NEW YORK — There is no better life for a little boy growing up in Texas than to be the son of a high school football coach. So once he was old enough to keep up, Will Middlebrooks tagged along with his father to watch practice.
One day, just after he turned 8, Middlebrooks brought a bat and a ball with him. As his father was inside the fieldhouse watching film, young Will tossed the ball up and hit it as far as he could across the practice field.
Looking up, he wondered if he could hit the ball over the press box and onto the field on the other side. Yep, turned out he could.
“I must have done it for an hour,” Middlebrooks said. “I would hit the ball over the press box, run around and pick it up and then hit back over to the practice field. It was fun.”
You know what happened next, of course. Middlebrooks hit the ball a little too low and there was a loud crash.
“I smoked the window of the press box,” he said. “My father came running out and he couldn’t believe I had done that.”
Back home, it was decided that Will would pay for the window with some money he had received for his birthday. He had to learn a lesson.
Tom Middlebrooks learned something that day, too. His boy sure could hit.
That little boy with the big swing is 24 now and will be starting at third base for the Red Sox Monday when they open the season against the Yankees.
In time, the painful 2012 season might come to be remembered more for it being the year Middlebrooks made his debut with the Sox and not the 93 losses the team suffered.
Middlebrooks hit .288 with an .835 OPS before a fastball broke his right wrist in August. There were 15 homers, 54 RBIs, and a 41-29 record when he was in the starting lineup.
“We’re going to be looking at him as a guy we’re going to count on in the middle of that order, fifth or sixth,” manager John Farrell said. “Not to say that he can’t progress even beyond that at some point, certainly has the potential to. He’s a legitimate power bat at third base.”
Middlebrooks was given a chance in May when Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list. The rookie proved to be so good that Youkilis was traded in June.
Middlebrooks also faced up to the problem of fitting into a clubhouse that had grown disgruntled with manager Bobby Valentine and a steady drumbeat of injuries and losses.
“It was fun,” Middlebrooks said. “I liked the challenge. But at the same time it’s hard. I was new to the whole big league atmosphere. I’d miss a ball and I’d get ‘Youked’ by the fans. I was like, ‘Come on.’ But I liked the pressure. It made me work harder.
“The biggest thing was that everything was overshadowed by losing and I hate losing. I wasn’t used to that and it made it a tough year. I kept my head down and pushed to get better.”
The drive to keep going forward came from his family back home in Texarkana. Tom Middlebrooks, who grew up in a military family, has been a football and baseball coach for years. Julie Middlebrooks is an art and music teacher who required that all three of her children do well in school.
“That was non-negotiable,” Middlebrooks said. “Mom is very, very intelligent and she worked hard in school. We did, too.”
Even his two sisters pushed him. Will had a few years on Mary Frances, who is now a sophomore art student in college. But Lacey was only two years younger and made her own headlines in the local paper.
“We would fight for everything, even the front seat of the car,” said Lacey, who is 12-2 with a 1.42 earned run average for the nationally ranked University of Tulsa softball team, a .337 hitter with six home runs. “We both wanted to be No. 1 in whatever we did.
“We were blessed to have parents who understood the games and we were naturally talented and athletic. Will was the best in high school, but he still worked hard. We have a very driven and intense family.”
By the time he was 18, Will was quarterbacking Liberty-Eylau High’s football team and was a pitcher and shortstop in baseball. He was All-State in both sports — no small feat in Texas — and sifted through scholarship offers.
“He was a Division 1 athlete and could have been an NFL punter. He is one of the best athletes I’ve played with in my life,” said San Francisco 49ers running back LaMichael James, who played with Middlebrooks at Liberty-Eylau. “He could have picked whatever he wanted to do.”
Middlebrooks settled on Texas A&M and was prepared to play football and baseball before the Red Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. They offered a bonus of $925,000, convinced they had uncovered a gem.
“Unlike a lot of high school players these days who are on every showcase circuit in the summer and play baseball 12 months a year, he wasn’t doing that,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “He was a football player. He was a guy with a great family from a small town in Texas and not doing the baseball travel thing. There was so much potential.”
For the son of two educators, the idea of giving up college seemed foreign. But Middlebrooks saw pro ball as his best option and the family debate was on.
“Evidently people saw me as holding him back from baseball,” Julie Middlebrooks said. “But it was a hard decision for everybody.”
