BOSTON – Jackie Bradley Jr. can see his destination. He knows there’s a ceiling for him in baseball, one he scrapes on occasion but can’t quite maintain.
As the No. 9 hitter in baseball’s most potent lineup, it’s easy to overlook Bradley, to figure that at 28 years old, he’ll always be a good but not great player.
Bradley has a knack for emerging from obscurity, however. And fortitude is a trait he’s long possessed.
“I am very, very ready for the possibilities and the knowledge that I have of hitting now,” Bradley told USA TODAY Sports, “and of what I want to do.”
The Boston Red Sox’s run to a World Series championship – they have a 1-0 lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers entering Wednesday night’s Game 2 – is finally shining a brighter light on his skills.
Patience is chief among them, a family trait that’s served him well.
Jackie Bradley Sr.’s destination is in sight, too.
- Red Sox outfielder has historic night
- Offense marches on for Red Sox in Game 1
When his oldest son was a year old, Bradley Sr. went to work as a bus operator for the Greater Richmond Transit Company in Virginia’s capital city.
“Twenty-seven years in,” the elder Bradley said. “I have my points and my time put in.”
Backed by a strong union and a good pension plan, he will retire next year; an unwritten benefit is the example he set for his children.
“He does whatever he can to get the job done. He’s a hustler,” says Bradley of his father. “That’s the nickname I gave to him. He’s always hustling. He’s always doing something.
“He’s never sitting around.”
Like father, like son: Bradley could – perhaps should – win a Gold Glove for his work in center field this season. Flanked by Andrew Benintendi in left field and Mookie Betts in right, Bradley is surrounded by two guys who could certainly man center field, superior athletes who are both former high school basketball stars.
“Did you see some of those plays those boys made beside me?” Bradley asks. “Those boys can go and get it. We feel like we’ve been able to showcase things we’ve been doing all year long.”
Betts and Benintendi both yield to Bradley, however.
His father, just 5-9, played college hoops at Fayetteville (N.C.). Bradley, listed at 5-10, stopped playing basketball and football – “Hell of a running back,” his father remembers – by the time he was 13 to concentrate on baseball.
His mother, Frida Hagans, was both working and shuttling Bradley to baseball games after she and the elder Bradley separated when Jackie was 9 and moved about 25 miles south of Richmond. Both parents saw a career blossom.
Entering his senior year of high school, Bradley wanted to attend the University of Virginia, but was not recruited; his options were limited to East Carolina nad area schools Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth until a twist of fate.
South Carolina assistant Monty Lee – now Clemson’s head coach – attended an AAU tournament to see one of Bradley’s teammates. He couldn’t help but notice the small but skilled hitter and urged head coach Ray Tanner go see Bradley play.
“Coach Tanner saw him hit a home run off a lefty; after that, they invited us (to Columbia) for an unofficial visit,” says Bradley Sr.
It was a fruitful visit for both parties: The Gamecocks won the 2010 national championship, Bradley won Most Outstanding Player honors at the College World Series and was the 40th overall pick by the Red Sox a year later.
Five seasons of defensive excellence have mixed with offensive fits and starts. Bradley hit 26 home runs, batted .267 and was an All-Star in 2016, but has a lifetime .238 average.
There’s reason to believe that’s about to change.
Bradley batted just .234 this season, but it’s not a stretch to think he was baseball’s hardest-luck hitter this season. He ranked 19th with an average exit velocity of 91.9 mph, just behind Betts, the likely AL MVP and batting champion.
That Bradley is barreling up balls with consistency the same year hitting savant J.D. Martinez arrived in Boston is no coincidence.
“One hundred percent,” Bradley says regarding Martinez’s role in his hard-hit rate. “It’s been great talking with him, seeing the way he prepares. It’s been something that’s not only helped him, but a lot of us.”
Says Martinez: “Anytime I can help anybody I feel like I’m doing my job, doing my part to help them as a teammate, really.”
Bradley’s process/results reality reared its head again in Game 1 of the World Series, when he hit a 104-mph rocket off Clayton Kershaw that was speared and turned into a double play. He’s hardly hanging his hat on a Statcast leaderboard, however.
“Nobody’s going to look back and say, ‘Just because he hit the ball hard, he had a good year,” he says.
Fair enough. But the recognition is coming.
Bradley had just three hits in the American League Championship Series, but they were huge: A pair of home runs, a Game 2 bases-clearing double that turned the series around and nine huge runs driven in, earning him MVP honors.
He received perhaps the loudest cheers in player introductions before World Series Game 1, and a “J-B-J!” chant emerged when he was at the plate.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora sees more tangible rewards coming Bradley’s way.
“He has power all over the place,” Cora said before Game 1. “When he's locked in, he takes his walks. And then when he's on the bases, he's a threat. He's fun to watch.
“I do believe – and I don't want to get ahead, I want to stay in the moment with the World Series – but I'm looking forward to next year, to him having a full season and see where it takes him.”
The present is pretty glorious, too. Bradley Sr., Hagans and about eight other family members and friends arrived in Boston on Tuesday, reminiscent of their trek to Omaha for the 2010 CWS.
“Now,” Bradley Jr. says of Bradley Sr., “he gets to go to the actual World Series. He’s ecstatic.”
A little jumpy, too.
“He seems cool and calm and I don’t know how he does it, man,” he said of his son. “I’m very nervous; it was tough when he struggled for the first half of the year. You always want to see your son do well.”
Three more wins, and he’ll see his son become a World Series champion.
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