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What’s Wrong With Daniel Bard?

Can the Red Sox pitcher rediscover the joy of throwing a baseball?

It was The Last First Thing I Saw on a Ball Field. Three years ago, on a crystal-blue evening at Fenway Park, they were honoring the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who had just passed away. There was a color guard and a band and a video tribute on the grand message board in center field. Young Teddy with his grandfather, Boston mayor John Fitzgerald, a Sox fan of sufficient enthusiasm that he used to lead a bunch of local louts to the games to annoy the opposition. There was also a baseball game to be played.

The Red Sox were playing the White Sox, I believe, but don’t hold me to that, because The Last First Thing has rather blurred the memory of everything else. Sometime in the final third of that game, the Red Sox brought in a young relief pitcher named Daniel Bard, a lanky right-hander whose windup looked as though he were going to deposit the baseball in the lap of someone sitting in the third-base boxes. It was as pure a delivery as I’d ever seen. His first pitch was a slider, and it had traveled at 97 miles per hour, or so said the pitch tracker in left center that measures such things in the thick electronic kudzu that has entombed the walls of Fenway over the past decade. The next pitch was a fastball, a blur, at which the batter waved. I looked out at the little scoreboard.

“Fastball,” it read. “101.”

I jumped a little in my seat. To my knowledge, I had never seen a human being throw a baseball 100 miles per hour before. For me, anyway, a baseball agnostic whose primary attraction to the game is that it is played outdoors in the summertime, this was something not a little momentous. I’d heard of people throwing 100, but I’d missed Nolan Ryan in his wild-ass early years, and, if Roger Clemens ever did it during his non-pharmaceutical days, I never saw it. It made me decide to watch Bard’s career to see where it might lead.

As it happens, it has led at the moment to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, where Bard has been since the beginning of June, trying to get back to the simple joy of throwing a baseball very hard, and getting it to go where it is supposed to go. He has had an interesting, horrible year. There was an ill-starred attempt to make him a starting pitcher, which seemed to get deeply into his head. He started thinking like a starter, not like the blow-them-away reliever he had been. He was nibbling, trying to induce ground balls, the way starters are supposed to do it. As a starter, he was 5-6, with an ERA over five. He had 37 walks as opposed to 34 strikeouts. He hit bottom on June 3 against Toronto, his last start in the major leagues so far this season. He lasted 1⅔ innings, walking six and hitting two dudes besides. He told the Red Sox he thought he should be a reliever again. They sent him down to Pawtucket.

There were whispers that it might be gone from him for good, that whatever it was that had brought him to the majors had abandoned him at 27. The whispers were in Boston, but they carried down Interstate 95 to this small ballpark tucked amid the abandoned factories. Outside Gate A at McCoy Stadium, there is a cyclone fence covered with canvas billboards that display some of the players who have passed through Pawtucket on their way to the big club in Boston. The very last of these, right where the fans entered the park for this weekend’s series with the Buffalo Bisons, is a picture of Daniel Bard, his arm like a whip, throwing the ball very hard, looking very young.

In the clubhouse, as he got ready for whatever fresh hell baseball was going to hand him this day, I told him about that extraordinarily vivid evening in Fenway a few years earlier. “The first time I hit 100 was in college, I think,” he mused. “It was some time ago, and it was kind of a gradual thing. It was cool, like when you hit 90 in high school. It doesn’t really mean anything. It just sounds cool.”

He still looked very young. He sounded very old.

Triple-A ball is the critical ward for careers. It’s the last stop before the majors, if you’re young and your talent is exploding, the way Daniel Bard’s was a few years ago. It’s also the place where you go to rehabilitate your hamstring, or your rotator cuff, or your slider, or your psyche, or any combination of those, the way Daniel Bard is doing right now. On this particular weekend, in addition to the work Bard was doing on himself, Carl Crawford was also playing in Pawtucket as he continued to come back from a staggering array of injuries. Mark Prior was pitching for Pawtucket, trying to rebuild a career that was once golden in Chicago. Over in the Buffalo clubhouse, Jason Bay, the regular Mets left fielder, was finishing up a rehab assignment of his own. (Bay was coming back from a concussion he’d suffered running into a wall.) Meanwhile, slick Pawtucket shortstop Jose Iglesias was marking time until, as everybody expects, he’s called up to play at Fenway in very short order. Triple-A is the place where so many careers, old and new, either blossom or fizzle, for a hundred different reasons. Arnie Beyeler, a buzz-cut Utahan who’s been managing in Pawtucket for two years now, knows that he still has to win games with a roster full of people whose ultimate agendas are to get out of town.

