the first round of the 2006 draft, and for two years, he was one of the best setup pitchers in baseball. Then his career quickly unraveled with a problem uniquely tormenting for a professional athlete, one that had more to do with his psyche than his physique. Bard bounced from team to team as he struggled to perform a pitcher’s essential job: throwing the ball over the plate.

Exhausted and demoralized, Bard retired from baseball in 2017. Two years later, he started to throw again. By 2020, he’d decided to try one more time. He’d pitched well in Denver—some of his pitches hit 97 mph—and felt confident. But he wasn’t sure if this meeting with Foster would bring good news.

The two men walked through the tunnel and into the manager’s office, where General Manager Jeff Bridich, Manager Bud Black, a few front office staffers, and fellow invitees Chris Owings and Matt Kemp—both major-league veterans—were scattered around the room, per social distancing rules. Black turned to the trio of Bard, Owings, and Kemp and momentarily pulled down his mask.

“We are excited about this team this year,” Black said, “and we want you three to be a part of it.”

***

Just making a major-league roster again was a profound victory for Bard, and over the course of the shortened, bizarre 2020 season, he managed to achieve more on the diamond than he’d dared to hope.

He won other things, too: lessons about the relationship between mind and body; the relative importance of baseball to family; himself. “It’s not about if I can throw a baseball perfectly,” Bard says. “It’s, ‘What example and legacy am I leaving for my kids?’ I hope that in 10 or 15 years, they’ll realize what kind of risk we took—and that we did it because we believed in it.”

Bard has come to realize how improbable it all was. It’s a curious place for him considering how many things in his life had always gone right—until, out of nowhere, they didn’t.

***

Daniel’s parents, Paul and Kathy, moved to Charlotte from Houston in 1985, when Daniel was less than a year old. Paul, a minor league catcher for five years, had played one season with the Double-A Charlotte O’s, and he and Kathy settled in Charlotte after he retired from baseball. After Daniel, they had two more boys. Jared, born two years later, and Luke, five years Daniel’s junior, would achieve their own success on the diamond. Luke now pitches for the Los Angeles Angels.

Baseball was Daniel’s favorite sport, but he thought about quitting when, at 12, he failed to make an all-star roster. He did make the team at Providence High School but mostly sat on the bench for his first two years. Then, the summer before his junior year, Daniel, a right-hander, pitched in a showcase in Massachusetts and threw 91 mph. He was the only pitcher there who topped 90.

Bard Brothers In Soar2

Daniel Bard with younger brothers Luke and Jared in spring 1998. Bard went on to star at Charlotte Christian and UNC Chapel Hill before the Boston Red Sox drafted him with the 28th overall pick in the 2006 Major League Baseball draft. Courtesy photo.

He transferred to Charlotte Christian, became one of the team’s best pitchers, and won a scholarship to UNC. In 2004, Baseball America named Bard the nation’s top freshman pitcher. Two years later, he helped lead the Tar Heels to the College World Series finals. The Boston Red Sox chose Bard with the 28th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and he made his professional debut the next year with the team’s High-A affiliate in Lancaster, California.

There, a coach adjusted his delivery technique, and his pitching troubles began. After two months of poor outings, Bard was demoted to Low-A in Greenville, South Carolina. He grew self-conscious about his technique, which led to more instruction from coaches, which only made things worse. He stood on the mound before every pitch and recited the instructions as a litany: Lift your leg—but don’t go too high …

The more Bard listened, the more he adjusted, the less he felt like himself. He finished 2007 with 78 walks in 75 innings and a dismal 7.08 earned run average. His physical skills weren’t the issue; his arm felt fine, and his fastballs still hit the mid-90s. The problem lived in his mechanics and mind. He began to feel the pressure of expectations: I was a first-round draft choice. Why can’t I throw strikes? When he began the 2008 season in Greenville after a winter league stint in Hawaii, Bard told himself to ignore the pressure and enjoy the moment. (It helped when he met a Furman student named Adair Sturdivant, whom he’d marry two years later.)

