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Sunday, March 31, 2013
Jackie Bradley Jr. causing a stir

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

NEW YORK -- The call came while she was driving on I-85 near Petersburg, Va., outside of Richmond, just a few minutes from home. Alfreda Hagans planned to make a quick stop there, then head for Good Friday services at the Full Gospel Holy Temple of Petersburg, where she is an ordained evangelist.

The voice on the phone belonged to the elder of her two boys.

"Mom," Jackie Bradley Jr. said, "I'm going up. I made the major league team."

"I started screaming," Alfreda Hagans said. "There was so much joy and excitement. I said, 'Let me get off the interstate. I don't want to run into the railing.'

Jackie Bradley
Jackie Bradley's home run off Cliff Lee was a sign to his dad that he'd make the Red Sox.

"I was so elated with what happened. I always knew it would happen. I just didn't know when. I was so thankful, and praising God. Jackie told me not to say anything, then said, 'Mom, you can tell the church."'

Jackie Bradley Sr., the former basketball player at Fayetteville (N.C.) State, where he met Alfreda, had gotten caught in traffic on his way to Clearwater, Fla., for the exhibition game there against the Philadelphia Phillies last Sunday, but slipped into his seat just in time to see his son come to the plate for the first time. On the mound was Cliff Lee, the former Cy Young Award winner.

Lee pitched, Bradley swung, and the ball flew over the left-center field fence.

"That's when I knew," the father said. "That home run off Cliff Lee. And he hit it good, too. I had told him earlier, 'Just hit the ball, son. Your defense is already polished. Just go and make the team.'

"Jackie told me, 'Dad, that's not how it works with Boston. You've got to wait your turn.'

"I said, 'No, just hit the ball.' "

On Friday morning, his son's fiancée, Erin Helring, had broken the news to him that Jackie was on the team, but said the family was supposed to keep it quiet until the Red Sox made the procedural moves necessary to make it official.

"He's going to show 'em," Jackie Bradley Sr. said Sunday night. "They didn't make a mistake, man. He has been a winner everywhere he's gone. [University of] South Carolina, Salem, Double-A. He's a winner, man."

Jackie Bradley Jr. doesn't turn 23 until April 19. He is the first Red Sox rookie to make his big-league debut on Opening Day since Shea Hillenbrand in 2001. He is the youngest left fielder to open the season for the Sox since Carl Yastrzemski, who was 21 when he made his debut in 1961, the year before Jackie Bradley Sr. was born and his mother and grandmother decided to name him after the soul singer who was big at the time, Jackie Wilson.

In Yaz's first big-league at-bat, he singled off Ray Herbert of the Kansas City Athletics. Jonny Gomes, like Bradley, was 22 when he was called up to the big leagues by the Tampa Bay Rays in September 2003. His first game was in Yankee Stadium, the grand ballyard that has since been torn down and replaced by the palace where Bradley will start in left field Monday afternoon.

"I was a fish out of water," said Gomes, who will make his Boston debut as DH on Monday. "I looked in awe, looking at the lights, the lineup. I was just in awe.

"I remember digging into the box the first time. It was against David Wells, and I looked up and I was like, 'I got this.' But it took me all the way until I got in the box."

In his first big-league at-bat, Gomes doubled down the left-field line off left-hander Wells.

Does Jackie Bradley Jr. belong here?

"There's one thing you truly need in this game to succeed," the bearded Gomes said, "and that's opportunity. There are a whole lot of guys in camps who hit .400 this spring and are going to Triple-A. But the Boston Red Sox gave this guy an opportunity, which sometimes takes years to happen."

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Alfreda Hagans said she has known for a long time that her son was destined to be a ballplayer.

"I discovered he had a gift when he was 18 months old," she said. "That's when I bought him a little tee ball set, which we set up in the front yard. He took his bat and hit one into the street. I was shocked."

Alfreda Hagans and Jackie Bradley Sr. divorced while Jackie was still young. Her mother, Martha, moved up to Virginia from North Carolina to help her raise Jackie and his brother, Dominique, who was two years younger. Originally, she said, she wanted to name her first-born Dominique, just like the Hall of Fame basketball player, Dominique Wilkins. But Martha prevailed. Give his father a junior, she said.

