NEW YORK — The worst Red Sox season in a generation angered and alienated a large, loyal fan base and gave way to an offseason of overpayment for ballplayers of character and experience. Expectations have been lowered and the club’s winter/spring ad campaign begged forgiveness while promising a team that will try harder.
Monday the torch will be passed to Boston baseball’s future, and its name is Jackie Bradley Jr. With only 138 minor league games under his belt — none in Triple A — the soon-to-be 23-year-old Virginia native will be the Red Sox’ starting left fielder on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
Bradley is the perfect antidote for the infection that’s poisoned the Sox since September of 2011. Boston’s kid outfielder is a spotless soul with no baggage and no attachments to the hardball horrors that have plagued this franchise since the final days of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein.
Just after 1 p.m. Monday, Bradley will pop out of the third base dugout, trot toward the visitors’ bullpen, and take his place in the vast acreage of Yankee Stadium’s left field. As far as Sox fans are concerned, he might as well be emerging from a cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa. He is the embodiment of every cliché in baseball folklore. He is Chip Hilton, the Natural, Joe Hardy, and the hayseed kid with the big ears in Normal Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post baseball cover. The son of a former bus driver — named after soul man Jackie Wilson — Jackie Bradley Jr. is here to rescue the Red Sox from last place and abject irrelevance.
“Anything’s possible, apparently,’’ Bradley said as he stood in front of his locker after a brief workout at Yankee Stadium Sunday afternoon. “I’m ready to start the adventure.’’
Bradley was not in the Sox’ 2013 plans when spring training started in early February. Drafted out of the University of South Carolina in June 2011, he started last season in Single A, and played just 61 games at Double A Portland, hitting .271. He was projected as a possible center field replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury (who is in the final year of his contract) for next season. The Sox did not have Bradley on their 40-man big league roster for 2013.
Everything changed in Florida. David Ortiz was sidelined because of a lingering Achilles’ injury and tendinitis in both heels, then new shortstop Stephen Drew was placed on the disabled list after suffering a concussion when he was hit in the head with a pitch. It was clear the Sox had some openings in their lineup, and Bradley seized the opportunity, hitting .419 with two homers and 12 RBIs over 62 spring at-bats. He was Boston’s best defensive outfielder and tore up the base paths.
The Sox were resistant to the notion of rushing Bradley to the big leagues and it’s not just because he needs more seasoning in the minors. Starting Bradley in the majors means that unless the kid spends 20 days in the minors at some point this season, he’ll be a free agent after the 2018 season. If the Sox had waited until later this month to promote Bradley, they could have assured his place in the organization until after 2019.
But as the spring wore on and Bradley wore out major league pitching, it became clear that the club had little recourse. Given the Sox’ 69-93 record in 2012 (worst since 1965), and the disgruntled fan base, it would have been a public relations disaster to send Bradley to the minors. The Sox already have acknowledged that their 793-game home sellout streak will end this month, and last week announced reduced April prices for beer and hot dogs.
In a potentially dull season, Bradley gives the Sox the sizzle they’ve been seeking since NESN ratings started to plunge in 2009. He’s 5 feet 10 inches, weighs 195 pounds, steals bases, and pockets everything in the outfield. He’s also smart and humble. He said he was watching “Life of Pi” when manager John Farrell tapped him on the shoulder on the flight to New York to tell him he’d made the team and would be starting in left.
“I’m going to keep my head down — not in a bad way, but like a sprinter,’’ said Bradley. “I need to keep pushing. I don’t really get nervous. If anything, I’ll be excited. Maybe there’ll be a few butterflies.’’
Bradley’s inclusion in the Sox’ starting nine means Boston will have three natural center fielders in the outfield Monday. Ellsbury will be in center and Shane Victorino in right. Bradley played several games in left at the end of spring training.
“It’s fun to watch him in the outfield,’’ said Boston’s Opening Day starter, Jon Lester. “He gets a good jump on the ball.’’
Bradley is not expected to hit a lot of home runs, but he demonstrated exceptional plate discipline during the spring.
“He improves us in the outfield and he has a consistent approach at the plate,’’ said Farrell. “His strength is his mental approach. He was one of the better players we had in spring training. He’s earned that spot on the roster.’’
Bradley’s parents and fiancee are in New York for his major league debut.
After wearing a hideous, no-respect No. 74 throughout spring training, Bradley has been upgraded to No. 44 for his major league debut. It’s the same number worn by Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson.
“I didn’t really ask for it,’’ said Bradley. “I just accepted what they gave me.’’
Seeing the four-deep group of reporters gathered around Bradley’s locker Sunday, Victorino walked by and warned, “They love you now, but they’ll be [expletive] burying you within a week.’’
Welcome to Boston, kid.