I’d be remiss if I didn’t detail just how much I’ve enjoyed the dawn of the Jackie Bradley Jr. era in Boston, now two games and a Grapefruit League season old.
It’s more than just the play, which has ranged from promising to stellar through the spring and this opening series in Yankee Stadium. It’s more than the calm he exudes when he steps to the plate, when he trots out to left field or when he hangs in the dugout blowing bubbles and studying pitchers, though that all plays a part in the excitement.
He’s exciting, and he’s already helping the renewal process in Boston. Having a flair for the game and translating that into wins is always an easy path to success and likeability in New England.
Last night, he broke through, slapping a single up the middle off Cody Epply for his first hit and second trip to first base of the night (Hiroki Kuroda had hit him in the leg earlier in the game). Pair that with his three walks from Opening Day and his four runs scored over the first two games, and he’s got a nice little body of work at the plate, rendering his .167 average an afterthought.
But the excitement that follows Bradley Jr. goes beyond the numbers, of course. It’s the way he plays the game, and the fact that he’s already playing this way at such a young age. He’s cool at the plate and never jumpy. He’s smooth on the basepaths and knows when to take the extra base and when to chill. And he covers territory in left field like nobody’s business. His misstep on a ball hit by Robinson Cano turned into a highlight after he stepped back and covered his tracks, leaving older writers recalling Carl Yastrzemski’s circus catch on Opening Day 1967 in the middle of Billy Rohr’s near no-hitter.
Of course, this all didn’t come from the sky. Bradley Jr., though young, has been working on his game and his approach for years. A fantastic feature by Alex Speier details how, in one year of American Legion baseball, he refused to swing the bat with fewer that two strikes on the count. He worked at learning how to cover every angle off the ball in center field. He was dedicated to the craft of making himself a complete ballplayer at an age where I was more concerned with the latest advances in fart jokes.
The appeal that he’s finding, though, is that it has seem to come from nowhere. The Red Sox have an interesting history of coming out of rough spells just as a new, exciting rookie enters the fold. Ted Williams appeared just as the Sox were ready to escape the doldrums they’d suffered in the 1930s. Carl Yastrzemski replaced him and presented a vision of hope through the 1960s. Carlton Fisk took charge of the team in 1972, and three years later, they were led to the World Series by the Gold Dust Twins, rookies Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.
Another period of mediocrity was shaken out by Roger Clemens in the mid-80s. Nomar Garciaparra arrived just as the team was in need of a new identity and a new direction. And now, following two disappointing seasons and enough ill will and bile to fill the Boston Globe’s offices, here comes Bradley Jr., starting in left field and headlining a spring where the story was supposed to be that of the crafty, professional veterans remaking the Red Sox clubhouse.
Bradley Jr. is more than just an exciting young player who can get on base and track down pop flies. He’s a vision of a happy baseball future in Boston, and maybe a player who, in a few years, could lead the Red Sox back to glory.
He blows a mean bubble, too.