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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ask yourself this before you judge Jackie Bradley Jr. on the basis of 107 plate appearances in the big leagues:
Would you judge a writer on his first draft, an artist on his first sketch, an actor on his first play, a lawyer on his first case? Hey, there are folks who do, and occasionally they get it right. But you could fill a library, a museum, a theater, a courtroom with the number of times they get it wrong.
And you also could assemble a pretty good baseball team with the guys who looked awful in their first go-round in the big leagues, then managed to have notable careers. Say hello to Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Bret Boone and, oh yeah, Dustin Pedroia, all of whom batted under .200, like Bradley, in their first year in the majors.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is here to tell you that it's your prerogative to believe, based on the early returns, that he won't cut it as the man to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field for the Boston Red Sox. Hey, it's a free country. He'd be the first to say that, after his sensational spring a year ago, he was disappointed he batted just .189 in those 107 plate appearances for Boston in 2013. He understands that skepticism abounds, as if he is apt to morph into a latter-day Joe Lahoud, who looked like Yaz and hit like Yanni.
But don't think for a second he's about to succumb to your doubts. And while he acknowledges it's nice that the Red Sox would let an impact player in Ellsbury walk because they believe in Bradley's future, his own conviction doesn't depend on their faith.
"It's always good they have that confidence in you,'' Bradley said Tuesday afternoon. "You want someone to have confidence in you. But even if they didn't have confidence in me, I have confidence in myself. I don't need anybody else to pat me on the back, tell me that I'm good.
"Some people need that, that's great. But I'm so self-motivated, I'm going to get it done, whether it's now or later. It might not have been there before, but I'm a changed ballplayer, I'm a changed person. I'm ready to go out there and prove it.''
Bradley was sleeping when a high-ranking member of the Sox brass called last month to tell him that the team had signed another center fielder, Grady Sizemore, a guy with an All-Star pedigree trying to make a comeback after seven surgeries in the previous four years. Bradley appreciated the call.
"I guess that's a sign of respect in a way, that they felt like there was a need to let me know they were adding another center fielder,'' he said.
But while some saw the signing of Sizemore as an indication the Sox were hedging their bets on JBJ, Bradley Jr. wasn't among them.
|Rather than feel threatened by newly acquired veteran Grady Sizemore, Jackie Bradley Jr. has embraced the opportunity to work with him.|
"I saw it as a positive,'' he said. "I grew up watching Grady. I thought that was somebody I'd like to meet, be around, learn from. He's a guy who, what, was a three-time All-Star? By 25. Is that good? That's unreal.
"Those kind of things you pick up on. You want to be a part of something like that. To even put my name beside his right now speaks volumes. He's such a great ballplayer.''
Sizemore said that when he reported a week before camp officially opened, Bradley was the first player he bonded with.
"I didn't try to make it competition,'' Bradley Jr. said. "I'm trying to get to know him as a player, as a teammate. I was the first one to go up and meet him, to try to get to know him. He's new to the organization, he knows a few coaches, but he also wants to feel like he's supposed to be here. I extended everything out to him; I wanted to lay everything out there, to be open to him. Everyone loves having someone you can come talk to.''
It's easy to forget now, but when Bradley broke camp with the team last spring, he was the first Red Sox player to make the jump to the big leagues without playing in Triple-A since Shea Hillenbrand in 2001. Only the year before, Bradley had started the season with Class A Salem. The only reason the Sox felt comfortable with fast-tracking Bradley last spring, general manager Ben Cherington said at the time, was their belief that if he did struggle, he would be able to handle the failure.
And after a memorable big league debut in which Bradley -- at 22 the youngest Sox outfielder to start a season opener since 21-year-old Dwight Evans in 1973 -- walked three times and scored twice, executed a smart base-running play and made a terrific catch in left field, the struggles came.
He was hitless in his last 20 at-bats in April before David Ortiz returned from the disabled list and Bradley was sent down to Pawtucket. There would be three more call-ups and two stints on the minor league DL (for biceps tendinitis and an inflamed throwing elbow), which led to a disjointed season divided between Fenway Park and McCoy Stadium.
"I don't look at it as disjointed,'' Bradley said. "It was different, something I wasn't accustomed to, but all part of a learning experience. Hopefully, I don't have to go through that too often. Obviously, everyone wants to be in a stable situation because that's what makes you feel more comfortable. That's what I'm striving for. Find my spot, find my role, and be at the best of my abilities.''
Bradley's numbers in Pawtucket (.275 batting average, 10 home runs) might look modest at first glance. Dig a little deeper, though, and it wasn't such a lost year after all. In just 80 games, he led the PawSox with 39 extra-base hits, and his OPS of .842 was sixth-highest in the International League -- and 102 percentage points higher than Ellsbury's .740 OPS at Pawtucket in 2007. He also didn't make an error in 68 games in the outfield and was voted the International League's defensive outfielder of the year by Baseball America.
And in 14 games with the Red Sox in September, in which he posted a slash line of .243/.317/.378/.695, manager John Farrell said he saw encouraging signs that Bradley was making adjustments to the pitchers who had handcuffed him by pounding him inside with fastballs. Farrell said he is looking forward to seeing whether those adjustments continue this spring. Bradley said the issue is creating a greater fuss in the media than it's worth.
"I mean, everyone is trying to make it something it's not,'' Bradley said. "I've hit inside pitches my whole life. It's about making the adjustment, knowing the pitchers.
"I'm not focused on what the pitcher is trying to do; I'm focused on what I'm trying to do. You get so caught up in worrying about what the pitcher is trying to do -- this is what I'm going to do. If he throws it right there, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to put it in my hands and try to control that with my ability.''
Boston's ability to repeat as World Series champion will depend, in good measure, on whether Bradley and another rookie, Xander Bogaerts, will be able to become everyday players at two of the most demanding positions on the diamond, center field and shortstop. Bogaerts is regarded as a can't-miss prospect, one who already showed his mettle in the Series last October.
For Bradley, judgment day is still ahead.
"If you really think about it, you're going to be judged even if you don't play sports,'' he said. "You just embrace it, like a two-way street. You've got to take all the praise and kind of, not deflect it, but make yourself humble. You also need to be able to take the heat, too. That's only going to fuel you.
"If you're not doing this right now, then fix it. Nothing wrong with not being able to do something, just come back and prove that you can. Nothing speaks louder than actually doing it yourself, as opposed to just talking about it.''
Bradley turns 24 on April 19. Earlier this winter he was married, to Erin Helring, like her husband a native of Virginia. It is another measure of JBJ's self-confidence that he is about as daunted by being a newlywed as he is about winning the center-field job.
"I signed that lifelong contract -- none of that six-year, free-agent stuff,'' he said, smiling. "You can't go to arbitration on this one.
"It's very special. It also gives me extra fuel. I have something to play for. I have a family I want to be able to provide for. I can't even express how excited I am, to prove to whoever it may be -- more to prove to myself -- I know I can play at this level. I know I can excel at the highest level.''