“That’s minor league baseball,” Beyeler says. “We’re down here to service the major league club and still try to win games. I mean, Bard’s got a different agenda from some other people, and Carl Crawford’s got one, and Iglesias has got one. They all have their own reasons why they’re here. Some guys have been up and then down again. Some guys are trying to go up. Some guys have been up and they’re trying to get back, just getting their at-bats and trying to get out of here.”

After his disastrous start in Toronto, Bard knew he’d be going back down. The whole experiment had failed, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was ready to return from his own prolonged rehabilitation. “At that point, I knew where I was at,” he says. “The fact that I broke camp as a starter but, still, from my second start of the year, and more because the bullpen was struggling at the time than my pitching, there was immediately talk of me getting moved back to the bullpen.

“It was kind of weird. It was like, am I pitching to keep a job? That was kind of how it felt. I had to be more than good just to stay in the rotation, until the bullpen started picking it up. And then they needed room for Dice-K, and I was the guy with options, so I get it. It’s not fun to be that guy, but it’s part of the game, I guess.”

All of which is true, but there also was something else. Bard was a mess. His mechanics were all wrong, and that was affecting his confidence, which was affecting his mechanics even more. His delivery was always a kind of natural, swooping motion, a long unwinding from the general direction of third base toward the batter, like the crack of a whip. It was simple-looking, though like any delivery its component parts were carefully integrated and precisely calibrated to work with each other, and then they’d all gone into business for themselves. “It started as something mechanical,” Bard explained, “and then the mechanics got to the point where they weren’t producing the same velocity and control and movement that I was used to, so, basically, I was searching for it all out there on the mound.

“While I was still confident, when that kind of hit me, and once you’re out there with a delivery you can’t fully trust, you don’t know what the ball’s going to do when it leaves your hand, because your mechanics are messed up, [and] that affects you mentally, as well.”

When Bard talks about how his mechanics undermined his confidence, which further undermined his mechanics, which further undermined his confidence, he sometimes sounds like someone trying to heal himself through magic. Everything he says comes out in the language of someone looking for something that he’s lost, and lost it so thoroughly that he’s not entirely sure what it was anymore, except that it was precious. So much of pitching depends on things that have become so natural that there’s almost something fundamentally metabolic about them. All the systems have to be in subtle harmony, and the less that they are, the more obvious the symptoms of the problem become. He’s not sure what’s wrong with him, except that everything seems to be.

He was sent down at the beginning of June, at which time he balked a little, and got ripped a bit in the Boston media for his trouble. (Because of the circumstances of last September’s utter collapse, the old image of the Red Sox as a team of entitled malcontents is back with a vengeance. Bard got caught up in that.) It had been his idea to be a starter and, when it was revealed that he’d told management that he really thought his future was as a reliever, he was briefly everybody’s dinner on the talk shows. Then he got to Pawtucket and almost immediately fell apart again.

In his first start, he pitched one inning and gave up three runs on two hits. He also hit two batters, something that soon became rather chronic. The inconsistency in his delivery manifested itself quite clearly in his results. “That’s the toughest thing,” he said. “I have a good one and then a bad one, back and forth, for the last month or so. I have that good one, and I try to build on it, instead of going out and doing the same thing, and then I have a bad one and I’ll kind of restart, and then I won’t care on the next one, and that’s when the good results come. It’s a matter of getting that sense of consistency back.”

