July 1, 2012

Ferrari makes a stop on road that leads to Fenway Park

Jackie Bradley Jr., 22, is going to be a major leaguer. He may be in Boston by next year.

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Scouts sat in the front row at Hadlock Field last week, watching the Portland Sea Dogs take batting practice, and ignoring the batter.

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Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Portland Sea Dogs is everything you could want in a prospect, and the Red Sox know it.

Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Jackie Bradley Jr. not only has a grip on his baseball ability, which may get him to the majors soon, but also a grip on both and the highs and lows of life off the field.

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Their focus drifted to center field, where Jackie Bradley Jr. was sprinting. Bradley never simply shags during batting practice. He fields – watching balls jump off the bat, and running down every line drive or fly ball.

“He gets five games of experience in one batting practice,” one scout said.

Amiel Sawdaye, the Red Sox director of amateur scouting, watched Bradley’s routine.
“Power shagging,” is how Sawdaye described it. “He treats every BP like a game.”

And a treat he is.

Bradley, 22, is going to be a major leaguer. He may be in Boston by next year. He eventually may take Jacoby Ellsbury’s job in center field, as wild as that sounds.

Bradley might remind Portland fans of Ellsbury, or a Hanley Ramirez, or an Adrian Gonzalez. He is one of those entities that grace Hadlock now and then – showing such physical gifts and dedication that you might dare utter the two unspeakable words:

Sure thing.

“Talented,” said Sea Dogs Manager Kevin Boles, who then listed Bradley’s attributes, from his hitting prowess to his defense, his arm, his speed …

In a nutshell?

“He’s a Ferrari,” Boles said.

A Ferrari that constantly undergoes a tuneup, perfecting what already is special.

“He’s one of those kids, he’s got the hunger,” said Donnie Brittingham, Bradley’s longtime coach and mentor in Prince George, Va.

“In baseball there’s always something different to learn, something new. Jack loves that. He’s the most coachable kid because he just soaks it in.”

There was the time after his high school freshman season that Bradley wanted to become a better two-strike hitter. So when he played on an American Legion team that summer, Bradley played Casey-at-the-Bat style, always taking two called strikes before swinging.

“People feel uncomfortable when they have two strikes because they have that fear of striking out,” Bradley said.  “I wanted to make it feel comfortable no matter what the count was, whether I had two strikes or not.”

That summer, playing against players two and three years older, and only swinging with two strikes, Bradley batted .405.

And so it went. In Legion ball, fall leagues, travel teams, school teams, Bradley kept focusing on an area to improve – hitting to all fields, working the count, bunting and, of course, getting to every ball hit his way.

“Watch him run,” Boles said. “The good outfielders, when you watch them go for a ball, their head stays still, they stride, and they just close on the ball. That’s what he does very well.”

Or as Sea Dogs pitcher Drake Britton said, “the way he tracks down a ball, it looks like the ball naturally floats to him.”

LEARNING TO PERSEVERE

For all his work and ability, Bradley wasn’t highly recruited by Division I schools out of Prince George High, nor was he drafted. But when University of South Carolina coaches watched him, they saw potential and offered a scholarship.

Before his freshman season, Bradley dealt with a scary episode of blood clots caused by an extra rib. The rib was removed, and Bradley recovered in time to become a freshman All-American.

South Carolina sent Bradley to the Cape Cod League the next summer. He batted under .200 his first month with Hyannis, but .360 the second month.

“What separates the great ones from good ones is how they handle failure and overcome it,” Hyannis Coach Chad Gassman said. “Jackie is a grinder. He’s not going to let a situation get him down. Scouts want to see how you persevere, and Jackie did just that.”

Red Sox scouts already were impressed.

“His freshman year, he stood out right away,” Sawdaye said.

Scouts also want to see how a player handles pressure.

In Bradley’s sophomore season, after overcoming the removal of a fractured hamate bone in his wrist, he became a leader as South Carolina made it to the College World Series.

In an elimination game, Bradley came to bat in the bottom of the 12th inning with two outs and a runner on second base. Oklahoma led the Gamecocks, 2-1.

Bradley worked a 2-2 count and then took a borderline inside fastball. The Oklahoma closer pumped his fist but the umpire called a ball.

“He could have rung me up but I knew it was a ball,” Bradley said.

Bradley singled in the tying run, then advanced to second on the throw home and eventually scored the winning run.

South Carolina went on to win the national championship.

A SMASH HIT

Back in Columbia, S.C., Bradley was accorded star status. He stopped at a local sporting goods store looking for a bat and was soon besieged. Customers took pictures and asked for autographs, while others called their friends. A line formed. It grew longer. The store manager brought Bradley a chair.

He signed autographs for 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Bradley recalls the story with a smile. He refers to such moments, as well as other honors, as “blessings,” a reflection of the faith he’s grown up with.

“Jackie is one of the most humble, hard-working, down-to-earth kids I’ve ever met,” said Gassman, the Cape Cod coach. “It sounds like a cliche but it’s not. He’s a pleasure to be around.”

Bradley’s humility is refreshing because he doesn’t pretend he’s not talented.

“You have to have the humility. Yet you also have to be confident,” Bradley said. “You’ve got to know what you have. That’s what drives you. Confidence. Being at your best and making a difference.

“And we’re not necessarily talking baseball. This is just a game. You have to be able to live your life and be there for others.”

A FIND FOR THE SOX

Bradley’s junior year at South Carolina featured another injury – a torn wrist ligament suffered when he made a diving catch in April. He returned just in time for the College World Series, and a second straight title for the Gamecocks.

But Bradley batted only .259 his junior season, when he would be eligible for the major league draft.

Once considered a sure first-round pick, there were now doubts.

Those doubts may be why the Red Sox found Bradley still available in the supplemental round. They snatched him with the 40th overall pick last June.

“We identified him early in the year as a guy we wanted to get,” Sawdaye said.

DEALING WITH A TRAGEDY

A week before Bradley would sign with the Red Sox in August, he faced adversity again, of the worst kind.

Bradley spent a lot of his childhood in Prince George with the Saye family, and his best friend, Matt Saye.

“We did everything together. I was considered his brother and a part of his family,” Bradley said.

But last August, Saye died in a car crash.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Bradley said. “You kind of sit back and observe life in a different view. He wasn’t even 22. The decision (to sign with Boston) was the last thing on my mind at that moment. I just wanted to be there for his family – my family.”

In Saye’s obituary, Jackie Bradley Jr. was listed as a brother.

“That was a hard one for all of us,” said Brittingham, who also coached Saye for years. “Our ball team was so tight. Jackie was the one that helped keep us strong, as he always has. It’s who he is.”

Bradley, who wears a medal with Saye’s name around his neck, eventually joined the Red Sox for a signing bonus of $1.1 million.

He played only 10 games in the minors last year. In 2012 he was assigned to advanced Class A Salem. He batted .359 in 67 games, with a .480 on-base percentage and .526 slugging percentage.

He was promoted to Portland on June 21.

In his first eight games with the Sea Dogs, Bradley hit .382 (13 for 34) with a .447 OBP and a .559 slugging percentage. And his defense has been eye-opening.

The Red Sox are watching, enjoying the results as well as the work ethic, even in batting practice.

“On his (character) makeup alone, Jackie would have been the top of the draft,” Sawdaye said. “His energy is infectious. The way he plays the game, the way he prepares. He’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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