SOUTH CAROLINA fans already knew how much fun it is to watch Jackie Bradley play baseball. The rest of the nation discovered it Monday afternoon.
With a national audience watching on ESPN, the former Gamecock star began his MLB career playing left field for the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. In Columbia, after USC’s weekend sweep of Texas A&M in a key SEC series, much of the fan chatter surrounded Bradley’s rapid rise to the majors.
USC coach Chad Holbrook has watched his share of former players at USC and North Carolina get to the majors, but he was surprised at how quickly Bradley made it to Boston. Holbrook, however, never had any doubt that it would happen.
“It didn’t take five minutes of watching him (shag fly balls) in BP to tell that he’s a major league outfielder,” Holbrook said. “Then you watch him throw, then you watch him run the bases, then you watch his plate approach and then you watch what a good teammate he is. You start stacking all these characteristics on top of one another, and what you’ve got one darn, darn good major league-quality baseball player.”
After helping lead USC to a pair of national championships — winning the College World Series Most Outstanding Player award in 2010 as a sophomore — he was drafted by the Red Sox with the 40th pick in the 2011 draft and signed for a $1.1 million bonus. He likely would have been drafted higher if he hadn’t struggled with the new bats and suffered a wrist injury as a junior.
But he showed that season was an aberration with a great 2012 season split between Single-A and Double-A, which led to Baseball America ranking the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Bradley, who bats left and throws right, as baseball’s No. 31 prospect heading into this season.
When Bradley attended a January offseason event in Greenville, home to Boston’s Single-A affiliate, he spoke of playing at a high level in spring training and competing hard as he worked his way up the organizational ladder. Ben Crockett, Boston’s director of player development who also attended the Drive’s event, praised Bradley’s development in his one full season in the minor leagues but cautioned against the need to rush him through the system.
But they couldn’t have foreseen the set of circumstances that would land him batting eighth in the Red Sox season-opening lineup against Yankees All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia. Designated hitter David Ortiz wasn’t ready to go due to an Achilles’ injury, and new shortstop Stephen Drew went to the disabled list with a concussion, leaving the Red Sox scrambling to fill their spots.
Bradley hit .419 with a .507 on-base percentage, two homers and 12 RBIs in 62 at-bats during the spring. He also showed that his brilliance as a defender — his strongest tool — would translate to the major leagues.
Boston manager John Farrell said Bradley earned the roster spot, noting that the 22-year-old makes the Red Sox better in the outfield. He also saluted Bradley’s consistency at the plate in the spring as well as his mental approach.
Holbrook knows how Farrell feels.
“He just has innate qualities as a human being. Forget the fact he’s a great baseball player. You just want to be around him,” Holbrook said after Monday’s USC practice. “He has got this personality that coaches, players, and fans are attracted to, and I knew halfway through spring training that if it was John Farrell’s decision, he would be on the team. If you’re around the kid, you want him on your team for all kinds of reasons. He’s a special person and a special player.”
The ESPN team of play-by-man Dave O’Brien and analysts Rick Sutcliffe and Aaron Boone, both former major leaguers, opened the telecast talking about Bradley’s emergence and then spent the next nine innings extolling his virtues while citing his maturity, presence and personality along with his ability.
The Red Sox assigned him No. 44 — the same number worn by Hall of Fame outfielders Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson — and he looked like he belonged. ESPN spotlighted his play over and over, almost making it into an episode of “The Jackie Bradley Show” as the Red Sox defeated the Yankees, 8-2.
He drew a walk in his first at-bat, working his way back from a 0-2 count against Sabathia. His hustle on the basepaths — which kept the rally alive — led to him scoring his first run on Shane Victorino’s two-run single. Although he struck out on three pitches in his second at-bat, he later worked another walk off Sabathia.
In his fourth at-bat, he tallied his first RBI with a hard-hit groundout up the middle against lefty reliever Boone Logan. He drew one more walk off Joba Chamberlain in his fifth at-bat before scoring another run in the ninth.
As for his defense, he made a terrific catch while going back on a hard-hit liner by Robinson Cano to end a scoring threat in the third inning.
Bradley told the media after Sunday’s Yankee Stadium workout that he didn’t expect to be nervous. That’s not his style. He did expect to be excited about his opportunity — “Anything’s possible, apparently. I’m ready to start the adventure,” he told the assembled reporters — and he made the most of it.
Holbrook said he never has seen Bradley, who hit .336 with 30 homers and 132 RBIs in 167 USC games, look uncomfortable on the playing field.
Bradley’s natural manner has charmed people everywhere, especially in Columbia. After returning to school last fall, he’s now just nine classes away from his retail management degree. And he’s engaged to Erin Helring, a former high school classmate from Prince George, Va. The two are planning a December wedding.
“If you had a daughter, you’d want someone like him to marry her,” Holbrook said. “Everybody who comes into contact with him just feels so strongly about him as a person. As good of a baseball player he is, he’s a better person.”