BRADENTON, Fla. -- This could be awkward. The assignment is to write about a pitcher trying to overcome a malady, and the man after whom the malady is named is coming down the hallway, dressed in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.
"Uh, Steve, would you have a few minutes to talk about Daniel Bard?" I ask.
"Ah, my favorite subject," he says. "Just kidding with you. Listen, I have to give a little talk to the pitchers. I'll meet you back here in 90 minutes or so, OK?"
With that, the man in the BLASS 26 jersey trots out into the sunshine of Pirate City. At age 73, Pirates television broadcaster Steve Blass still looks damn good in a uniform. Golf keeps him fit, but it's more than that -- he wears baseball well. And on this day, Feb. 24, he has another season to look forward to.
Once upon a time, Blass was simply a kid from rural Connecticut who won the 1971 World Series with his good friend Roberto Clemente, and made the National League All-Star team the following year. But then, during the season following Clemente's tragic death in December 1972, Blass inexplicably lost it. The control pitcher who had won 19 games in 1972 suddenly couldn't find the plate, and within two years, he was out of baseball.
Some call it the yips, others The Thing, still others Steve Blass Disease. "My brain just stopped talking to my arm," says Blass. After a few years of selling class rings, Blass returned to Pittsburgh in 1983 to go into broadcasting, which he has been doing ever since. But along the way he also became a beloved ambassador for the Pirates and a role model for people who temporarily lose their way. He turned a curse into a blessing.
And now, he's back from his talk with the pitchers. How did it go?
"Well, nobody fell asleep," he says. "Basically, I told a few jokes and told them my story, what it was like to be on top of that hill out there, and what it was like to be at the bottom. Seemed to go OK."
Bard wasn't in camp yet, so he wasn't part of the group that Blass had just addressed.
"No, I haven't talked to him yet," Blass says. "What would I tell him? First of all, don't quit. Try everything. Other pitchers like Mark Wohlers have worked their way through it. Do what Rick Ankiel did and turn yourself into an outfielder if you have to.
"Then I'd tell him, this is a great organization, and Pittsburgh is a great city. I'd tell him he's in a good place."
Back on Jan. 11, the Pirates announced they had signed Bard to a minor league contract. The move made sense because he was only 30 and just a few years removed from being one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. But it also raised eyebrows because of the irony: He was going to Ground Zero of Steve Blass Disease.
Once upon a time, in 2011, Bard was part of the Red Sox's lights-out late-inning combo, along with Jonathan Papelbon. Bard even set a franchise record with 25 consecutive scoreless appearances. Think about that -- 25 scoreless appearances. But then he inexplicably lost his command in September of that season. The Red Sox tried to make him a starter the next year, but that didn't work, and he was released in 2013.
Thus began a spin cycle of hopes and dashed hopes. The Cubs, run by former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, signed him, then released him. In January 2014, Bard decided to have thoracic outlet surgery, a procedure in which the first rib on the throwing side is removed to relieve pressure on a nerve near the shoulder. The Rangers signed him after that, then released him. The Cubs signed him again in 2015 but kept him in extended spring training long after he had this unusual line: one inning, two strikeouts, three walks and six wild pitches. At the end of the season, they released him again.
Enter T.J. Large, a member of the Pirates' player development staff. Large is also a former Red Sox prospect and a one-time teammate of Bard's. He called Bard at his offseason home in Madison, Mississippi, to congratulate him on the birth of his child and to compare notes -- Large had just become a father himself -- and the talk got around to baseball. Large told Bard that he and the Pirates might be a good fit because they have had some success helping pitchers rediscover their command. Within two weeks, the minor league deal was signed, and Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage had a new project.
Searage, a former major league reliever, has been with the Pirates since 2009, and under his tutelage, such pitchers as A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez have revived their careers. Last year, Searage helped turn the erratic Arquimedes Caminero into a reliable middle reliever. "They come to me with their knots, and I just try to untie them," he says. "I'm a puzzle guy."
(As such, he might be interested to know that one possible anagram for the words BRADENTON FLORIDA is DANL BARD TO FIRE ON.)
But solving word puzzles is not the same thing as solving control problems. Searage studies their films and gets to know them. "Every pitcher is different," he says. "Part of the process is mechanical, part of it is mental. Take Caminero, for instance. We got him to shorten his leg kick, which made his delivery much more consistent. But we also made him realize that he had to have intent on every pitch."
