Somewhere, former members of the Grandview High School tennis team know it’s a big deal that Greg Bird has come home again.
The story goes that when it was Bird’s turn to take his batting practice swings, Grandview’s outfielders would yell a heads up to those practicing or playing on the tennis courts on the other side of the outfield wall. Fearing getting struck by one of Bird’s torpedoes, the tennis players would stop until Birds’ BP session was finished.
A little more than 10 years later, the left-handed swinging Bird is in position to again clout majestic shots through Colorado’s thin air after he signed up with the Rockies on a minor-league contract last week. Why between Coors Field and Triple-A Albuquerque, Bird might, hit what, 80 home runs this year?
“I’ve still got a lot of work to put in,’’ Bird said while laughing at the exaggerated suggested number during an exclusive Zoom interview Friday with 9NEWS. “I’m just looking forward to getting back out there, really. Obviously, last year was a weird year. I think everyone is ready to turn the page and get a full year going under somewhat normal circumstances and get back out there.”
Bird left Grandview with enormous promise as a future big-league slugger for the perennial World Series-contending New York Yankees. Selected as a catcher in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, Bird experienced his first bout with injury in 2012 but rebounded as a first baseman to become the Arizona Fall League’s Most Valuable Player in 2014.
He reached the big-league Yankees by August 2015 and hit 11 homers with 31 RBIs while batting .261 in 46 games for manager Joe Girardi. Bird got one of the Yanks’ three hits in a 3-0 in the American League wild card all-or-nothing playoff loss to Houston.
Seemingly on his way to not only big-league stardom, but stardom as a Yankee, Bird’s career was instead derailed that offseason by a torn labrum that forced him to miss the entire 2016 season. He’s had to overcome injury after injury since then and while he did make a nice comeback in 2018 when he hit 11 homers with 38 RBIs in half a season for the Yanks, Bird is now 28 and the Rockies mark his fourth organization in 15 months.
And yet, he continues to swing away.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,’’ Bird said. “This is all I’ve wanted to do. There has definitely been low times where it’s been difficult I would say. It’s been a unique career. But all that aside, you learn a lot going through tough times. You learn to persevere, you learn patience, you learn a lot of traits that are not only going to help me in baseball, but in life.
“Really just growing up. And when you grow up under a spotlight, you learn quick. You get tossed to the wolves. For me, I feel like I’ve made strides in a lot of different areas in my life. My mentality. I think it will serve me well this year. I’m just really working forward to showing the work that I’ve put in to be back in this position and doing it with a good group of guys that enjoy playing ball, too.’’
The hometown team came along to give Bird a chance to hit the reset button his career. Born in Memphis, Bird’s family moved to Colorado when he was 10 and he was a couple weeks shy of his 15th birthday when Colorado’s magical Rocktober run of 21 wins in 22 games reached the World Series.
“It was hard not to get attached to that team,’’ Bird said. “I think everyone was to some extent. Just the commercials they would run at the time. They were running some pretty funny commercials. That always stood out to me. The commercials they were running then with all those guys but it was exciting. I mean that was wild.
“And that was right at the age where professional baseball was starting to creep into my mind. Seeing those guys do that and then I was fortunate enough to get know a couple of them. One being (Matt) Holliday. Which, “The Slide,” obviously, everyone remembers: Did he touch home or not? No one will ever know. But they called him safe.”
He never did the plate in game 163 but it didn’t matter because Padres catcher Michael Barrett didn’t tag him either, and home plate umpire Tim McClelland had seen enough of the epic, 13-inning thriller to end it by calling the dazed Holliday safe. Pandemonium ensued.
“(Holliday) doesn’t remember, he said,’’ Bird said with a smile. “Whatever, all right, sure. So it was a blast. We were watching it in high school class. I remember they had it on. They couldn’t not have it on. Obviously, Denver’s booming. It’s a smaller market team to some extent but you’ve got passionate fans there, you’ve got good people there in Denver, a great city. That was a blast. Good memories, good memories.”
So how does it feel to play for the hometown team?
“A, just the opportunity to play ball again,’’ Bird said. “But it’s exciting. It’s exciting to be going back home again. I’m not going to lie about it. I’ve got a lot of work to put in to prove that I can help the club. I’m in a good spot right now, it’s been a great offseason. But just the thought of that, it’s exciting. You can’t deny that. From what I hear, I’ve talked to (Dave) Magadan the hitting coach and (manger) Bud Black -- seems like a great group so I’m excited to get down there to spring training and get playing again.”
Bird was leaving Sunday from Tampa for Scottsdale. It’s not easy for any player on a minor-league deal to make the Opening Day roster but if Bird stays healthy, his ability to hit with power and the Rockies playing in such a homer-happy park as Coors Field may eventually be too tantalizing to ignore. His goals for 2021?
“No. 1 is always – and I hate saying it – stay on the field,’’ he said. “I put a lot of work in this offseason to be prepared for that. Last year the situation, it was weird. I felt like I had a productive year. I got a lot done, I was in a good place. And I got to go into the offseason normally, get my work in, had a good plan, felt like I executed the plan well. Now the next step is getting there to spring. That’s where my focus is. That’s my goal right now: Show up, be a pro, meet the new guys, meet my new teammates and enjoy.”