FORT MYERS, Fla. — It all happened so fast.
It has been 10 years since the Red Sox used a first-round pick on Daniel Bard, who had the sort of arm that, at the time, had rarely been seen: the triple-digit outlier. It’s been nine since he nearly saw his prospect status unravel in a losing battle with his command, eight since he reclaimed it, seven since his big league debut and rapid emergence as an elite setup man.
And it was five years ago that the fall commenced, the plummet to a pitcher whose September 2011 struggles played into a historic Red Sox collapse.
That period — after which Bard realized that he had been dealing with a thoracic outlet problem that compromised his feel for the baseball and ultimately required surgery — set in motion a spiral: the 2012 failed experiment as a starter and demotion to the minors, the 2013 command derailment that led to his removal from the 40-man roster, the 2014 and 2015 seasons spent pitching in the obscurity of extended spring training.
Since Sept. 4, 2013, when Bard left the Red Sox on a waiver claim to the Cubs, he has appeared in just four minor league games, all in 2014 for the Rangers’ Single A affiliate when he walked nine, hit seven batters, and recorded two outs.
He didn’t make any appearances in big league spring training games prior to the 2014 or 2015 seasons. He spent all of last summer on a minor league deal back with the Cubs, throwing live batting practice “to either a dummy in the box or a minor league hitter,” but not pitching in games.
It’s the sort of dizzying succession of events that makes it natural to ask questions not just about your baseball career but about your own identity. Bard had no choice but to broaden his focus beyond his career struggles, to mix the pleasure and failure of the game with other considerations.
“I think that’s the one thing about kind of having your dreams realized and then having everything kind of taken away,” Bard said. “It makes you realize you can’t sink all your happiness into one thing.
“My wife was awesome at supporting me throughout the lowest of the lows baseball-wise and helping me continue to remember that there are a lot of things to find joy in outside of baseball. I appreciated those things.
“Baseball is still there, but you can’t just let it define you and make you miserable when it’s not going well. It’s a game. It’s going to have its ups and downs.
“I think as a person I’ve come a long way, just realizing that it’s really about the people you come into contact with every day, building those relationships, and at the end of the day, when my career is said and done, the on-the-field stuff will be a backdrop — for me.
“It’s the day-to-day, the people you meet along the way, and the relationships you build that will last long beyond my playing days are over.”
But while Bard’s last few tumultuous years have allowed him to speak in such terms, his playing days are not over. To the contrary, an offseason talk with former Red Sox minor leaguer T.J. Large — now a member of the Pittsburgh front office — about the former teammates’ newborns led to a minor league deal with the Pirates.
And on Monday, that meant a return to a familiar setting, as Bard accompanied the Pirates to JetBlue Park for their game against the Red Sox. His inclusion on a Grapefruit League spring training travel roster in its own right represents a marker of some progress. So, too, do his two spring training appearances to date, each of which featured the righthander retiring the only hitter he faced.
Now 30, Bard believes he has a chance to tap into what once was effortlessly present. This past offseason, while home in Mississippi, he engaged in a weighted-ball throwing program. He abandoned the almost obsessive efforts to work on mechanics and command in favor of something more primal: a desire to throw the ball hard.
“I created two years’ worth of bad habits, physical and mental, that I had to work through,” he said “The best way to put it is that I had to relearn how to throw. That’s what I break it down to.
“I looked at myself as someone who had never thrown a baseball before and just relearned that way. I didn’t have a job. I had nothing to lose. I’d heard stuff about [weighted-ball programs], heard some good things, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it.’
“I don’t know if I was throwing any harder, but what it did, it changed my mind-set towards getting back to being as strong throwing as I possibly can rather than being some perfect set of mechanics.
“I had to take the focus off of that. It became such an obsession, getting the mechanics right, the arm slot right. I tried to do that for two or three years without much success. I think it was kind of a shift in focus that’s really helped me feel a lot better.
“I know that when my body is working the right way to throw a baseball really hard, it throws a lot of strikes, too. It’s like a side effect.”
Bard believes he’s closer than he’s been in some time to being the pitcher he wants to be, once again pitching “in some meaningful games, or what feels a lot more meaningful than what I was doing.”
That doesn’t mean a season-opening roster spot in Pittsburgh will await him, but the righthander is in an organization that has excelled in recent years in helping players reestablish themselves.
As Bard tries to become the next success story in a Pittsburgh organization that has helped pitchers such as A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and J.A. Happ to thrive, he can look back with fond memories of his time with the Red Sox and look forward to what lies ahead — all with the perspective of someone who has experienced nearly everything that the game had to offer in a very short period of time.
“I’m back enjoying the competition of it,” said Bard. “It definitely makes you appreciate it that much more, the opportunities, the little things, the day-to-day of being out there having fun in the game.”
Now, Bard believes he’s closer than he’s been in some time to being the pitcher he wants to be, once again “in some meaningful games, or what feels a lot more meaningful than what I was doing.”
On Monday, Bard had an opportunity to connect that past and future. As he entered the game in the bottom of the ninth, a familiar song — “Shipping Up To Boston,” the longtime entry music of teammate Jonathan Papelbon — played at JetBlue.
“I’ve heard that song so many times. I’ve got good memories attached to that,” said Bard. “That was kind of cool. Playing that definitely stirred up some memories, but I was mindful of the task.”
He delivered a perfect inning, working at 93-95 miles per hour with an atypically low arm slot while getting a ground out, a fly out, and a strikeout.
Though his fastball command wasn’t perfect, the results were a reminder of something that once was common, and that Bard hopes is once again attainable.
“If I can go and get three outs on a day that I don’t feel great, that’s a huge step from where I was the last few years,” he said. “I kind of fell off the baseball face of the earth.
“It definitely makes you appreciate it that much more, the opportunities, the little things, the day-to-day of being out there having fun in the game.”