Even more germane to Bard is the work that Searage did last year with Clayton Richard, a left-hander who had thoracic outlet surgery. Though the Pirates did not reap the benefits -- Richard eventually signed with the Cubs -- Searage was only too happy to help him. "You start with a game of catch, just to bring their muscle memory back. It takes time, but I live for the day when they finally make that pitch that makes them smile again."
Earlier this spring, Adam Berry of MLB.com caught up with Bard when he showed up for some voluntary workouts at Pirate City in Bradenton. He acknowledged that the Pirates' reputation for helping troubled pitchers factored in his decision to sign with them even though he had other offers: "I don't think it's a coincidence when an organization is able to do that pretty consistently, " Bard said. "Not that I'm looking for a magic pill or anything. I think it's just a good environment for guys to come in and get comfortable again."
Since that interview, the Pirates have restricted access to Bard. They want to lessen the pressure on him and not raise any expectations. To that end, he's just another minor leaguer wearing No. 54 with no name on the back. And you can't really argue with them -- they've proved they know what they're doing.
Searage, who did spot the reason for an inconsistent release point in a video, has left the hands-on coaching of Bard to minor league coaches Scott Elarton and Scott Mitchell. There's no timetable, no rush. As general manager Neal Huntington told Berry, "Our goal is to have him help us at some point later this year. Our focus isn't necessarily as soon as possible."
But so far, so good. No. 54 -- same number as Searage, by the way -- closed out a 4-2 win over the Tigers on March 1 by getting the last batter to pop out to second. Afterward, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "One of the nice things we walked away with today was getting him in, getting an out and getting him moving forward."
He does seem to be in a good place, both mentally and physically. On Monday he traveled with the team to Fort Myers to play against his old team, the Red Sox. Before the game, he talked with ESPN.com Red Sox reporter Scott Lauber. "I've gotten the work I need, and it's feeling good," Bard said. "As cliché as it is, I'm taking it a day at a time and having fun with it. ... The reactions from the hitters, that's the best way to tell whether they're seeing it well or not, and I think that's been positive."
The game against the Red Sox was definitely a positive: a one-two-three inning, a strikeout and the save in a 3-1 victory. And should a negative arise, well, there's this old guy who used to pitch for the Pirates.
Blass calls his temporary coaching role this spring as "instructor-slash-decoration." Hurdle thought it would be a nice idea to have Blass around so that the players could get to know him better, and he them. That little talk that Blass gave to the pitchers back on Feb. 24? Hurdle asked him to do that, too, and it wasn't quite as low-key as Blass made it out to be.
"It was spectacular," says Pirates reliever Tony Watson. "One of the best speeches I've ever heard. He has a real gift for storytelling, and he made us laugh. But he also made us realize how much baseball means to him and to all of us."
Blass told them what it was like to dress in the 1972 National League All-Star clubhouse with Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, Clemente and Henry Aaron. As Johnny Bench approached him to go over the signs they would use in the third inning, when Blass was scheduled to pitch, Blass told him, "John, you always seem to know what I'm going to throw when you're batting against me. You don't have to put any signs down."
Blass suggested to the Pirates' pitchers that the best motivational tool could be bought for $39 at Home Depot. "It's called a bathroom mirror," he said. "If you look in it every day, and be honest with it, it can be your best friend."
He told them about his struggles and his desperation. "One time this hunter from Virginia wrote me a letter in which he said that he discovered that the reason for his bad aim was that his underwear was too tight," he said. "I read the letter out loud in the clubhouse, and we all laughed. And then I went out and bought looser underwear."
He recounted the abyss he fell into and how his love of the game helped him climb out of it. And then he said, "So that's my story. Now go out and write your own stories, and kick ass for the next 10 years."
"We were on our feet at the end," Searage says. "He let us know what it's like to wear this uniform, to stand out there exposed for everyone to see and to work your way through it. He's just a remarkable human being."
The funny thing is that even though Bard wasn't there that day, he had already gotten the message. As he told Lauber, "Having your dreams realized and then having everything kind of taken away makes you realize you can't sink all your happiness into one thing. ... Baseball is still there, but you can't let it define you and make you miserable when it's not going well. It's a game."
The game will hopefully go on for Daniel Bard. But if not? Hey, you could do a lot worse than be compared to Steve Blass.