It worked. He finished the season 5-1 with a 1.51 ERA and 107 strikeouts.

***

A little more than a month into the 2009 season, the Red Sox called Bard up from their Triple-A club in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Over the next two seasons, until late 2011, he was one of baseball’s best setup pitchers—a reliever who replaces the starter in late innings before, ideally, the designated “closer” gets the final three outs in the ninth. From 2009 through 2011, Bard pitched 197 innings, with nearly three times as many strikeouts as walks. He was named Red Sox Rookie of the Year in 2009. Whatever had bedeviled him in 2007 seemed long gone.

Then, as suddenly and inexplicably as before, it came back. His loss of control coincided with a monumental collapse by the Red Sox. Boston led its division at the All-Star break and in early September was a virtual lock for the playoffs—then lost 20 of 27 games and was eliminated on the regular season’s last day. “Daniel Bard had the most unfortunate month on a staff of dismal performances,” ESPN’s Jeremy Lundblad wrote at the end of that month. “He finished September 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA, issuing more walks (nine) than he had in the previous three months combined (eight).”

Again, a pitching coach changed his mechanics. Bard’s confidence crumbled, and his command disappeared. In 2012, at age 27, Bard toggled between the Red Sox and their Triple-A namesake in Pawtucket. His ERA soared. In 2013, after two brief appearances with Boston, the team sent him back to the minors. He would never again pitch for the Red Sox.

***

In the offseason, doctors discovered a physical problem Bard thought might explain his struggles. He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a group of disorders that cause shoulder and neck pain and finger numbness when the nerves between the collarbone and upper ribs are compressed. He underwent surgery, which ended the symptoms, and signed with the Texas Rangers.

But by the time he returned to the mound in 2014—this time for the single-A Hickory Crawdads, an hour’s drive from home—his control had deserted him. Bard made four appearances for the Crawdads that year, pitching a total of two-thirds of an inning. He walked nine batters and hit seven with errant pitches.

One night, Paul and Kathy drove up to Hickory to watch him. Bard made a brief appearance out of the bullpen. None of his pitches came close to the strike zone. “He had pitched in the big leagues just three years before, dominating teams as a setup guy,” Paul says. “Now, it’s a Low-A game with maybe 1,500 people watching. His head was down. I said to Kathy, ‘This is really taking a toll on him.’”

Dbard Family

Bard holding his daughter, Campbell, and with his sons, Sykes (left) and Davis. Courtesy photo.

A year later, he signed a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs organization, which invited him to spring training. “The hardest part was seeing the flashes of it still there, but realizing there was this mental block,” Adair Bard says. “The most gut-wrenching sound was him warming up in the bullpen and hearing the thud of the backstop instead of the pop of the catcher’s mitt.”

Bard thought about quitting every day. But he’d see glimpses of his old self, the one who threw 99 mph fastballs over the plate. Of 25 bullpen pitches, 15 would be terrible, and 10 would be solid. Afterward, he’d think, If I could just harness those 10. He couldn’t—not then, anyway—and only recently has professional sports made a serious effort to learn how to treat athletes, so familiar with the science of their bodies, when their psyches break.

***

Baseball players, especially pitchers, know the term well. So do golfers. They know it well enough to avoid mentioning it: “the yips.” There’s no strict definition, although Dr. Jason Freeman, the sports psychologist for the University of Virginia’s Athletics Department, has a provisional one: “the override of a well-learned or routine motor script.” You can throw a 99 mph fastball. You can sink a 20-foot putt or 20 straight free throws. Then something happens, and suddenly you can’t do those things, and you begin to fixate on the fact that you can’t, and then everything goes bad. Talking about it is one way out of the hole—but you do not want to name it.

“I think, for many athletes, they just get stuck and feel like they can’t acknowledge it, so it develops a power and a reinforced pattern of its own,” says Freeman, who works with athletes in 25 varsity sports on mental health and well-being. “Part of the role of sports psychology is to support players in acknowledging, ‘I’m going through something, and that something seems like the yips. Let’s shine a spotlight on it, understand it, and work through it.’”

