Blue Jays infielder Greg Bird is welcomed back to the...

Blue Jays infielder Greg Bird is welcomed back to the dugout after scoring in the third inning against the Orioles in a spring training game on Friday. Credit: AP/Steve Helber

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Greg Bird said he’s thought of his time with the Yankees “every which way,” but struggles finding the precise words to adequately describe his career in New York.

If one can even describe it as that – a career.  

Bird, a one-time can’t-miss prospect, whom general manager Brian Cashman in spring training of 2015 called the best “pure hitter” in the Yankees’ farm system, never fulfilled the promise and hype that accompanied his steady climb through the system after being taken in the fifth round of the 2011 draft because of a series of injuries.  

But the word Bird, groomed to take over for Mark Teixeira as the next Yankees’ long-term first baseman, kept coming back to Tuesday was “appreciative.”

“I have great memories,” Bird, now 29 and a member of the Blue Jays organization, said by his locker at the club’s minor league complex here. “I met a lot of great people. I learned how to be a professional baseball player the right way in the right organization.”

He paused and continued: “I think it needed to happen the way it happened. I think it will serve me well. Long story short, the lessons that I learned there about ball and life will serve me better in life than if I would have just blown it up right out of the gate (successfully) and went down that path. I really believe that. It was crazy, though, no doubt.”

Crazy, indeed.

Though not at first.

Bird and his smooth lefthanded swing that always seemed perfectly suited for Yankee Stadium, debuted Aug. 13, 2015 at the age of 22 at Cleveland – a warm, 81-degree night Bird retains an encyclopedic knowledge of (“0-for-5 but hit some balls hard,” he said, unprompted, with a smile) – but signs of a standout future followed.

After his debut, Bird would hit .270 with 11 homers and an .899 OPS over the season’s final 45 games. But Bird, poised to make a run at Teixeira’s job, would be shelved for all of 2016 – Teixeira would retire after that season – having undergone surgery that offseason to repair a labrum tear in his right shoulder.

That was the start of a cascade of injuries that never let up, the most frustrating of which occurred March 30, 2017 when Bird fouled a ball off his right ankle in the Yankees’ final Grapefruit League game of the spring in Clearwater. Bird, who slashed .451/.556/1.098 with eight homers that spring, was never right thereafter, starting the season 6-for-60 and eventually required surgery.

He dealt with a right ankle bone spur in 2018 and then a left plantar fascia tear in 2019, limiting him to a combined 92 games.  

In the midst of all of it, Bird heard whispers, some of which came from inside the organization, that he didn’t really want to be on the field.

“I couldn’t play and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Bird said. “There was all this noise, and I couldn’t do anything about it, so I felt helpless all of the time.”

The Yankees finally cut bait in November 2019 when they designated Bird for assignment. He started the 2020 season in the Rangers organization but never got going because of a calf issue. Last season, with his hometown Rockies, brought health at last and Bird, playing 112 games with Triple-A Albuquerque, hit 27 homers with an .894 OPS.

The Blue Jays, in need of a designated hitter/backup first baseman, signed Bird to a minor-league deal March 10 and manager Charlie Montoyo said Tuesday he has a legitimate chance to make the club.

“This organization is awesome,” Bird said. “They’re a good team. At the end of the day, I want to win.”

Which was all Bird wanted during his time with the Yankees.  

“The highs there were high,” said Bird, referencing the 2017 postseason in which his homer off Cleveland’s Andrew Miller in the seventh inning of Game 3 was the only run of a 1-0 victory that completely turned that series around. “Playing there, awesome. The people I met, awesome. The lessons I learned baseball wise…I’m appreciative. I enjoyed it a lot and I learned a lot, and I don’t think I’d be here without it.”

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