Alfreda was a state trooper in Virgina for six years, patrolling the interstates. She tells the story of how she once stopped a motorist for speeding, the driver pretending he didn't understand the language -- until she pantomimed slapping handcuffs on him and told him that's what would happen to him if they couldn't talk. The man suddenly spoke perfect English.

But she quit her job to take care of her boys, and to make sure that Jackie would be given every chance to hone his skills. She and her mom opened a restaurant and catering business -- Southern-style, of course, the specials of the house including turkey wings, cabbage, corn bread, mac and cheese and sweet tea. She later worked assisting seniors, and now works for a property management company.

Yes, she said, Jackie Bradley Jr. was always small for his age. So was his daddy. "I was real small," Jackie Bradley Sr. said Sunday. "I was 145 pounds." He laughed. "I'm about 220 now."

"He was always small," Alfreda said of her son, "but he always stood out in a crowd, no matter what team he played on."

All spring, Red Sox manager John Farrell has marveled at Bradley's maturity, and Sunday was no exception. When he broke the news to him that he was officially on the team, while the team was airborne from Florida to New York, Farrell said Bradley took it in stride.

"I don't want to say he's unflappable," Farrell said, "but at the same time he's got a very consistent approach. He really focuses on the things he can control.

"I know it's somewhat a cliché and an old adage, but this is a guy who seems very polished at a very early stage of his pro career. Because of what we know of the individual, it gives us a lot of confidence and comfort to put him in the position he finds himself in."

He has been that way, Alfreda Hagans said, since he was a child.

"I was the disciplinarian at home," she said. "I always strived to show my boys the correct training. We've always been a strong faith-based family. Jackie has always been very mature. He was always willing to listen; he'd listen to something and it went in like a sponge. Never any problems out of him when he was growing up."

Jackie Bradley Sr. never drank, he said, nor smoked, and neither did his son.

"I'm a firm believer," Alfreda said, "that you train a child in the way he should go. He's always been well-mannered and respectful of all people. It all comes down to choices, and he always made the right choices."

Will Middlebrooks was 24 when he was called up to the big leagues last May. He was in Toledo with Pawtucket when the call came around 11 o'clock that night, so there was little time to sleep before he grabbed a cab first thing the next morning for the trip to Detroit and a flight to Boston.

Before that night's game, he said, David Ortiz approached.

"He's like, 'Man, don't try to do too much. We're happy to have you, we believe you can help us win ballgames. Don't try to do too much, be yourself, have fun and you'll do fine."'

What did that conversation mean to Middlebrooks?

"If he's talking to me at all at that point, I was very excited," Middlebrooks said. "He's Big Papi. It was cool. It was one of those things where you take a deep breath, get calm, go out and take care of business. It's good, one, that they notice you, and two, that they've got your back."'

Middlebrooks said he already has reached out to Bradley, exchanging contact info. Call me about anything, Middlebrooks told him, and we'll talk.

"He's a confident guy," Middlebrooks said. "He doesn't need me. Just little things -- what time is the bus, how many buses, which bus should I take, what should I wear? Call me and ask. I'm not going to give you crap like some other guys might. I was in the same place last year."

At dawn on Sunday, Alfreda Hagans was still in Petersburg. There was an Easter sunrise service at the Full Gospel Holy Temple, and even though the congregation was small -- a couple of dozen strong -- she had committed to being the speaker, and she would keep that commitment.

She already had spoken to the church about her son's pending trip to the big leagues. "There was such joy and excitement in my voice," she said. "I told them how the road wasn't easy, but to have faith in God and apply it to your life, and recognize that it is a process, it doesn't just happen overnight."

After church, Alfreda and Dominique, who has applied to barber school, headed to the airport for the flight to New York. Other friends and family headed north by car.

Jackie Bradley Sr. left Fort Myers on Saturday morning and made the 15-hour drive to Richmond, arriving at around midnight. He, too, boarded a plane for New York on Sunday morning with other family members. "I've never been to Yankee Stadium," he said. "It will be very exciting to see him perform. Just amazing, man.

On Sunday night, the entire party -- Jackie, mom, dad, fiancée, aunts, friends -- waded into Times Square, looking for a place to eat.

But first there came a knock at Alfreda Hagans' hotel room door. When she opened it, there was her son, arms wide open.

"I love you, mom," he said, embracing her.

"I love you, son," she said. "It's good to be here with you."