Commentary

Middlebrooks knows he belongs

No longer an overmatched kid, Sox phenom has shown he's major league ready

Updated: May 16, 2012, 1:02 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- He knew he had to help. He wasn't sure how. Gary DiSarcina had played in the big leagues, but this managing business was as new to him as playing pro ball was to these fresh-faced kids in his charge at Class A Lowell.

Will Middlebrooks was drowning, and it was DiSarcina's job to find out why.

"Will was still a baby," DiSarcina said. "He was a high school kid in a college league, and he hadn't matured yet, physically or emotionally. He was striking out a lot, taking fastballs down the middle, getting himself out a ton."

[+] EnlargeMiddlebrooks
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireWill Middlebrooks' nine extra-base hits were the most by a Red Sox player in his first 10 games since at least 1918.

So DiSarcina turned to the man who had seen these kids in their most unguarded moments: Mike Stelmach, the minor league equipment manager in Fort Myers who knew them practically from the first day they signed with the Red Sox. If anyone might know what was on the heart of this 18-year-old kid from East Texas away from home for the first time, DiSarcina guessed Stelmach would, so he made a call.

"Mike told me Will was always on the phone, always talking about how homesick he was, how miserable he was, missed his family, missed his girlfriend," DiSarcina said. "He just seemed distracted a lot of the time."

Armed with this information, and painfully aware of how frustrated his hitting coach, Luis Lopez, had become trying to break through to Middlebrooks, who was barely hitting his weight six weeks into the season, DiSarcina decided it was time to act.

"When he walked into the clubhouse, I grabbed him and pulled him into my office," he said. "He was dressed like a high school kid. Sweatpants, T-shirt, hat on backwards, carrying a Big Gulp. His eyes were darting all over the room. I said to him, 'Look at me when I'm talking to you.' That's how our conversation started."

'A confidence thing'

It is four years later, and on a Sunday morning Will Middlebrooks is sitting in an otherwise deserted Red Sox dugout. His phone alarm had failed to go off, and he'd awakened barely 15 minutes before his scheduled appointment, but he'd hustled over to the ballpark in time, and as he answered questions from a visitor, he looked him directly in the eye.

He is recalling how unprepared he was, as a highly recruited football and baseball star in Texarkana, Texas, for the jarring start to his professional career as a fifth-round Red Sox draft choice playing in Lowell.

"Horrible," he said. "It smacked me right in the face. I learned pretty quick you have to learn how to deal with this or you're not going to make it in this game. My first six weeks in Lowell, I was hitting a buck 50, maybe. Maybe. And it was a soft .150. Infield hits were prayed for.

"It was bad. I was overmatched mentally. I didn't have any confidence. You're 18, away from home, the only thing you got is your phone. Gary DiSarcina was our manager. He called me into his office, gave me a really good talking to. He said, 'You have to realize how good you are because you're wasting it.' That was really a turning point for me.

"It was a confidence thing, man. I just had to go into every at-bat believing I was better than the guy throwing against me, go into every game thinking I was the best player on the field."

The coach's son blossoms into a star

Wolfe City, Texas, is a dot on the map, a town of close to 1,600 about 17 miles north of Greenville. It's the county seat for Hunt County, named after Memucan Hunt Jr., the first Republic of Texas minister to the United States and the republic's first secretary of the navy, at least until folks figured out that Texas wasn't going to last long as a nation unto itself. Hunt County's most famous citizen was Audie Murphy, the Medal of Honor winner in World War II and about the most decorated warrior this country has ever produced.

Wolfe City is where Tom Middlebrooks coached football, and it was to the football field that little Will Middlebrooks would go just about every day for as far back as he can remember. By the age of 4 or 5, he was his father's ballboy, "down on the sidelines as soon as my mom [Julie, an art teacher and photographer] was brave enough to let me go down there."

Tom Middlebrooks built goalposts in the backyard for his little boy, and he also coached baseball, so the Middlebrooks kids, Will and the sister two years younger than he was, Lacey, always had a ball in their hands, their outdoor competitions extending even into the dining room, where they'd race to see who'd get done with dinner first. The youngest, Mary, steered clear of the competition, though she wound up playing soccer.

