First Impressions: Bradley, Jr. Joins Red Sox Nation
By Evan Lepler
August 22, 2011
When Jackie Bradley, Jr. arrived at the University of South Carolina, he entered with an already lofty reputation.
“You’re the guy with a good arm, huh?” said one of his older teammates, upon meeting the Prince George, VA-native.
“Yea, that’s what they say,” Bradley responded.
(Photo courtesy of John Corneau)
A bunch of Gamecocks were hanging out at Sarge Frye Field, the baseball venue that South Carolina used before brand new Carolina Stadium was built in 2009. There was no scheduled practice, but a few guys were hitting and others were “messing around on our first day back.” A freshman named Jackie introduced himself to the crowd, and, when asked about his legendary arm strength, he said, “alright, give me a ball.”
Despite just arriving to the field and not warming up at all, Bradley, Jr. stepped to home plate and launched a missile that soared over the center-field batter’s eye, which sits 365 feet from home plate, according to the official Gamecocks website.
Whit Merrifield, soon to be a Gamecock legend in his own right, remembers that day vividly as the first quintessential Bradley, Jr. moment.
“The Sarge was kind of a Cracker Jack,” Merrifield explained, implying that the center-field fence was not exactly miles away. “But it was probably a good 370-380 and [Jackie’s throw] cleared it.
“I was like ‘Oh, my god!’ I’d never seen anything like it. From then on, he’s been all as advertized.”
Merrifield and Bradley, Jr. were two of the vitally important pieces to South Carolina’s first national championship in the spring of 2010. Merrifield became an instant icon with his College World Series clinching single in the bottom of the 11th inning to defeat UCLA and win it all, while Bradley, Jr. earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the entire tournament.
One year older, Merrifield signed with the Kansas City Royals after they selected him in the ninth round in 2010. Meanwhile, Bradley, Jr returned to Columbia for his junior season, a frustrating injury-plagued year that still featured the happiest possible ending, as the Gamecocks won their second straight national title. Bradley, Jr. returned from his left wrist injury earlier than expected, coming up with a big ninth-inning hit in Omaha after missing 26 games during South Carolina’s quest.
Despite modest stats as a junior (.247, 6 HR, 27 RBI in 42 games), the Boston Red Sox made Bradley, Jr. the 40th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Many analysts suggested that his potential graded out to a top-20 pick and his stock had dropped because of the injury. Near the midnight deadline on August 15, news broke that the Red Sox and Bradley, Jr. had agreed to a $1.1 million bonus, an above-slot figure for the athletic outfielder who seemed exuberant about joining the organization.
In a conversation orchestrated entirely via twitter, The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham asked him if he had a comment about signing with the Sox. Bradley, Jr., a prolific tweeter, replied, “I want to thank Boston for the opportunity. It really means a lot to see how much faith they have in me. I’m excited to be a part of such a great nation. And I’m ready to give it my all. No complaints and no excuses! #RedSoxNation”
Merrifield, now a member of the Wilmington Blue Rocks in the Carolina League, offered some insight to Bradley, Jr. before the entire process began.
“I talked to him before I left for spring training because I knew what kind of situation he’d be in,” Merrifield explained. “I told him to go with what his gut told him. Pro ball’s a different world. You’re king when you’re at South Carolina playing baseball, especially when you’re winning championships like we were. But nobody blames him for doing what he did, and I think he’s gonna be a great Red Sock. Jackie’s a smart kid, and I’m sure he weighed his options and made the right choice for him.”
Bradley, Jr. reported to short-season Lowell and could make his professional debut for the Low-A Spinners soon. Two days ago, he tweeted, “If all goes according to plan I will get to make my debut for the @LowellSpinners on Wednesday.” If Merrifield’s scouting report is accurate, that is not good news for New York-Penn League pitchers.
“[There’s] not a whole lot you can throw to him,” Merrifield divulged. “He hits everything well. Goes the other way really well, pulls some balls, got some power. Runs pretty well. As an opposing player, I don’t really know how to approach him.”
Bradley, Jr. will likely get a chance to make his first splash on the field with Red Sox Nation with the Spinners. Former Salem hitting coach Carlos Febles, now the skipper for the Spinners, would be the man to write Bradley, Jr. onto the lineup card for the first time.
But Bradley, Jr. has already made a strong first impression with many Red Sox fans, using the same twitterverse that other Gamecock athletes, including Merrifield, have embraced over the past couple years to connect with their dedicated followers. How did twitter become such a prominent venue for the South Carolina ballplayers?
“To be honest with ya, I couldn’t even tell ya,” said Merrifield. “I guess it was just last offseason, everyone kinda started doing it. It started as a way for us to kinda goof on each other with other people taking notice. It just kinda grew from there.
“I think Jackie’s got like 8,000 followers or something like that. It’s stupid. But it’s blown up, and it’s definitely the Gamecock thing to do, to have a twitter.”
As of August 22, Bradley, Jr. (@JackieBradleyJr) actually had over 9,000 followers, a conglomeration of Gamecock Nation and Red Sox Nation, with many of the former now naturally becoming part of the latter. And it is a good bet that he will cross over the 10 grand plateau before he arrives in Salem, perhaps as soon as next season.
The decision of where Bradley, Jr. begins his 2012 season is not a pressing matter, but he’ll likely be a Gamecock hero returning to South Carolina with Greenville or one of the headliners to Salem’s roster, a high draft pick who also happens to be from Virginia. At the moment, he is gathering his first taste of the professional baseball lifestyle in Lowell.
It did not take long for him to amaze his new Gamecock teammates in Columbia. It will be cool to see how quickly the 21-year-old can do the same in Lowell, Greenville, Salem, and beyond.