'I shouldn’t even be here:' After a seven-year absence, Rockies closer Daniel Bard is better than ever

It was another miserable season for the Colorado Rockies, who will finish last once again in the NL West. It continues their streak of failing to win a division title in their 30-year history, sitting 45 games out of first place entering Sunday.

You name it, and it went wrong. They couldn’t pitch. They couldn’t hit.

Yet, through all of the darkness, there was a shining light, who epitomized perseverance and courage, giving hope for all those who believe they will never make it.

The name is Daniel Bard.

He last pitched in the big leagues for the Boston Red Sox in 2013, only to never return until seven years later. He bounced around in five different organizations over the next four years trying to become the pitcher who was on his way to stardom. It was no use. It was gone. He retired from baseball in 2017, and began working as a player mentor and mental skills coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“I took the attitude,’’ Bard said, “that my career was a failure."

Rockies closer Daniel Bard has saved 32 games in 35 opportunities this season.
Rockies closer Daniel Bard has saved 32 games in 35 opportunities this season.

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Today, he’s one of the finest closers in the game, producing one of the greatest seasons by a reliever in Rockies’ history, saving 32 games in 35 opportunities with a 1.88 ERA. He ranks third in the National League in saves and save percentage (91.4%).

The comeback story just keeps adding chapters.

“I still have trouble believing it sometimes,’’ Bard tells USA TODAY Sports. “I mean, I shouldn’t even be here. Most people that went through anything close to what I went through are not working in baseball anymore. Man, if I could have told myself that I’d be back at this level, pitching like I have, I wouldn’t have believed it.’’

Bard, a prized setup reliever with the Red Sox since his debut in 2009, once making 25 consecutive scoreless appearances, simply lost his control in 2013. He went through injuries, and then mechanical adjustments, all shrouded by performance anxiety. He had the yips. He could no longer throw a baseball with any accuracy.

His last major-league game was April 27, 2013, and he spent the next four years desperately searching for answers, but after spending the 2017 summer in Port St. Lucie, Florida, at the New York Mets spring training facility, he tossed the baseball to one of the coaches after a bullpen session.

He got into his car, drove home, and at the age of 32, his baseball career was over.

Bard, who knew Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen from their days together in Boston, got a job as a roving mental skills instructor. He would fly throughout the summer to minor-league sites, talk to kids about his troubles and tribulations, trying to assure they wouldn’t be met with the same fate.

“I think taking that job and helping other people with similar type stuff, and all of the mental things that goes on in this game,’’ Bard said, “really helped me. I was telling my story hundreds of times to different players and coaches and staff, saying, 'I was really good, and the (expletive) hit the fan.'

“But my telling that story so much, it softened my story. These young guys are saying, 'Oh, wow, that’s so awesome. You got four years in the big leagues! You got to play in Boston. What was that like? It’s so cool you’re using your struggles to help other guys.'

“I was never looking at it like that way. I was like, you know what, it’s a job. And I only got four years.’’

It gave Bard time to reflect at his life, wondering if he viewed it the wrong way, focusing on the negative instead of accentuating the positive of his career.

“It was like that re-framed the whole thing in my head,’’ Bard said. “I was like, 'You know what, I did do some cool things.’ I didn’t view my career as such a horrible failure.

“I viewed it like, 'Hey, it was a really good thing. It’s really unfortunate what happened, but I’m still alive and here to talk about it.'"

Well, while Bard slowly started feeling better about his playing career, and began playing catch with minor-league pitchers he’d see, a peculiar thing happened.

He started throwing pitches with pinpoint control. And then he started throwing harder, and harder. It got to the point where the minor-league pitchers were complaining that he was throwing harder than they did, imploring him to take the mound.

“When I first retired and was playing catch with these guys,’’ Bard said, “two would go over your head, one at your feet, maybe one at your chest. But halfway through that second year of coaching, I could actually play normal catch.

“I was playing catcher with a couple of pitchers a couple of days, and they’d say, 'Dude you still got it.’ I was like, 'Nah, you have no idea what I’ve been through. It doesn’t translate to the mound.’’’

