FORT MYERS, Fla. — He is named for soul singer Jackie Wilson and his favorite player is Jackie Robinson. His spare time is spent playing another sport with strikes, bowling. He is a Junior who has major league star written all over him.
He is the Next Great Red Sox Hope sprung eternal.
If there were a Fort Myers Idol competition, the winner would be Red Sox outfield prospect Jackie Bradley Jr., who has created a buzz with his dynamic defense, precocious approach at the plate, and magnetic personality. Everyone from Dustin Pedroia to John Farrell to Hall of Famer Jim Rice likes the kid.
There is nothing more tantalizing or alluring in sports than potential, the pure, unspoiled possibility of what is to come and what may be. In baseball, prospects go bust more often than boom. The general advice on baseball prospects this time of year is that hype springs eternal. But in the case of Bradley, the drumbeat of superlatives is too loud to ignore.
The Richmond, Va., native has played so well in his first big league camp — batting .500 with a .571 on-base percentage — that manager John Farrell declined to declare that Bradley would start the season in the minors, barring injury, when presented the opportunity on a silver platter.
“Likely, but you never want to put a limit on anyone either,” said Farrell. “He is making the best of the opportunity, and he’s making a very strong impression.”
As well as Bradley has swung the bat — no surprise, since he batted .315 and posted a .430 on-base percentage last year between High A Salem and Double A Portland — it’s his defense in center and right field that has turned heads.
Bradley tracks down balls as if his glove had GPS. He doesn’t run them down. He casually meets up with them, relying on angles, intelligence, and instincts. There is a Rondo-esque sixth sense to his rendez-vous with the baseball.
“You’re kind of thinking ahead,” said Bradley. “You move over and then someone hits it there and they’re like, ‘What in the world? How did he get there?’ I’m just trying to pay attention, read swings, know certain players’ tendencies and where people hit the ball.”
Such a cerebral, mature approach is why Bradley already exudes a major league mien. The son of a bus driver, Jackie Bradley Sr., and a former police officer, Alfreda Hagans, Bradley projects confidence, not cockiness, attentiveness, not arrogance.
The spotlight is nothing new for the 22-year-old Bradley, who won a pair of College World Series titles at the University of South Carolina and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 series.
College baseball in the South is followed with fervor, even if they don’t offer membership cards and commemorative masonry to fans.
Bradley said his experience at South Carolina helped prepare him to handle the fishbowl of Boston.
“It makes it a lot easier because you’ve kind of been through it a little bit and you know what to expect,” he said.
Bradley, who entered Tuesday third in batting average in the Grapefruit League and fourth in on-base percentage, is smart enough to recognize that baseball is a game that can be managed, not mastered.
So he takes all the proclamations of being the next great Red Sox outfielder in stride.
“Hopefully, I can live up to all their expectations,” he said. “But there are going to be ups and downs. I’m just going to have fun, and let the game handle itself. I’m going to keep playing hard and hopefully things go my way.”
If things had gone Bradley’s way his final year at South Carolina, he likely wouldn’t be in Sox camp. His misfortune was Boston’s good fortune.
Bradley injured a tendon in his left wrist while diving for a fly ball against Mississippi State on April 23, 2011. He was in a slump before that, batting .259 in 37 games, struggling to adjust to college baseball’s new composite bats and a steady diet of inside fastballs. He returned in time to win another national title with the Gamecocks. Fittingly, the title-clinching out landed in his glove.
The Sox snapped him up with the 40th pick in the 2011 draft.
“Everything kind of happens for a reason. I believe in that,” said Bradley. “I’m not blaming anybody or complaining about anything because I still got the opportunity and the chance to play at the next level. That’s what I’m grateful for. I’m just trying to prove that I’m back to the player that I was before the injuries.”
Players like Bradley and Xander Bogaerts are on the other side of the bridge that the Red Sox are erecting for the 2013 season. When general manager Ben Cherington talks about the “next great Red Sox team,” he’s talking about a team with Bradley in center field.
But this Red Sox team, with left fielder Jonny Gomes and right fielder Shane Victorino suspect against righthanded pitching, has a clear need for a lefthanded outfield bat now.
They could also use a fresh face to help erase the disdain and disappointment of the last two seasons.
Bradley turns 23 next month, making him the same age Jacoby Ellsbury was when he made his major league debut.
Bradley is a movie buff, so he knows a good story. He said he had seen nearly all of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, except “Life of Pi.” His pick would have been “Lincoln.”
“That was really good,” said Bradley. “He [Daniel Day-Lewis] played the mess out of that movie. I really enjoyed that. Plus, much of the history took place in my hometown.”
The script for Bradley’s career is still being written yet. But he looks like a feature attraction.