TAMPA, Fla. -- The first baseman described by none other than Brian Cashman as the best hitter in the New York Yankees' organization was just a student. Greg Bird was at Single-A Charleston listening as intently as possible to the guest lecturer. Every word meant something to Bird because of who was saying them and the simple message he was delivering.
It was the crazy Yankees summer of 2013. Alex Rodriguez was on the verge of being suspended for more than a year while simultaneously trying to come back from hip surgery. He was making back-page news daily, leading "SportsCenter" nightly and annoying the Yankees' front office regularly.
But at each stop in the minors on his rehab from hip surgery, A-Rod was allowed to push aside Biogenesis for a few minutes and serve as a teacher. Bird, then in his first season of pro ball, was eager to listen.
“Some of the things that he told us still is some of the best advice I've ever gotten as a hitter, just as far as professional baseball went,” Bird, now in his first big-league camp, said the other day.
A-Rod told Bird and the rest of the Single-A Charleston River Dogs that the higher the level you go, the easier the game becomes -- the stadiums are nicer, the lights are better, the umpires are more precise, on and on. A-Rod also gave practical advice on hitting, making it simple.
In each at-bat since, Bird has taken with him the intelligence that, according to A-Rod, not even in the big leagues can a pitcher fire three straight fastballs on the inside corner on the black.
“He is not even worried about it,” said Bird, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-3, 215-pound, left-handed first baseman. “You can’t worry about the inner half of the plate because if you do, you give up the outer half. You give up off-speed pitches. Just hearing that out of his mouth that first full season was big. It stuck with me ever since.”
Bird not only took in Rodriguez’s advice, he caught A-Rod’s eye. Rodriguez, before Bird was on many top prospects lists, singled out Bird, saying Bird had a swing and an approach that could make him the next great Yankees hitter.
“I've seen enough baseball that you see a guy in a uniform and you see the way it comes off his bat [you can tell],” A-Rod said.
Bird and Aaron Judge -- whom Reggie Jackson compared to Dave Winfield, among others -- are looked at as possibly the future foundation of the Bronx Bombers. While Judge has received a little more publicity, Bird could soon push Mark Teixeira for playing time.
“You want a hitter who's got high-end hitting ability, high-end plate discipline, high-end power,” Cashman said. “Not just one of them."
Hitting coach Jeff Pentland added, “He has easy power. He doesn't have to swing hard to hit it hard. That’s a good thing.”
In 2014 in Single-A and Double-A, Bird hit .271 with 14 homers and 41 RBIs in 102 games. His OPS was .848.
Cashman said Bird will start 2015 at Double-A Trenton. Cashman also said Bird will dictate when he is promoted by how he plays.
“It is a performance-driven business,” Cashman said.
The head of the Yankees’ amateur scouting, Damon Oppenheimer, is the man who pulled the trigger on drafting Bird out of Aurora, Colorado's Grandview High School in the fifth round in 2011. Bird was a catcher then headed for Arkansas, but the Yankees offered $1.1 million to convince Bird to skip college. For Bird, it was an easy choice.
“I always wanted to play professional baseball,” Bird said.
While A-Rod’s tale offers more than a few cautions, his love for the game is something that can be emulated. When you speak with Bird, you sense that same joy for baseball.
Bird lived his first 10 years in Memphis, Triple-A home to the Cardinals, so he grew up sort of a Cardinals fan, but really he just loved the game, everything about it. Like A-Rod, he just wants to play it, watch it and talk it.
Even at lunch the other day, A-Rod said he sat with Bird and Judge talking about the game. The youngsters asked more questions and listened.
“That tells me they have a chance to be big stars in this league,” A-Rod said.