The minor league season ended, but when Bard returned home to South Carolina, he was intrigued. He was not only pitching well, but also was feeling good, and even having fun pitching again.

He put up a net in his back yard. He got his arm into shape. He stepped back on the mound, seeing if he could still do it.

“It wasn’t like I was thinking about a comeback, but it was just out of my own curiosity,’’ Bard said, “because I had no closure from my career. I finished on such a low note. I wanted to feel good about throwing. I wanted to see if I could throw off a mound again and have it feel normal.

“It turned out to be better than I expected.’’

Bard rushed back into his house, and yelled to his wife, Adair: “Honey, I’m throwing 95 to 96 mph. And I’m throwing them for strikes.’’

Adair said: “That’s awesome. Do you think you can pitch again?’’

Bard: “Well, I do, but that’s insane.’’

Adair: “Do you want to do it?’’

Bard: “I’m really curious to what would happen.’’

The longer they talked, the more serious the conversation became, until it was inevitable.

“She was like, 'I think you have to do it,'" Bard recalled. “'I can tell by the way you’re talking about it, if you don’t do it, you’re going to wonder the rest of your life if you were good enough to make a comeback.’"

“I said, 'You’re right.’’’

The official decision began a week later, and the comeback began. Bard sent around videotapes of his bullpen performances, hoping it would lead to a job to pitch for an Independent League team. He called the Diamondbacks, offering them first choice, but they declined, believing it would be a conflict of interest for a staff member who was entrusted with direct knowledge of players’ psyche after discreet counseling sessions, and suddenly be competing for a job against them.

He went to Arizona and tried out in front of about 20 teams on a high-school field. The Rockies were intrigued, and invited him to their camp on a minor-league contract.

“I knew I was throwing the ball well, and I felt the freedom and fun of throwing again,’’ Bard says, “but my expectations were so low. I knew that I have this really sketchy history, and there may not be a team that takes a flier on me. I might have to go Indy ball, spend months in Class, Triple-A, I was ready for that possibility. And I was ok with it."

Bard threw a side session before the start of spring training for the Rockies coaching staff. He threw two or three bullpen sessions. He threw simulated games against the Rockies’ lineup, and dominated. He appeared in spring training games with no signs of control problems.

“We threw challenge after challenge at him,’’ said Rockies manager Bud Black. “We wanted to be sure, and he kept meeting them. It was awesome to watch. It looked right from the get-go.’’

It was a different Bard that anyone had seen since 2012, even better, with a mind that was free of failure.

“I think with all of the weird stuff going on with COVID,’’ Bard said, “that helped me make it. And once I made I back, I thought, if I just last one outing, that’s a win. I conquered it and officially got back to the big leagues. That’s the way I looked at every outing. I know I’m good, I don’t have to be perfect. The fact that I’m here, I already won in my mind."

Well, here we are, three years, and Bard is just getting better and better, and throwing 98-mph with a vicious slider. He was the Comeback Player of the Year in 2020 with his six saves and 3.65 ERA, produced 20 saves with a 5.21 ERA last year, and, despite pitching in the toughest pitchers’ ballpark in baseball, the number say it all this year: 6-4, 32 saves, 1.88 ERA, 57.1 innings.

“It’s such a great story, right?’’ Black said. “As times goes on, I don’t think about it, but then I do. Seven years. It’s just remarkable.’’

Said Rockies GM Bill Schmidt: “How many people have ever done this, to be away from the game that long, and come back?"

The Rockies showed their belief in Bard by not shopping him before the trade deadline, and instead signing him to a two-year, $19 million contract, making sure his comeback story is completed in a Rockies uniform.

“I’m so lucky to be here,’’ Bard says. “I remind myself that this is a pretty cool privilege.’’

Oh, and just in case anyone thought he’d change now that he’s a big-time closer, it ain’t happening.

“The funny thing is that I still get called Josh Bard as much as I get called Daniel Bard,’’ Daniel Bard says of the Dodgers catching coach, and former MLB catcher. “So, yeah, that keeps you pretty humble.

“But this, it’s just beyond my wildest imagination.’’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Daniel Bard, Rockies closer, is having unforgettable season