When Will was 11, the family moved to Texarkana, the city tucked into a corner where four states converged -- Texas and Arkansas, of course, but also Louisiana and Oklahoma -- to be closer to their grandparents in Shreveport. Tom landed jobs coaching both baseball and football in Liberty-Eylau, a much bigger school than Wolfe City, and soon his kids were making a name for themselves, Will as a quarterback and punter in football and as a shortstop in baseball, Lacey as a softball pitcher.

Jay Oliver is a part-time Red Sox scout who coincidentally lives in Texarkana, so he started tracking Will from the time he was a sophomore. By the time Middlebrooks was a senior, he was hardly a secret to any of the scouts in Texas, but Oliver had gotten a jump on the competition. "When he was a senior," Oliver said, "I watched him play 22 times."

They all came, except for Theo Epstein, general manager at the time. Jim Robinson, the team's area scout and the man who signed pitcher Clay Buchholz. Mark Wasinger, the crosschecker. Marc DelPiano and Dave Finley, the special assignment scouts. Oliver always fretted that on the days they were there, they wouldn't see what he saw.

"A scout always worry how is the kid going to play that day," he said. "Your scouting director comes in, and the kid plays terrible. But there was never a day Will looked like that. I couldn't have drawn it up any better."

Middlebrooks Oh yeah, in my head it's still his job. Youk's been here a long time. As far as I know I'm here to fill in, for as much as they need me, to help them out. And then we'll see where it goes from there.

-- Will Middlebrooks, on injured Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis

Some teams couldn't decide whether Will, who lit up radar guns with a mid-90s fastball, was a better prospect as a pitcher or a position player. Texas A&M had offered a scholarship allowing him to play baseball and punt for the football team. The Red Sox liked Middlebrooks better as an infielder. That's how they drafted him, in the fifth round.

"We had a few Troy Glaus comparisons/projections at the time, Will obviously being a better overall athlete," said Jason McLeod, the team's scouting director at the time before joining Epstein with the Cubs. "I'm so happy for that kid, to see the start he's had to his major league career."

The first time DiSarcina, a longtime shortstop for the Angels, saw Middlebrooks was in extended spring training. He thought the kid looked a bit like a fish out of water. The decision was made, on the eve of Lowell's season, to make him a third baseman. The kid had no time to prepare for the transition. He was in the lineup the next day at third.

"He went through a lot of rough patches," DiSarcina said, "but he made the adjustments, worked hard, asked a lot of questions. That's one of the reasons I'm so proud of him, and think he will have a long career."

Focused on the big picture

Kevin Boles, who is managing in Double-A Portland, would be Middlebrooks' manager for the next three seasons -- going up the ladder just as the player did, from Low-A Greenville to High-A Salem to Double-A.

"With him," Boles said, "you always saw the physical ability, you always loved the frame. When I first saw him, it was like, 'Oh boy, what is he going to look like three, four years down the road?' He was there, and so was Anthony Rizzo [another highly regarded prospect, a first baseman now in the Cubs system].

"With Will, we tried to keep the big picture in his mind. For a young player, Fenway Park can seem so far away, and sometimes it can be tough to stay locked in and focused. He got off to a slow start in Greenville, too, but he fought through it. That's when I knew he was mentally tough.

''He's very intelligent, but he also just had that look."

By his third season, in Salem, Middlebrooks had had his fill of slow starts. "I didn't want to go through digging out of a hole again, so I busted my butt in the offseason and kind of refused not to do well," he said.

It paid off. Middlebrooks was a Carolina League All-Star at the break, and also was named to the postseason All-Star team. Baseball America named him the league's best defensive third baseman and the player with the best infield arm. His 12 home runs ranked second on the team and he batted a very respectable .276.

When he got to Portland, Boles said, scouts for opposing teams came to him. "'We were watching other guys, paying attention to other guys,' they said. 'We missed him.'"

The big leagues beckon

No one missed Middlebrooks last season in Portland. He was an Eastern League All-Star. He was named to the Futures Team, a big confidence-booster, Boles said. In August, he was promoted to Pawtucket. And in the fall, he played on the same Arizona Fall League team as uber-prospect Bryce Harper of the Nationals, ranked the best prospect in the game by Baseball America, and with Mike Trout, the Angels' outfielder rated the third best prospect.

[+] EnlargeMiddlebrooks
AP Photo/Mike JanesWill Middlebrooks had a breakout season at Double-A Portland in 2011, hitting 18 homers and driving in 80 runs in 96 games before a late-season promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.

