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HOUSTON — Seven years ago Mookie Betts was in awe of Jackie Bradley Jr. Four years ago, hitting coach Tim Hyers had to leave home on an emergency mission to help save the young outfielder. Earlier this year, numerous voices across the organization felt compelled to reassure him. And on Thursday, those same parties got to celebrate with him.
For so many members of the Red Sox organization in the champagne-soaked visitor’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, the image of Bradley as the American League Championship Series MVP represented a great deal more than just three critical hits. When Bradley received the honor, it offered a largely homegrown group to reflect on a coming of age — not only by Bradley himself but by an entire generation of young Red Sox and the people who helped them along the way.
Bradley, Betts, Matt Barnes, and Blake Swihart all were drafted by the Red Sox and signed in a mad, buzzer-beating dash before a midnight deadline in 2011. Christian Vazquez (2008), Brandon Workman (2010), and Andrew Benintendi (2015) also came to the big leagues by way of the draft. Xander Bogaerts (2009) and Rafael Devers (2013) also are homegrown, having matriculated to the big leagues in the same organizations with whom they signed as teenagers.
The Red Sox have a wealth of players who now will compete for a championship flag for the same team with whom they’ve spent their entire careers. The opportunity is extraordinary, yet it was made more so by the shared roads of players, coaches, and members of the organization — a history that now includes the unforgettable experience of Thursday night’s festivities after the Red Sox vanquished the Astros 4-1, to advance past the 2017 champions in five games.
Bradley’s three hits in the ALCS delivered nine runs and proved series-shaping — as well as organization-affirming, the coming to fruition of years of work and shared experiences.
Red Sox amateur scouting director Mike Rikard could think back to his time as the team’s national crosschecker watching Bradley in college, and to the work of then-area scout (now crosschecker) Quincy Boyd in looking beyond Bradley’s struggles as a college junior to see a player clearly worthy of an early pick.
Gus Quattlebaum, now the Red Sox pro scouting director, recalled his time as the assistant amateur scouting director in 2011. As midnight approached on Aug. 16, 2011, it was Quattlebaum who was in charge of “the clock” in the Red Sox’ baseball operations department, shouting down the remaining time the Sox had to negotiate deals and sign players before MLB’s deadline.
“A lot of those decisions that take place in the draft room are group decisions,” said Quattlebaum. “We were right on some big ones that helped us win a championship in the American League this year. That’s extremely gratifying.”
Betts met Bradley in fall instructional league in 2011, when the two were roommates. Betts, a scrawny middle infielder taken out of high school, had to pick his jaw off the floor when he first encountered the outfielder, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 College World Series at the University of South Carolina.
“I was in awe. I watched the College World Series. I walked into my hotel room in instructs and it’s Jackie there,” said Betts. “It took me a second to realize that I didn’t want to be a fan boy at the time.”
Betts was relieved to find out that despite his résumé, Bradley was humble and approachable. The two forged an immediate friendship that has endured over seven years, one whose entirety struck Betts amidst the celebration.
“He’s just a normal dude with freakish talent. I’m not sure he got out in instructs. I know what he’s capable of. I’m just happy he proved it,” said Betts. “We’ve been through the ranks together. It’s one of those things where I can stand next to him and know that we’ve been together kind of every step of the way. I knew what kind of player he is. He’s proven it. He definitely proved it this series. He’s not just a glove out there. He can do it all.”
Though Bradley zoomed to the big leagues for Opening Day in 2013, his development at that time remained incomplete. He spent parts of four seasons in the minors, and while Bradley often starred at this level, there were also struggles and opportunities to grow that were witnessed by several coaches and officials in the Red Sox farm system. Those memories remained fresh for the coaches and executives who witnessed them.
“It’s special, not just for me, but for the organization as a whole. Player development has done an outstanding job developing these kids throughout the minor league system. I think it’s a big day for the whole organization,” said Red Sox third base coach Carlos Febles, who as a minor league coach and manager spent time with every one of the team’s homegrown players. “To see it in person, it makes me real proud of these kids. I know where they come from. I know how hard they had to work to be where they’re at, to see them perform..”
For Hyers, Bradley’s performance in the ALCS had special resonance. In August 2014, Hyers — then the Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator — was scheduled to spend a couple weeks at home with his family after months away from them while serving as the big league team’s interim hitting coach.
But in mid-August, Bradley (hitting .216/.288/.290) was demoted to Pawtucket when he looked overwhelmed in the big leagues. Hyers was asked to leave home to go back to work with the defensively gifted, offensively challenged young player.
It was a mess of a time for Bradley, a confidence-shattering period of his career. There were no quick fixes, but over time, Bradley — with the aid of coaches — regained his career footing in a way that put him back on a path to an everyday big league future by 2015.
“That was one of the toughest times of my life and career,” recalled Bradley. “I went through a lot of things — family at that particular time, too. To be able to work through those things, flush that, put it behind me, I think it’s made me stronger as a person, player. Talking with Tim has always been two-sided — talking, listening, bouncing things off each other. It’s only going to make me better. I definitely appreciate Tim.”
As Hyers witnessed Bradley delivering fantastic at-bats on the ALCS stage — not just the hits, but also the disciplined approach that allowed him to work critical walks and generally exhaust the Astros’ excellent pitching staff — he felt elation. The lost time at home in 2014, he beamed, suddenly felt “well worth it” to see Bradley excel in pivotal circumstances in the ALCS.
“I have a lot of history with Jackie,” said Hyers. “To see the progression from minor leagues all the way to now, for me, personally, it was extremely rewarding. I’m so happy for him, because I know how hard he works. I know that sometimes the chips have been down, he’s gone through some tough times, but it was really exciting to watch him have this day in this series where he kind of pulled us to the finish line.”
Bradley understood that he did not arrive at Thursday’s celebration alone, and remained appreciative of those who had kept him in the right frame of mind not just during his minor league career but also as a big leaguer. He spoke of the reassurance provided by manager Alex Cora, by assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, by teammates J.D. Martinez and Betts, and of course Hyers (“That relationship has a great foundation,” said Bradley) that helped to keep him moving in the right direction this year amidst his early-season struggles.
When Bradley’s numbers in May and June raised questions about whether he belonged in the big leagues, he received the right direction that told him that his traditional statistics did not reflect who he was. Those who saw the work and understood the years that had gone into it likewise knew that Bradley’s consistent work behind the scenes and approach in the box would culminate in a reversal of fortune.
And over the second half of the season and through the ALCS, that is precisely what happened.
“All of my hitting coaches who would watch me day-in, day-out, put the work in, kind of run into some balls, have them get caught, they would say, ‘That’s OK, at the end of the year, you’ll do something special,’ ” said Bradley. “They were right.”
The accuracy of those forecasts felt unsurprising. After all, those predictions were informed by years of history — all of which felt immediately accessible on Thursday night for a World Series-bound Red Sox team that has been fueled by players who have grown up inside the organization.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.