Going into the weekend series with Buffalo, Bard’s struggles clearly had deepened. In 15 innings with the PawSox, his ERA was 8.22. He had 17 strikeouts and 12 walks. He’d thrown eight wild pitches. The people watching him were no more sure about what the future held than Bard was. They also spoke in generalities, in a kind of baseball incantation, as though trying to conjure up something that was beyond release points and arm slots, something deeper that had been lost. “What I see, it varies,” Beyeler said. “Some nights, it’s one thing, then it’s another. The big thing is confidence. He’s got to have confidence that he can throw strikes, and his confidence just isn’t consistent. It’s one pitch here and there that sets something off, and there you go.”

Arnie Beyeler didn’t get to watch Daniel Bard pitch Sunday. In the seventh inning, there was a close play at third base. A Buffalo base runner was called safe. The Pawtucket players didn’t see it that way. Neither did Beyeler, who did the slow-burn walk from the dugout, timing it perfectly and reaching the umpire just as he hit full boil. He ran through every aria in the outraged manager’s opera until the umpire decided it was too damned hot for this foolishness and tossed Arnie, to the roaring cheers of several. Beyeler caught the rest of the game in his office.

“Actually,” he said later, “it’s kind of nice to watch the game on TV. You can see why players get upset when pitches right down the middle don’t get called strikes. I don’t usually get to see it that way from the dugout.”

Bard came on in the eighth, his first appearance since he threw the two wild pitches Friday night. This being the minor leagues, he came on just as they were announcing the winner of that day’s 50-50 raffle, and so he took his warm-up pitches while the theme from The Price Is Right was bouncing all over the ballpark. The game was tied at 4. From the start, even with the bases empty, he pitched almost entirely from the stretch, his head notched deeply down toward his breastbone, which seemed to truncate the great swooping motion of his arm that had been so compelling on the night they honored the late senator and Bard hit triple digits on the gun. It was as though the universe of his talents had shrunk and had suddenly been etched in glass so that, if he tested them too harshly, he’d shatter that universe entirely.

He went 3-0 right from the jump, falling behind Buffalo catcher Rob Johnson until Johnson finally took a strike and then grounded sharply to shortstop. Bard then threw a pitch far outside to Raul Reyes. He did not seem to be the same pitcher on any two pitches in succession, but Reyes, with an almost comical impatience, swung at a dipping slider and bounced out to second base. Why anyone was swinging at anything Bard was throwing up there was completely baffling. He couldn’t find the plate with his fork, and he wasn’t throwing anything faster than 94 mph. He was still visibly struggling. He just hadn’t hit anyone yet.

The next Buffalo hitter was Bay, who was just about done with his rehabilitation stint in the critical ward. Bard’s first pitch, a fastball, rode high for a ball, and his next one was far outside, and he was behind in the count again. Then, for two pitches, Bard was back again. He zipped a fastball past Bay on the inside corner, and then got him flailing at a slider to even the count. Then, for two pitches, he went back to the zoo, first missing low and then missing inside, and Bay trotted down to first base.

Watching in his office, Arnie had a fine view of what was going on. Bard’s release point was all over the lot. “The release point is mechanical,” he said later. “It’s something you can work on. Right now, we’re just trying to get him to get the ball over the plate.”

It was one inning, but it was the whole problem that had started at the end of last year and had exacerbated itself throughout the spring. Bard couldn’t string a consistent stretch of pitches together. He was up. Then he was outside. There was no chance of setting up a hitter because there wasn’t anything left on which he could confidently rely. Now with a base runner, Bard fell behind Adam Loewen at 3-1, his last pitch nearly bouncing in the dirt. The universe of his talent now seemed barely large enough to contain his windup. But then he threw a fastball past Loewen that clocked at 95, and then he found within himself a wicked, down-dipping slider that Loewen got on top of, bouncing meekly back to Bard along the first-base line to end the inning.

He threw 19 pitches in the inning. Five of them were strikes. None of those five made you jump out of your chair. None of those five were something you never saw before. They were decent, workmanlike pitches aimed at inducing ground balls. They were the kind of pitches you build on, if you are trying to rebuild your talents down here in a very small place where your picture’s on the fence because, once, you left here for the major leagues. Now, his future is here, somewhere in this small place tucked away amid the old factories. On July 28, it is Daniel Bard Bobblehead Night in Pawtucket. With any luck at all, he’ll be long gone out of town.

pierce-bio-shot

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com's Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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