Cornerstone at the hot corner?
Budding third baseman Middlebrooks sees himself with Red Sox for long term
"You see my guy?" Pedroia asked.
"Yeah, I did. Thanks," Middlebrooks answered.
Pedroia's "guy" recently fitted Middlebrooks for a new suit, fully paid for by the Sox second baseman. It's a standard practice around big league baseball for the successful veterans to buy new suits for the hardworking, up-and-coming prospects who make it to the big leagues.
When Pedroia was a rookie, Manny Ramirez bought him a few suits. After Middlebrooks was promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket to Boston last May, then-teammate and fellow third baseman Kevin Youkilis purchased some fine threads for the rookie.
"Hopefully, someday I can buy a suit for a young guy coming up," Middlebrooks said Monday.
There's no reason to think Middlebrooks won't have that opportunity. The 24-year-old has quickly become a fan favorite in Boston and wants to create a lasting legacy with the Red Sox for his entire career.
"I would give anything to play here my whole career," Middlebrooks said. "Everyone wants to play in a market like this. Everyone wants to play on a team like this. Well, not everyone, because it does take a certain player. There have been plenty of players to come through here who hated it. It's hard to play here. If you don't like pressure, you don't want to play here. But I like it and it motivates me to do well because I don't want to disappoint anybody."
Before he can be one of those guys who spends his career in one place, he needs to prove he can compete consistently in the majors. The early returns were positive. Prior to his season-ending wrist injury, Middlebrooks had supplanted Youkilis as the everyday third baseman and hit .288, with 15 homers and 54 RBIs, in 75 games as a rookie. He became only the seventh Red Sox player with 15 homers in his first major league season, and the first since Ellis Burks (1987).
"Look at the numbers he put up here last year in a short amount of time," said Red Sox veteran David Ortiz. "That's impressive."
Ortiz, however, also knows the danger of the sophomore slump.
"He's a good dude, a very humble kid," Ortiz said. "This year is going to be the year I'm going to try to help him the most because in your second year when pitchers start to figure things out about you, you need to have that support and he's my boy."
When Ortiz considers you "his boy," that means you must be doing something right. Pedroia held that title his rookie season, and now it belongs to Middlebrooks. Since Ortiz (Achilles) and Middlebrooks both finished last season on the DL, they spoke at length about numerous subjects, but mostly baseball.
"It means a lot," Middlebrooks said. "I've been watching him since I was a kid. He's one of the main players I like to watch, not because he hits homers, it's his personality. His personality, he's so outgoing and he's very personal with the fans, and that's the same personality I have. He's the perfect guy to learn from."
Now more than ever, the Sox are counting on Middlebrooks to develop into the star he showed signs of being last season. Can he handle that pressure?
"I realize to play in Boston you've got to be a special kind of player, and that's not me blowing smoke," he said. "It's hard to play in Boston. There's a pressure to win in Boston. I'd rather play here. I don't mind the fans being pissed when we lose, I like that because that means they're behind us. They want us to do well and that's what I like. I like the pressure to win."
The Red Sox have him under control until he's arbitration eligible in 2015. If he performs to expectations, it wouldn't be a surprise if the team signs him to a long-term contract, as it did with Pedroia, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz earlier in their careers.
"The minute he got here he's been trying to learn how to do the right thing," Ortiz said. "He works hard. He's the kind of guy who figures things out right away, and even the minute he struggles he's still battling, which is a good thing.
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"This is going to be a very important year for him and I'll help him a lot and try to keep him calm," Ortiz added. "He always has questions and that's the thing I like the most about him. He wants to do well. He wants to go out there and be consistent."
Middlebrooks says he has restrictions on his wrist, which he fractured last Aug. 10. He's not worried about it and occasionally feels general soreness, but he's able to swing a bat pain-free.
The 2012 season served as a major motivational factor for Middlebrooks. He learned he could play at the big league level. He also learned there will be low points, too.
"Your every move is a big deal in Boston," said Middlebrooks. "So when you play bad, it looks horrible. When you do well, you're on top of the world. I want to be on top of the world. I don't want to be in a hole."
There will be holes. Sometimes those holes are deep and lonely. Every pro athlete deals with those holes, especially in baseball. Ortiz is the perfect example of a player who has dealt with the ebbs and flows during his career.
"I keep telling him, you need to try to get better every year. You need to stay hungry. You're not always going to be perfect, but if you can match your best every year, if you stay hungry every year, that's going to make the difference," Ortiz said.
Off the field, Middlebrooks is one of the new generation of ballplayers who communicates with his fans on Twitter (@middlebrooks). When the Red Sox hold public appearances, he's usually one of the first players to volunteer his time.
He interacts with the fans as much as possible and that has been on display during spring training, especially now that he has become a favorite.
"I know how important it is to the fans," Middlebrooks said. "We seem superhuman to them, we don't seem like real people, and I want them to know that we are. I think that will help them support us more, if they know we're more like them. A lot of people look at us as like, 'Oh, they have a lot of money and they don't care,' but that's not true. We're normal people and we have families and we're trying to support families.
"I like having fun with the fans and I want to interact with them because they support us and I've got to give back as much as I can. I just know how important it is to the people in Boston, in the Northeast, in Red Sox Nation that we do well and get back to where this team has been in the last 10 years. The fans went through 86 years of not winning, then they got in the habit of winning again and I want to bring that back."
The Texas native has immersed himself in the sports community in Boston. On his to-do list when the team returns to Boston in April is to have Bruins and Celtics jerseys made with his name and No. 16 on the back. He's a close friend of New England Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, and after the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, Mallett gave Middlebrooks his No. 15 jersey.
Middlebrooks admits to not knowing too much about hockey, but plans to learn more and hopes to catch a few Bruins games this spring at the Garden.
On the field, he wants to build a career in Boston. He can't imagine playing for any other team.
"I'm not playing for just my family anymore," he said. "I've got a real big family in Boston now, so I want to do well and I don't want to disappoint the fans. I don't want to disappoint my teammates."
If he picks up where he left off, it won't be long before he's the one buying the suits.
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