Editor's note: Each day this week, Tony Lee will cover Daniel Bard's rise from high school dominance to setup man for the Boston Red Sox. Check out Monday's story, when Bard dominated in high school in North Carolina.
The New York Yankees used their 20th-round selection in the 2003 amateur player draft on a tall, lanky right-hander from North Carolina, hoping that their big wallet could lure him away from higher education. It didn't work.
That player, Daniel Bard, elected to attend the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, a decision that had some in the Tar Heel family counting their blessings.
"I can remember the first time he threw a bullpen session for us," recalled UNC head coach Mike Fox of the moment he realized how fortunate he had been. "All I kept thinking was, 'Gosh, I'm glad he didn't sign. Gosh, I'm glad he didn't sign. I'm glad he's in my program.'"
That was in the fall of 2003. After the spring of 2004, Bard had been named the Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, going 8-4 with a 3.88 ERA.
What stood out about Bard, even before he turned his back on the Yankees, was how smooth his delivery was. It's still apparent at Fenway Park when he looks like he's soft-tossing and a triple-digit reading is posted on the radar gun.
However, that smooth delivery and that even smoother collegiate debut would soon see its first obstacles. As a sophomore, for the first time, Bard began to struggle a bit. Not that he was bad in any way (he still led the staff with a .219 opponents batting average), but Bard's ERA rose to 4.22 and the occasional lack of control began to become more common. Struggling at times to get the fastball over and still working on refining some kind of secondary arsenal, he walked 43 batters in 89 2/3 innings.
Fox thinks that it was a necessary evil from which the righty had to learn.
"His sophomore year he was, I would describe it as average at best," Fox said. "That secondary pitch and somewhat lack of control, all those things. Holding runners. All those intangibles. Daniel did not have a smooth, overpowering career here. He was a work in progress.
"I think his freshman year, and he and I have talked about this, he had success early and I think he got a little complacent in his sophomore year and I think he thought his talent would just take him to the next level, and he took a step backwards."
Again, Bard was not bad as a sophomore. He was still rather good. But, as Fox said, the step taken was in the wrong direction for a kid considered to be one of the more talented arms in the country. It would take a trip to Massachusetts, incidentally, that helped Bard put it all together.
Given a chance to pitch for the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League that summer of 2005, Bard shined against other college standouts. He posted a 1.25 ERA in 10 starts, led the league with 82 strikeouts (in just 65 innings) and earned MVP honors in the league's all-star game. Fox said Bard went there "with something to prove" and figured out some things with his delivery. That seemed to translate well, as those who saw him on the mound in Massachusetts witnessed someone quite different than the kid who had a bumpy year at UNC.
"A lot of times you get guys up there at Wareham with great arms but not the command that you see," said Wareham head coach Cooper Farris, who missed much of that summer to attend to a family matter but saw just enough of Bard to be supremely impressed. "He was really smooth and polished. It really surprised me for that age."
Part of it had to do with what Bard had upstairs. Mentally, he was superior to many of his peers. Fox even saw that during some of the rocky outings Bard had as a sophomore, saying that his pitcher had a "great perspective" and never let the struggles get him down. Similarly, Farris and his staff saw Bard not get too worked up over utter domination. He simply kept working.
"Some kids, they're tired from their college season and they just want to come up and lay on the beach," Farris added. "They don't realize … I don't know if it just wasn't fun being on the field. You could just tell some of those guys that couldn't get enough of it, like Bard."
Players go through many transitions and highs and lows before they become major leaguers, and Bard would have more to come. But the commitment he made to get better that summer in Wareham sent him down a path that would one day make him what he is today.
It would also help him carve out a nice little niche in Tar Heels history.
Check back Wednesday for a look at Bard's phenomenal final year at UNC and his transition into the Red Sox minor league system.