Unfazed, Jackie Bradley Jr. stays the course
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — In Jackie Bradley Jr.’s mind, there will be a happy ending.
He doesn’t want sympathy over what he’s gone through, from being the poster child of the Red Sox farm system to losing his job to the new poster child, Mookie Betts.
He has recovered, he says, from the devastation of the 2014 season, when for the first time in his amateur or professional career he failed, hitting just .198 despite playing some of the best center field Boston ever has seen.
To this day, Bradley doesn’t have much of a grasp on what went wrong or how he could have prevented things from escalating into a train wreck.
The man who may be the best pure defensive center fielder in baseball says he doesn’t spend time beating himself up over last year, though he is reminded of it.
He doesn’t ignore it, or deny that his place as an everyday player with the Red Sox is going to be harder to regain.
As much as the Red Sox say that they haven’t given up on Bradley, they have — by signing Rusney Castillo, by signing Hanley Ramirez, by trading for Allen Craig and Yoenis Cespedes before that — sent the message that he probably wasn’t going to be in their plans.
The double whammy is that Betts has taken off.
Assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez says he heard Pablo Sandoval say, “Willie Mays could walk in that door and even he couldn’t replace Mookie Betts.”
Unless Betts falls on his face — the way Bradley did last year — center field could be his job for a long time.
To see Bradley play right field and left field in spring training seems like such a waste. You’re taking this great center fielder and making him play a different position.
He actually made a throwing error Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay, which was shocking to see, even though he was off-balance and made quite an athletic play on a throw that short-hopped Brock Holt and got away.
Bradley’s eye-opening .381 spring average (13 of his 16 hits are singles) has put him back on the radar, with his own team and with the many scouts who have commented on how comfortable he looks at the plate again.
Bradley, a guy who has so much perspective on his career and his life, knew he had to work hard. He was in Fort Myers in late January. Rodriguez lives there, so they worked together.
“He’s a different guy from last year,” Rodriguez said. “Just little things he’s changed, and the results have been so good. Last year was tough. Really tough for him.”
“We really didn’t work on anything in particular,” said Bradley. “Getting back to what I normally do. Swing’s not different. I feel like I’m in the best position I can be. I’m making contact like I normally would. Not much swing and miss like last year, where there was a lot of that. It was awkward for me because I had never swung and missed like that before.
“Just getting back to hitting the ball and finding holes.”
I asked him how difficult it was to lose his job and have to prove himself all over again.
“It’s life-wrenching — no, obviously not,” he said. “Everybody has different paths, and I continue to work. Let the cards fall where they may. I’m content in all things, good and bad. I have an opportunity to play in baseball. I’ll continuously work. We’ll see how things turn out.”
As for playing other outfield positions, Bradley said, “I just try to go out and help the pitchers out and help the team out in whatever way that is. I’ll catch a fly ball for you, catch a ground ball for you, throw someone out for you. I’m just trying to be the best ballplayer I could be.”
For the most part, he has been left alone by the media this spring.
He has tried to avoid publicity. He doesn’t like talking about last year.
“It’s just a game,” he said. “If you’re going to let it affect you, it’s going to affect you outside of baseball. I made a promise that I would never let the game on the field eat me up.
“I’m able to move on and have a short-term memory so I can enjoy life rather than sit around and beat myself over something you can’t control.”
Asked if he ever could supplant Betts, he said, “Why get him out? Let him keep doing his thing.”
What about a trade, to a place where he can play every day?
“Not something I can control,” he said. “I don’t focus on it. Just getting ready for April. I’m ready to put the past behind me and grow from this.
“I have a good grasp of what I’m capable of and I’m ready to put that into action.”
He says he never got angry at himself, either.
“Not really,” he said. “When the season was over, I let my mind relax. Focus on family time and enjoyed myself outside of the game.”
Bradley said he didn’t get much advice in the offseason, just a lot of encouragement.
“It’s one of those things where you tell yourself, ‘I’m going to be fine,’ ” he said. “Believe me, I’m going to be fine. You never turn away encouragement no matter what.”
Is this calm we’re seeing because he knows he’s a really good player?
“Exactly,” he said. “I don’t feel I could possibly do that again. Time will tell all. Fortunately that’s what I have. I can prove that what people saw last year wasn’t who I am as a player. I hope I can prove that.”
When you’re the seventh outfielder on the depth chart with only five spots available, that means you’ll have to prove it in Pawtucket.
Play every day. Be outstanding in the field. Continue the good feel at the plate.
First time up on Tuesday, hard single up the middle.
You could see a smile on his face as he rounded first.
He knows there will be a happy ending.