SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Kevin Gausman has a prediction about Greg Bird, his buddy, and former Grandview High School teammate.
“If he’s healthy, he’s definitely going to help the Rockies, because he’s a great left-handed hitter,” the San Francisco Giants starting pitcher said. “I feel pretty confident in saying that his power is going to play pretty well in Colorado.
“I could definitely see him hitting some balls where Todd Helton used to, way up into the right-field seats at Coors Field. And I hope he does. I just hope it’s not against us.”
The idea of Bird playing first base in LoDo is tantalizing, which is why the Rockies signed him to a minor league deal and invited him to big-league camp.
“It’s a good fit, but to be quite honest, there wasn’t a lot of picking going on at my end,” said the 28-year-old Bird, adding that he feels 100% healthy after a series of injuries hijacked his promising career. “The Rockies gave me a good opportunity but I know I’m in a situation where I have to prove that I can play.”
He’s got plenty of competition at first base. Just days after the Rockies signed Bird, they also brought power hitter C.J. Cron into camp on a minor league deal. And sure-handed Josh Fuentes, who finished the 2020 season as the starter, is intent on keeping his job.
Before Bird was a rookie member of the New York Yankees’ “Baby Bombers” in 2015, before all of the injuries and before his current comeback bid with his hometown team, Bird was a Colorado phenom.
The stories are legendary.
During a summer baseball camp when Bird was an eighth-grader, a coach was throwing Bird batting practice, replete with curveballs, sliders and heat.
“I heard this loud crack of the bat, so I walked over and asked who it was,” recalled former Grandview coach Dean Adams. “Somebody said ‘That’s Greg Bird.’
“It was amazing to watch. I mean, the coach throwing BP tried everything to get him out. Finally, he said to me, ‘I can’t get this kid out!’ ”
During his freshman season at Grandview, Bird, a catcher at the time, spent most of the spring on junior varsity. Finally, he got called up to varsity for a district playoff game.
“First at-bat, he raked a double off the wall,” Adams said. “I didn’t put him on varsity at first because we already had a good team and a good catcher. In hindsight, I probably should have.”
As a sophomore, Bird exploded onto the scene, wowing scouts not only in Colorado but across the country.
“Bird destroyed us both times we played Grandview when I was a senior,” recalled Denver Post sportswriter Kyle Newman, who played for Arapahoe High. “He hit a home run in both games — as just a sophomore. He was 4-for-4 with five RBIs, a triple and a homer in the second game. He was the best defensive catcher I ever saw in person at the high school level at the time.”
During his two full prep seasons, Bird blasted a Colorado-best 27 home runs while batting .574 with 74 RBIs.
“In my opinion, and in the opinion of other people around the state, including Marc Johnson, he’s probably the greatest hitter to ever come out of the state of Colorado,” Adams said.
That’s saying something, considering that Johnson has coached at Cherry Creek since 1972, winning eight state championships and 32 league titles.
“That’s a hell of a compliment,” Bird said.
The Yankees picked Bird in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. He made his big-league debut on Aug. 13, 2015, against Cleveland. In 46 games as a rookie, he hit 11 homers and nine doubles and batted .261.
After his impressive start, many in the Bronx viewed Bird as the heir apparent to veteran Mark Teixeira.
It didn’t happen.
Injuries haunted Bird. He tore his right labrum in 2016, underwent shoulder surgery and missed the entire season. He missed most of 2017 with an ankle injury, two months of 2018 after ankle surgery and missed all but the first two weeks of the 2019 season with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
Those injuries limited him to only 140 games over three seasons with New York, resulting in a .194 batting average, 21 home runs and 61 RBIs. That was a big comedown for the phenom.
Bird’s talent, however, was never completely extinguished. In the 2017 playoffs, his solo homer off Cleveland’s Andrew Miller accounted for the only run in Game 3 of the American League division series, lifting the Yankees from a 2-0 deficit and into the ALCS, where two more Bird homers helped push the eventual champion Houston Astros to seven games.
Bird became a free agent after the 2019 season. He began the 2020 season with the Texas Rangers but he didn’t appear in any games because of a calf injury. He signed with Philadelphia last September, but he could not play because of a positive COVID-19 test.
Bird spent the offseason getting into shape and waiting for another opportunity.
“I’ve done everything I can to hit the ground running and be ready to go when I get the chance,” he said. “I’m back to where I want to be as a player. If it works out in Colorado, that would be extra-special.
“It’s been a long process, really. You just have to put in the work. Quality preparation makes its own luck. That’s a quote that I came across one time. I believe it.”
Gausman, who was a class ahead of Bird at Grandview, remembers two distinct battles against Bird.
The first came on Sept. 8, 2015, at Yankee Stadium. Gausman, pitching for the Orioles, struck out Bird swinging twice. Gausman allowed one run over five innings, and although he didn’t get the decision, the Orioles got the 2-1 victory.
“Sure, I remember that game,” Gausman said with a laugh. “Bird probably does too, though he’s probably trying to forget it.”
Back in the day at Grandview, Adams wanted to see what would happen when he pitted his best hitter against his best pitcher.
“Coach made us face each other in a scrimmage,” Gausman said. “He’s was probably thinking, ‘Let’s just see where this goes.”
Fittingly, Gausman struck out Bird in the first at-bat, and then Bird hit a long home run his second time up.
“I hope Greg makes it back,” Gausman said. “It sure would be fun to face him in the big leagues again.”