FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It sounds crazy now, but the downfall of Daniel Bard might have begun during a season in which he didn't allow a run for two months.
"There are things you can look back on," Bard said on a Monday morning that called for reminiscing as he returned to Fort Myers to face his former team, the Boston Red Sox. "This is getting complicated, but my spin rates were vastly different in 2011 than my previous two years. It's a weird thing. I was still pitching well, but the ball was coming out of my hand a lot different. My velocity was down. My command was not terrible, but my misses were more common, and I was walking a few more guys. That was just an uphill battle. I didn't know anything was wrong. I was just fighting through it."
Everyone knows what happened next. Bard, a closer-in-waiting with a triple-digit fastball, imploded down the stretch in 2011, embodying a Red Sox team that lost an 8-1/2-game wild-card cushion in the season's final month. He tried to become a starting pitcher in 2012 but struggled badly with his control.
The low point -- well, before he got sent back to the minor leagues -- came in Toronto when he faced 13 batters, walking six and hitting two.
Bard was ultimately diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome -- "The nerves in my hand weren't telling my brain where my arm was," he explained in terms a layman would understand -- though the condition wasn't discovered until after the 2013 season. By then, the Red Sox had cut bait with him, and he has since bounced from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers and back to the Cubs, never again pitching above A-ball.
As Bard describes it, the past few years have been about "relearning how to throw."
And now, he's in minor-league camp with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who signed him at the recommendation of his former Red Sox minor-league teammate T.J. Large in what figures to be a last-ditch hope to salvage the remnants of his career.
It's reasonable, then, given all he has been through, for Bard to look back upon his Red Sox days as though they were a lifetime ago.
In many ways, they were.
"I have a ton of memories from my time here," Bard said. "It seems enough removed where it doesn’t seem weird to be here or anything. There are probably more of you [reporters] that are the same than players, coaches, or any front office guys. The jersey is the same but it’s a way different place, I think, than when I left a few years ago."
Bard is different, too. He's 30 now, a new father, and armed with the perspective that comes with peaking in only your third big-league season before crashing like the waves at high tide.
"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."
For one day, at least, Bard's story had a happy ending. He entered in the ninth inning, retired all three batters he faced, including a strikeout of catcher Sandy Leon, and was credited with a spring-training save.
"You really have to admire his perseverance," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, Bard's pitching coach when he made his major-league debut in 2009. "The last four or five years, it's been a long road for him through the thoracic outlet, the surgery that followed, the adjustment to the arm slot that looks like he's gaining some comfort with. So, you're happy to see him back in a big-league environment and throwing the ball well."
That's something everyone can agree on.