Bard tried. He spent portions of the 2016 and 2017 seasons with a trio of minor-league teams. He tried hypnosis. He fixated on his physique and spent hours in the weight room. At each stop, he’d talk to the team sports psychologist. Some wanted to steer clear of the negative, but others spent hours working with him on visualization and other exercises. He spoke with teammates. Over beers one night, he asked an infielder how he’d pushed through the yips and how they affected his personal relationships.

“You see two coaches talking, and you think, ‘They’re talking about how I just played catch,’” Bard says. “I think about it now, and it was ridiculous. It’s a weird thing that eats at you.”

And the expectations kept weighing him down—even more than before he’d made it to the majors. Each time he signed with a new team, he’d walk into the clubhouse, and players would tell him, “I loved watching you pitch in Boston.” They meant well, but the praise added to the pressure he placed on himself. They wanted the same thing he did—for him to be that Daniel Bard again. The more he wanted it, the harder it was to pitch, or just to take the mound.

In August 2017, at 32 and playing for a New York Mets affiliate in Florida, Bard threw a handful of pitches during a bullpen session, then tossed the ball to a coach. “I don’t want to throw anymore,” he said.

He meant only that he was done for the day. But as he got into his car, he began to think: No, I’m done, period.

***

As a player, perhaps, but not with baseball. Daniel and Adair bought a house in Greenville, and Daniel accepted a job as a player mentor with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

At first, Bard couldn’t believe he had quit baseball only to turn around and take another job in baseball. But he had learned a lot, and he wanted to use that knowledge to help other players through similar struggles. Bard traveled to the Diamondbacks’ affiliate sites and chatted with players. Some wanted to talk about his days in Boston; others had never heard of him. Each retelling felt like therapy—“It softened the blow of it a little more,” he says—and hearing from others gradually shifted his perspective: “I became more grateful for what I did get, versus seeing it as my 10-year career that I cut short.”

In recent years, professional sports teams have begun to realize the value of formal, full-time mentoring programs, not just the traditional, informal practice of veterans who take young prospects under their wings. In 2019, the Diamondbacks hired Bard as one member of an official, three-person “mental skills group.” During more talks with farm-club players, Bard threw with them and drew exclamations like, “Man, you need to play again!” He brushed off the compliments. But when he returned to Greenville after the season, he built (then later bought) a netting system for the backyard, duct-taped a strike zone on the net, and began throwing.

By now, the Bards had two boys: Davis, born in 2015, and Sykes, born two years later. Adair assumed he installed the net just to play with Davis. But even after playtime, her husband would fire pitches into the taped-off strike zone. He’d walk inside, tell her how good his arm felt, and mention that the players he’d worked with had encouraged him to try again. “I knew it was a serious thought,” Adair says, “which made me excited and terrified at the same time.”

Daniel and Adair traveled to Charlotte to visit their family for Christmas, and Daniel asked his younger brother and fellow pitcher Luke if he could go with him to Showcase Baseball Academy, a training center on Independence Boulevard in Matthews where Luke and other professional players worked out. Sure, Luke said. Daniel threw 91, 92 mph, right over the plate. A few weeks later, Daniel went with Luke again, this time equipped with a radar gun; a Rapsodo machine, which collects and analyzes pitching data like velocity, spin rate, and placement; and Paul. Daniel threw more than 30 pitches—slider, changeup, fastball—with full control. His fastballs consistently hit close to 95 mph. Daniel walked off the mound, full of adrenaline, and thought to himself: This is really close to how I threw 10 years ago.

Until that day in January 2020, Bard thought there was about a 10% chance he’d try to play again. Adair had given birth to their third child in 2019—a daughter, Campbell—and he had a steady job he loved. He’d been out of baseball for three years. He wasn’t sure anyone would take him seriously. But as he drove out of the Showcase Baseball Academy parking lot, he called Adair to tell her: He was ready.

