Bird Takes Flight
In a postseason that became a showcase for the 2011 draft, Yankees first baseman Greg Bird stepped to center stage in the midst of the Yankees knocking off the Indians in the American League Division Series. It wasn’t a told-you-so moment. That isn’t Bird’s way.
The emotion he showed when he delivered that seventh-inning home run that provided all the offense in the Yankees’ 1-0 victory in Game 3 of the ALDS said plenty.
“He is a pretty calm guy, so to show the excitement that he showed obviously tells me it was important to him to go out there and demonstrate to people that he is healthy,” Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said, “and he could do it on the big stage.”
Oppenheimer knows Bird. He scouted him in 2011 at Grandview High in Aurora, Colo., then drafted him in the fifth round and signed him for $1.1 million. It was a larger bonus than any other player taken in the fourth or fifth rounds that year, but it was what it took to sign Bird, who turned down a scholarship to Arkansas.
Bird now finds himself being mentioned along with other 2011 draft picks who have enjoyed the October stage, from Trevor Bauer (No. 3 overall) to Anthony Rendon (No. 6) to Archie Bradley (No. 7) to Francisco Lindor (No. 8) to Javier Baez (No. 9).
Beyond the top 10 picks there were myriad postseason participants, such as George Springer (No. 11), Sonny Gray (No. 18), Matt Barnes (No. 19), Tyler Anderson (No. 20), Jackie Bradley (No. 40), Andrew Chafin (No. 43), Trevor Story (No. 45) and Joe Musgrove (No. 46).
That doesn’t even count impact players taken beyond the 50th pick, such as Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, a high school shortstop taken in the fifth round in 2011.
Oppenheimer has remained close to Bird, particularly in the last two years. Bird missed all of 2016 following shoulder surgery, and then a month into 2017 he was sidelined with a foot injury that required surgery because of excessive bone growth.
Oppenheimer is based out of the Yankees’ Florida headquarters in Tampa, where Bird spent a lot of time rehabbing from injuries—and dealing from unattributed reports that questioned whether he was really hurt.
“I was around him quite a bit, and he works his butt off,” Oppenheimer said. “He was doing everything he could to get the shoulder right. Then he was one of the best hitters coming out of spring training this year (when) that foot thing happened.”
And then the media speculation.
“I’ve been around this kid enough to know he cares a lot,” Oppenheimer said. “He works his rear off every day. . . He wants to be one of those guys the team can count on.”
So when Bird hit that ALDS home run, he showed emotion, and so did Oppenheimer, who was watching from his home in Wesley Chapel, Fla.
“No,” he said when asked if he screamed as he watched the home run clear the fence, “but I jumped up and threw up a fist.”
Bird is one of those amateur players Oppenheimer and his scouts saw as a special talent. Colorado high school players tend to matriculate to college, so once he slipped past the first round or two, clubs backed off Bird because of the associated signing bonus. Oppenheimer didn’t hesitate.
“He had the college option (Arkansas) and could have gone without any problem,” Oppenheimer said. “He is an educated kid, and he did his homework. He knew what he could get three years later, so the bonus was plenty over slot, that’s for sure.
“But we had done our homework, too. We spent plenty of time scouting him and plenty of time with our mental condition guys. We did everything we could and felt he was worth the investment.
“He had ‘now’ power.”
Steve Kmetko, the Colorado area scout at the time, was all-in on Bird, and when Bird’s high school team took a spring trip to Florida, it meant other Yankees evaluators got a good look.
Then there was the input from Chad Bohling, who oversees the Yankees’ mental-conditioning department.
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“He met with Greg and came back saying, ‘He is one of the special ones,’ ” Oppenheimer said. “(Bohling) felt he was right, had good makeup (and) the right mentality.”