As the deadline to make a decision approached, Middlebrooks went back to his mother.
“I’ll never forget the day,” he said. “We were really deep in discussion. I was like, ‘Mom, I want to go. This is my dream and what if it never happens again?’ ”
That settled it.
“He needed me to respect his decision and I did. He was headstrong about it,” Julie Middlebrooks said. “It was hard on everybody in our family because he would be leaving home.
“But what we didn’t realize at the time was how strong our family unit was. When he went through the lower levels and played on the smaller stages, we saw what kind of person he had become. He could handle it.”
Middlebrooks struggled in his first season of rookie ball with Lowell before manager Gary DiSarcina sat him down.
“He basically said to pull your head out of your butt. You’re a good player. I don’t know where your confidence went, but you need go get it back,” Middlebrooks said. “That was the turning point in my pro ball career. He didn’t yell at me, but he told me how it needed to be.”
Middlebrooks couldn’t go into the batting cage just to get loose before a game; he needed to use the time to get better. It wasn’t that he had to work harder; he had to work smarter.
“In high school, I would go through the motions, go out and play, and beat everyone’s butt. I couldn’t do that any more,” he said.
His father saw his son change, both as a player and as a person.
“I think some of what he went through in high school prepared him for it,” said Tom Middlebrooks, who grew up a Red Sox fan in Oklahoma because he heard so many games on Armed Forces Radio. “His being a quarterback helped make him a leader and helped him learn what he needed to do.
“Once he started to focus on baseball, I could see how much better he was getting. By the time he got to Portland for Double A, I knew he had a chance.”
Once he made the majors, Middlebrooks stuck close to veterans Mike Aviles, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia to learn more.
“When to get to the field, what to wear, how to go about the media, and the coaches. There are so many little things that you have to do to be a professional and do things the right way,” Middlebrooks said. “Those guys were great to me.”
Middlebrooks also learned the potential and peril of being an athlete in Boston.
“It’s weird and yet it’s neat when people recognize you. It’s what you want,” he said. “A lot of guys get frustrated that people want them to sign. But this is what I wanted my whole life. I want to make a difference in a positive way and help out. That’s why I do this.
“I like to say I’m a pretty good judge of character. You know when someone is after you for the wrong reasons and they have bad intentions.”
Middlebrooks gained some perspective over the winter when he traveled to France, Spain, and Italy with his marketing adviser, Ed Cerulo.
“My first time in Europe,” said Middlebrooks, who marveled at the cathedrals of Barcelona, the Eiffel Tower, and the beaches of the French Riviera. “It was an amazing experience.”
Watching the great Lionel Messi play for FC Barcelona at Camp Nou was a pleasure, if only because Middlebrooks hasn’t watched too many games from the stands in his life.
“I loved seeing how passionate the fans were,” he said. “It reminded me of Fenway. I had a year I’ll never forget with everything that happened to me.”
Middlebrooks is eager for the season for reasons beyond baseball. Lacey, once she graduates, has a job waiting for her in the Boston area at a baseball and softball academy. She also will be one of the ballgirls at Fenway Park and stay with Will at his apartment.
“I’m following my own dream,” said Lacey, a communications major who interned with the PawSox last year. “It’ll be fun to be around Will again.”
In June, once school gets out, Julie is bringing her mother to Fenway Park for the first time. But Georgia Procell, 90, doesn’t want to fly. So Julie will accompany her on the train.
“I can’t say Will being in the majors has changed our lives,” Julie said. “We’re the same people, except we travel some more. The perspective is the same.”
Farrell has spoken to Middlebrooks about how to build on the base he created last season.
“What we’re starting to talk about is leadership and I don’t think leadership has an age,” Farrell said. “I’m not asking for Will to say, ‘I’m a leader.’ It’s a matter of him staying focused and disciplined to his routine and making sacrifices and choices to prioritize his daily work to get ready for a game each and every night. Through time, that’s how he’ll be looked up to and looked upon.”
The kid who smacked that ball over the press box, raced his sister to the car, and won a state title in football has big goals in baseball.
“More than you know,” said Middlebrooks, who wants to be in the conversation when the game’s best third basemen are discussed. He’s not ceding anything to Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, David Wright, and Miguel Cabrera.
“No one wants to be third best, you know? I respect all those guys, but I want to be the best. I don’t want to be some average third baseman. You don’t work to be mediocre. You work to get to the top.”