***

In February, two days before spring training, Bard flew to Phoenix and told the Diamondbacks he was leaving his mentoring job because he wanted to try to pitch again. His agent had sent video clips to MLB teams and let them know Bard would be throwing at a local high school that week. Bard hoped five or six teams might show up and offer a minor-league deal.

That morning, more than 20 teams sent scouts. They huddled, pointing their radar guns, as Bard prepared for his first pitch. He laughed to himself: “I was like, I’m 35 years old. I haven’t done this in three years. This is insane.

He threw well enough for several teams to offer contracts. He and Adair chose the Colorado Rockies. Just before his first official outing, in a spring training game against the Rangers on March 4, Bard wondered if the yips would resurface. He felt like his heart might pound out of his chest. Bard gave up four hits and six runs and walked two batters before he was pulled.

“I knew that everyone would look at that box score and say, ‘The Rockies signed Daniel Bard, what a bunch of idiots,’” Bard says. “But internally, I laughed, because this was not the same. I knew it was different.” Back on the mound three days later, he pitched one inning and notched two strikeouts, then followed with another solid appearance.

And then COVID shut down baseball, as it did everything else. Bard flew home. MLB teams began to release their non-roster invitees, and he worried that Colorado would cut him. But the Rockies kept him on their weekly Zoom sessions for the bullpen. Bard worked with other pro ballplayers who lived in the Greenville area and waited for the Rockies to call. Word eventually came, and in July, he found himself in an office in a stadium in Denver as the manager of a major-league club told him something he hadn’t heard in years, something he didn’t think he would hear again:

You made the team.

***

Four days later, on a Saturday afternoon in an empty stadium in Arlington, Texas, Daniel Bard returned to the mound.

In the COVID season’s second game, the Rockies led the Rangers 2-1 in the bottom of the fifth. But Rockies starter Jon Gray had just surrendered an RBI single. Two on, two out. Bud Black made the call to the bullpen, and in trotted Bard, who threw a first-pitch strike, then got the batter to fly out to left. Bard pitched the sixth, too, giving up two singles but not allowing a run. The Rockies won 3-2. Bard threw 25 pitches, 20 for strikes—and he got the win, his first in the majors since May 2012.

“These games are important, but also at the end of the day you’re still playing a game,” he said afterward. “I think the guys that are able to take that mindset into each and every day despite the pressure … are the ones that have a lot of success.

“It took me a while to fully grasp that.”

The Rockies finished the shortened 2020 season with a 26-34 record and 17 games out of first place. But Bard compiled a 4-2 record and 3.65 ERA, including six saves, in 23 appearances as a reliever. In December, his performance earned him a pair of Major League Baseball’s highest honors: the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Tony Conigliaro Award, given every year to an MLB player who has “overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage.”

“Daniel is an example of what we try to help players develop: resilience, grit,” says Zach Brandon, who worked with Daniel when they were mental skills coordinators for the Diamondbacks. “You saw him learn about this stuff over time and then start to realize that, for lack of a better way of saying it, he still had it.”

MLB scheduled a more normal date, April 1, for Opening Day 2021. However this season unfolds, Bard has his family, his comeback, and his shift in perspective. One key to control, it turns out, is letting go of it. It’s a game, he tells himself nowadays. Just go throw the ball. If you enjoy it, keep doing it. If not, do something else.

“For a long time, I put a lot of pressure on myself that I had to live up to this expectation,” he says. “But life in general—baseball especially—only has as much meaning as you assign to it.”

Anna Katherine Clemmons, a 2001 graduate of Davidson College, is a freelance writer and an assistant professor of practice in the University of Virginia’s Department of Media Studies. She’s a former writer, reporter, and producer for ESPN and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and other publications.

 

(Ed., 8 p.m., April 1: Daniel Bard was named the Colorado Rockies’ closer before Opening Day. In the first game, against the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, Bard came out of the bullpen for the top of the ninth inning, with the Rockies leading 8-5—and promptly loaded the bases with only one out. Nothing comes easy for Bard, but you can’t make him fold, either: He retired the final two batters without allowing a run.)

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