"We had an awesome team," Middlebrooks said. "We had so much fun. Obviously, they're going to be really, really good."

But to gauge how Middlebrooks' confidence has grown, listen to his response when asked if he felt he could play with those guys.

"No doubt," he said. "I've known all along that I can play at the level they play at. I don't know, I wasn't hyped up as much as them, I guess, which is fine with me. I love to fly under the radar and not have to worry about all the publicity."

DiSarcina, who is now the Angels' field coordinator, had not seen Middlebrooks since Lowell when he slipped into the ballpark in Arizona one afternoon with Angels scouting director Ric Wilson, to watch the three phenoms play. The players didn't know they were there.

"He walked up to the plate," DiSarcina said, "and I said, 'Oh my god, he's a big leaguer.' His body, his face had filled out. His confidence, the way he stepped into the box. Then he laced a double off the left-center-field wall, and he ran the bases like a big leaguer, stood at second base like a big leaguer.

"I said to Ric, 'You wouldn't believe this if you saw him three, four years ago. He's come a long way.'"

Ready for his close-up

Now 23 years old, Middlebrooks estimates he has added 40 pounds and a couple of inches since he was first drafted. Now he stands at 6-foot-3½ and weighs 225 pounds. He got plenty of playing time this spring in big league camp, but with Kevin Youkilis the incumbent third baseman, he began the season back in Triple-A, where he figured to play a full summer.

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"Even in Triple-A," he said Sunday, "this seemed so far away. You're still in the minor leagues, you're still grinding every day with guys who have never touched the big leagues. It just seems so far away. Sure, some guys [in Triple-A] made it there, but the guys I'm hanging with never made it.

"That's all we talked about, man. It would be so nice to make the big leagues. Everything's different here. It's just so nice. The food, the stadiums, the travel, everything is made perfect for you. Even this year, I knew I had a shot of getting up there, but at the same time, it seemed so distant."

Middlebrooks got off to a spectacular start in Pawtucket, hitting nine home runs and driving in 27 runs in the first month. And then Youkilis strained his back, and on May 2, Middlebrooks was called up to the majors. In his fourth game with the Sox, he hit his first major league home run, a grand slam. The next night, in Kansas City, he hit two more.

He is just the third player in major league history to hit at least four home runs and drive in at least 13 runs in his first 10 games in the big leagues, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He also has five doubles, and his nine extra-base hits are the most by a Sox player in his first 10 games since at least 1918.

After a single in four trips in Tuesday's win over Seattle, he is batting .300, and now the question is not so much when will Youkilis get back but what to do with Middlebrooks when he does.

"I think that's a little premature," manager Bobby Valentine said when asked how the Sox plan to address the issue. "We'll do exactly what's right. Those things usually play themselves out. No need to make a decision until it's time to make a decision."

[+] EnlargeMiddlebrooks
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesWill Middlebrooks says that although they've given him a hard time, the Red Sox's veterans have made him feel like he belongs.

What does Middlebrooks think?

"Oh yeah, in my head it's still his job," Middlebrooks said. "Youk's been here a long time. As far as I know I'm here to fill in, for as much as they need me, to help them out. And then we'll see where it goes from there."

But of this, he is certain: He can play here. He felt it this spring in Florida.

"For sure," he said. "Being on the same field as Pedey, Adrian and Papi, those guys, nothing is better. Coming up through the system, those are the guys you're watching, the guys you want to play like and play with. When you get to be on the same field, in the same clubhouse, and they're joking around with you and start accepting you, that's pretty neat.

"Everybody has been there right there for me. They give me my fair share of crap, too, that's a given part of it and I love it. But they've been nothing but an open book for me and have taught me a lot."

In the end, DiSarcina said, it's all about the player, but Middlebrooks' development is also a testament to the Sox's scouting and player development system, too. The day Middlebrooks was called up to the big leagues, DiSarcina sent him a message of congratulations.

"The next day he sent me back a message that almost brought tears to my eyes," DiSarcina said. "He said, 'If it wasn't for you, I'd never be where I am today.'

"I just spoke at a banquet for our short-season team, and I read Will's text to the people there. We have host families for our players, and I said, 'This is what it's all about, and not just for the coaches, but for all you people out there who help these kids through those tough days, those homesick days.'

"There isn't anything you could pay me that would equal the feeling I got when I received that message."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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