FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jackie Bradley Jr. is standing outside the Red Sox spring training clubhouse, shaded against the bright Florida sun by an overhang. He is about to answer a question from the reporters gathered around him but is nearly bowled over by the toddler charging at his legs. As he scoops up his daughter Emerson with the ease and grace the Boston baseball public is accustomed to seeing in the outfield of Fenway Park, he continues the conversation without missing a beat.
“So far so good,” he says after an exhibition game in which he stroked three hits. “Been able to get my feet wet and work on a few things.”
Jackie Bradley Jr. is perched in the outfield of JetBlue Park, patrolling the centerfield grass of Fenway South. He is about to answer a question from the ESPN commentators in his ear, when the mic’d up portion of the network’s all-access visit to spring training is interrupted by a fly ball. As he glides to his left with the uncanny precision that lands him in precisely the right spot to snap his glove over the out, he continues the conversation without missing a beat.
“Got it,” he shouts, before flipping the ball back to the infield. “No worries.”
Jackie Bradley Jr. never appears to be worrying — he could teach a master class in even-keeled countenance and unshakeable demeanor. It’s not easy to get him off his feet, unless it’s by choice (little Emerson can knock him over any day). It’s equally difficult to get a rise out of him, unless it’s by design.
“We had a thing at South Carolina where if you didn’t make a play you should have made in batting practice, if a guy didn’t catch it and we thought he should, we’d blow the whistle at him,” says Chad Holbrook, one of Bradley’s college coaches. “For every outfielder, if you got a whistle, it was like getting chastised. Jackie took that personal if you blew a whistle at him. He would argue you with you, saying ‘You’re not going to blow the whistle on me, I’ll just catch everything.’
“After about the first week, you could put that whistle in your pocket. [Head] coach [Ray] Tanner, he’d whistle at him from time to time, just to poke at him. It got personal and then it would become a competitive thing.
“He needed something, no, he didn’t need it, but it was a tool that drove him. ‘That coach ain’t whistling at me.’ That was cool to watch.”
“I had the whistle,” laughed Tanner, now the athletic director at South Carolina. “I didn’t get to blow it much.”
For anyone watching Bradley across the last six years with the Red Sox, this is no surprise. That the 28-year-old won only his first Gold Glove last season is considered a near-criminal oversight in New England, where Bradley has routinely awed home crowds and televised audiences with his array of spectacular catches.
Tracking down long fly balls from the crack of the bat, diving for gappers with perfect timing and balance, navigating the corner in right-center field or scaling the wall in left, Bradley has done it all. And that’s before he pops up with cat-like flexibility, ready to uncork his rifle arm should a play be needed in the infield.
But Bradley doesn’t simply show us his skills when he plays center field; he tells us so much about himself precisely because he plays center field.
This is a perfect intersection of player and position, a man eminently comfortable in the center of the action who doesn’t need to be the center of attention. The equanimity that defines his personality infuses his professional profile, making him the type of calm, steadying influence that can be so valuable in a clubhouse, one of those glue guys that coaches know they can’t do without, whose presence is as valuable as his skill set.
“That’s exactly how I would describe him, as someone comfortable in his own skin,” says teammate Andrew Benintendi. “He’s always just even-keeled. I’ve never seen him get mad or get too excited. I feel like that’s what I try to be like.”
Bradley credits much of his perspective to one of his longest-standing baseball influences. He met Donnie Brittingham as a middle schooler, playing for him from Little League through American Legion ball all the way through Richmond’s Prince George High School, where Brittingham was a varsity assistant to head coach Mickey Roberts.
“He said, ‘No one should ever know whether you’re winning or losing. Kind of keep the same temperament. That way, it will allow you to put some perspective into things,’” Bradley recalled. “And I kind of took that to heart. I never get too high and I’ll never get too low.”
“Jack doesn’t have a lot of what I call mustard and ketchup,” Brittingham says. “There’s not a lot of extra crap when you have to deal with Jackie. You just deal with him personally. He’s not a drama queen, it’s not ‘Jackie this’ or ‘Jackie that.’ He’s focused on where he is and what he’s doing and doesn’t allow a lot of distractions.”
It was Brittingham who was responsible for moving Bradley to center field, making the unplanned switch when his team arrived at a youth game only to find there was no outfield fence.
Like any good coach, he took his best athlete out of the infield (where he’d starred as a pitcher and a shortstop) and put him where he could help the most.
“Where normally balls were going for home runs, not a single ball got through that outfield that day, or from that point on,” the coach recalls. “This was eighth grade for him. We decided another kid could play shortstop, but nobody could cover the ground he could. Not just flat out speed, it was his instincts. Almost like his eyes were connected to his feet.”
That Bradley is among the best (if not the best) center fielder in baseball is obvious when he takes the field. We can see it. But it’s what we can’t see that makes it all make so much sense. Inside and out, this is a man in charge and in control.
“Ultimately, when it comes to the outfield you could say I’m the quarterback, in the sense I get to tell guys I got this, this is where you need to be,” Bradley says. “I’ve always enjoyed it.”