Yankees: The compelling and mystifying saga of Greg Bird

Greg Bird (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Greg Bird (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

Yankees General Manager, Brian Cashman, once looked over towards first base, saying to reporters, “He’s the best pure hitter on the Yankees.” That may still be, but the question remains if Cashman will ever see the same player on the field again.

The Yankees have played their entire season without a first baseman. Check that, without a major league first baseman. The drama and the parade of pretenders surrounding the position are familiar to all Yankees fans, who find it difficult to recall the last time the position didn’t yield 25-30 home runs and 90-100 RBI.

But the real drama has taken place off the field. The story behind the drama reads like a suspense novel with numerous twists and turns in the plot that keeps the reader awake at night turning pages.

But this is non-fiction, and it is the story of Greg Bird, who for all practical purposes has been MIA from the Yankees lineup for two years. Bird has been far from AWOL, though, and the relationship between him and the team has, if anything, been strengthened and never compromised.

Bird, from what we know, had successful and repetitive surgery to repair a small bone in his ankle. Almost immediately, he released a statement which reads in part:

"“In nearly four months since first injuring my ankle, it had been increasingly frustrating to have only questions and no answers,” Bird said. “All this time, I have wanted nothing more than to be out there playing the game I love as a member of the New York Yankees. “My season is not over. I plan to do everything in my power to return and help our team win in 2017.”"

The First Commandment of sportswriting

And it’s the last part of the statement that is most telling about the humanness of Bird’s story when he sets what is no doubt an unreachable goal for himself to wear the Pinstripes in a major league game for the Yankees in 2017.

Forget the fact that the Yankees have no intention of rushing him back this season. And forget the fact that in a few days they’ll probably have a real first baseman acquired in a trade to finish out the season, and perhaps even beyond.

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What matters is that Bird now feels compelled to defend his manhood and his heart to return to the Yankees this season.  In sportswriting, the First Commandment reads “Thou shall not question a player’s heart.” And there are no other Commandments. Everything else is fair game.

You can write about extra-marital affairs, excessive drinking, being late for batting practice, or being seen walking the streets of New York at 4 AM with a model on each arm, but don’t write the kind of slime a reporter wrote about Bird. A story that was republished nationally, hinting that Bird was “soft” and not a guy who was willing to play hurt.

Joe Girardi, muffling his anger, quickly came to the defense of his player telling ABC News:

"“I don’t think I would be too happy about it,” Girardi said. “Because I think only the players know. I would be a little upset about someone questioning my desire and my integrity.”"

But the damage had been done, and now we have a player who apparently thinks he has to account for every single day he is not with the team. And that’s not healthy for anyone.

All signs point West

The “best pure hitter on the Yankees” has proven he can do just that. His seven home runs during Spring Training set a tone indicating that Bird was not only back from missing all last season, but that he was on the brink of something very special during the regular season.

A foul ball off his ankle in the final days of the Spring launched a series of events leading to where we are today, including a humiliating 6-60 start to the season before he was placed on the DL.

Baseball, above all else, is a business and there is never room for sentiment. Everyone in the Yankees universe wants to see Greg Bird as the team’s first baseman next year and beyond. But production is the name of the game.

Rules permitting, the Yankees will opt to send Bird to the Arizona Fall League after the World Series, which is where he went for his “tune-up” last year.

If healthy, he plays. If not healthy, he doesn’t play. And it can’t get simpler than that.

Abandonment is not an option

The Yankees have made a substantial investment in Bird, and the medical bills attached to his treatment surely must exceed the salary they are paying him.

But that’s off message on both sides. The Yankees want Greg Bird to be their first baseman next season for one reason only, and that’s because he can help the team. But at the same time, they need to protect their overall investments by ensuring that if Bird can’t play, someone else will.

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And at this juncture, if I were Bird’s agent I would tell him to stay under the radar, no more press releases, do your work, keep in touch with the team, take their direction, and hope for the best.

And maybe that’s good advice for the rest of us too.