It was another day where everything fell apart for Daniel Bard.
It was 2017. The once-dominating big league relief pitcher with a shotgun of an arm had spent the last four years toiling away in the minors.
He was no longer the University of North Carolina hurler who in 2004 was named the top freshman pitcher in the U.S. by Baseball America.
He was no longer the guy who in 2013 set a Boston Red Sox record for pitching the most consecutive games without allowing a single run.
Instead, he was sitting in his car, stewing after another frustrating day living in his head.
“One of hundreds of frustrating days that I had over that time span. And I said, ‘This is it,’” Bard recalled during a recent interview with CPR News. “I remember driving home in the car that day and I said, ‘I don’t wanna throw anymore. I’m done.’”
“I remember crying, but it was like tears of relief. I was like, man I don’t have to worry about this anymore. It was a really good feeling, actually.”
Fast forward to 2020. The Colorado Rockies were playing in their second game of the season against the Texas Rangers.
In one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball history: That day, Bard played in his first Major League game since 2013 — the third-longest stretch between games in the majors in the last 30 years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Bard was flawless in relief that game, earning his first win since May 2012.
He went on to have a tremendous 2020 season with the Rockies, winning National League Comeback Player of the Year. Now, as the Rockies try to put last season’s struggles behind them on Opening Day 2021, Bard has emerged as an unlikely star.
Someone who knows a thing or two about overcoming struggles.
“When I retired, I was happily done with baseball as a player,” Bard said. “I had literally thought I had tried everything there was to try. The one thing I didn’t try was walking away.”
"I Wanted To Be The Best In The World"
When you throw 100 miles per hour in college, it’s probably easy to think highly of yourself.
‘There weren’t many guys doing that at the time,” Bard recalled. “So I think I saw that and said, ‘You know, I can be as good as anybody.’ Maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself when I was younger, but I wanted to be the best in the world.”
And for a while, it was hard to argue against his candidacy. After a stellar college career, Bard was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2006. After making his way through the Red Sox farm system for a few years, Bard made his Major League debut on May 13, 2009, pitching two scoreless innings against the Dodgers.
The next year, he earned the role as Boston’s primary setup man in the bullpen. And in 2011, he was rolling right along, becoming a nearly unhittable man in relief.
“When you’re doing well, it’s a rewarding feeling, very fulfilling, like, ‘Man, this is what I’m meant to do,’" Bard said. "You don’t wanna do anything else. You don’t picture yourself doing anything else.”
But in late 2011, something was wrong. Bard was out of whack.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, he couldn’t find the plate. He was losing velocity on his pitches. He thought maybe it would work itself out.
But it didn’t.
In the final month of the 2011 season, Bard couldn’t get anybody out. He was walking batters right and left. He was giving up a lot of runs.
Things didn’t get any better for Bard the next season. Or the season after that. Or the one after that…
What in the world was wrong with Daniel Bard?
He was in his own head. A lot.
“You keep telling yourself, ‘OK, I need to get better. I need to start doing better,’ and then you start trying to force perfection,” Bard explains. “And then you start over-trying. You’re trying to make perfect pitches, instead of just trusting yourself. It’s kind of like being a musician. Like when you’re a great musician, when you get on stage, and when things are good, it’s just free-flowing. You don’t have to think. And then when you start thinking about the note you’re supposed to be pressing, making sure it’s at the perfect time, it loses that beauty.”
Bard’s game was lost in a symphony of sorrow.
Bard suffered with something called "the yips." And it’s truly bizarre. Truly mysterious. The yips are where an athlete suddenly, and inexplicably, loses their skillset, even though they may have been doing those same motions hundreds of times — thousands, perhaps — over the course of a year. The yips also have a psychological component, where you overthink your actions like Bard talks about, being in your head so much, you’re constantly distracted by your own struggles with biomechanics.
“It’s a weird thing,” Bard said. “People don't wanna talk about it in baseball. It’s like a taboo subject in clubhouses. Coaches do their best, but a lot of times they don’t know how to help a guy through it because it’s often different for every guy going through it.”
“It was definitely grinding on my mental health. I don’t know if I was ever technically depressed or anything, but I definitely had times when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Not in life, but just in my career. It was really a low point for me.”
And after struggling with the yips for more than five years, Bard made the decision to retire in 2017.
Though he was no longer pitching, Bard stayed in baseball, interestingly and somewhat ironically, working as a mental skills coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He helped mentor young players, teaching them the ins and outs and ups and downs of the game. Bard thought his experiences, the good and the bad, could help these young players achieve their dreams.
Then he started to find out some things about himself.
“I kind of viewed my career as a failure,” Bard said. “Like, I had a chance to pitch in the big leagues and be one of the best and I felt like I blew it. And then I told the story so many times to players over the years, just as part of getting to know them or helping them get through stuff, and their reaction overall was, ‘Oh man, that’s awesome. It’s so cool that you battled through it for as long as you did. Like, most people would have given up sooner.’ And I was kind of blown away that they saw my career in such a positive light. And I didn’t at that time.”
That experience changed Bard’s perspective dramatically. Pretty soon, he found his confidence again. And he started throwing again on his own time. He was throwing well. And he felt good.
Then his wife had a crazy idea.
“I was telling her how good it felt, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m throwing in the mid-nineties and throwing strikes again. And it feels free and I’m having so much fun,’ and she was like, ‘You have to try it,’" Bard said. "And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, 'I can tell if you don’t make a comeback attempt, that you’ll regret it at some point.’
“So as crazy as it was for me to quit my job that I had, I had three kids and I had a secure income, I quit my job with no guarantee of a team signing me.”
So, with nothing to lose, Bard held a tryout at a nearby high school. And several baseball scouts attended.
Bard threw well. He looked like his old self.
And in February of 2020 — at the age of 35 — Bard signed with the Rockies. That same year, he pitched in his first Major League game in seven years.
Bard said during that first game back against Texas last year, he tried to stay focused instead of getting caught up in the emotions around his improbable comeback story.
“I didn’t think that was going to help me make pitches, so I blocked it out,” Bard said. “It would have been cool if I said, ‘I savored the moment’ and stuff like that, but I knew I needed to execute pitches if I wanted to stick around.”
And stick around he has. Now, entering his second season with the Rockies, Bard says he’s grateful for the adversity he went through.
“I used to say I wouldn’t wish (the yips) on my worst enemy,” he said. “But then I kind of changed my tune on that because I think I’ve grown so much as a person because of my experience going through that, that I like myself better now than before I went through it. It makes you appreciate things so much more. It’s forced me to dig deeper and examine some things inside myself that I wouldn’t have had to if I didn’t go through it.”
Bard’s journey is perhaps best described by the Wilco song, “War on War.”
You’re gonna lose
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
If you want to be alive
“I found some meaning and value in my life after giving the game up. And I think that’s what’s allowed me to come back and perform consistently now. I love this game. I love the competition. I wanna win as badly as anybody else when I’m out there," Bard said. "But at the end of the day I realize, it’s just a game. There’s a lot more to my life than this. There’s more to life whenever my career ends again. And I’m just trying to enjoy it as long as it lasts.”
Correction: Bard was named the top freshman pitcher in the U.S. by Baseball America in 2004. A previous version of this story cited the wrong year.