By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
Jackie Bradley Jr. was coming off the disabled list when he arrived at Oriole Park at Camden Yards April 22 and looking to make an instant impact, continuing his hot start before a minor knee injury sidelined him for a couple of weeks.
Bradley had singled in four at-bats the day before, but he was looking for more, especially with a special guest at the ballpark.
In his first at-bat, he launched a monster home run over the right field wall at Camden Yards, a 420-foot shot onto Eutaw Street, a spot so hard to reach players are presented a special plaque if they hit a home run ball there. Bradley had another hit in the game and flashed his highlight-reel defense, tracking down a long fly ball by Adam Jones into the gap in center field.
After the game, Bradley had a smile on his face when he was reunited with Ray Tanner, his former head coach and now the athletics director at South Carolina.
Tanner, who led Bradley and the Gamecocks to back-to-back national championships in 2010-2011, couldn't help but have some fun with his former star player.
"I was teasing him about his route to Adam Jones' ball. I said, 'You need to go back and look at that, I'm not sure it was a great route, from where my seats were. I think you got a little bit of a late jump,'" Tanner said, laughing.
Tanner, who recruited and helped develop the future Red Sox star, marveled at Bradley's demeanor, his quiet professionalism and his ability to once again battle back from adversity. It was like he was watching the player who patrolled center field at Founders Park for three seasons.
"Visiting with him after the game, it was like he is still playing here. There is nothing different about him," Tanner said. "He has that balance that baseball players really need. You can't have ups and downs in baseball, because the game is too hard and every day is not good. You have to have perspective and you have to have balance and you have to have a good approach."
That's Jackie Bradley Jr. in a nutshell.
The star center fielder for the Red Sox has a simple approach for handling adversity — an approach that college and pro athletes everywhere can learn from.
"Everybody knows how to act when you are going really well, so how are you going to be as a person and a player when you are going through some things?"
After leading South Carolina in the 2010 College World Series, Bradley broke his wrist in 2011, missing 26 games. Though he struggled because of the injury, he bounced back to get a key hit in the 2011 College World Series, helping South Carolina win back-to-back national championships.
A first-round draft pick by Boston in 2011, Bradley was on the fast track to the majors when adversity struck again. He struggled in his first two major-league trials, getting sent back to the minors and raising questions about his ability to hit big-league pitching.
But just as he has done his whole career, Bradley persevered and bounced back in a big way. After a solid finish to the 2015 season, he had a great first half in 2016 and was named to play in the MLB All-Star Game. He finished his first full season in the majors hitting .267 with 26 home runs and 87 RBIs and emerging as one of the best center fielders in baseball.
And he is doing it again this season, bouncing back from a minor knee injury and some early-season struggles to hit a hot streak in May. By early June, he had seven home runs and was showing up on daily highlight reels with one amazing catch after another in centerfield.
As the College World Series approaches, many Gamecock fans will remember those magical years in 2010 and 2011 and the role Bradley played in bringing two national championships to South Carolina.
That Bradley continues to bounce back from adversity is a testament to not only his talent as a player but to his attitude and personality. And that, he says, defines him more than his accomplishments on the field.
"I am not going to let struggle define me as a person or a player," Bradley said as he prepared for the 2017 season during spring training. "A lot of people like to see how you are going to react when you are going through tough times.
"I have always had that never-quit attitude and I have always had faith in myself and never doubted myself, so I knew all I had to do was to continue to work. God has a plan for me and if I just continue to put the work in, good things will come."
Catching Tanner's eye
Those are the traits that Ray Tanner first noticed in the young outfielder from Prince George, Va.
He was on a recruiting trip to Atlanta when he first saw Bradley, who was playing for the Richmond Braves, an AAU team filled with college and pro prospects. Bradley was leading off and playing center field in a 9 a.m. game on a sweltering day.
"He was the first one on the field and the last one off the field," Tanner said.
What impressed him most that day was Bradley's ability to track down balls hit in the alleys in the outfield. As a college coach for more than 25 years, Tanner knew immediately that Bradley had the instincts to be an all-star defender.
"You could tell right away, he had better instincts than he did speed," Tanner said. "He wasn't a plus-runner, but he's a real good runner. He runs great routes and his instincts are off the charts. And after he started playing for us, you could stand behind the batting cage and watch balls go up in the alley and it was almost like he knew where it was going, he could run to a spot."
Tanner was also impressed by Bradley's plate approach. He watched the left-handed leadoff hitter blast a home run off a tough left-handed pitcher.
"His demeanor was just so solid," Tanner said. "I said, 'Geez, I think this kid is special."
Tanner immediately called assistant coach Monte Lee, the future Clemson coach who was on Tanner's staff at the time. He wanted to know what schools they had to beat to sign Bradley.
"I said, 'We have to have this guy,'" Tanner said.
Bradley stopped in Columbia to visit the school and meet with Tanner on his way back to Richmond. He liked what he saw, but was not ready to commit to South Carolina on the spot.
"I think he really liked the school, but he wouldn't commit because his Mom wasn't with him, which made me want him even more," Tanner said. "Here's a young man that is not making a decision until his Mom signs off. He can't make the decision unless she blesses it. We got her down here, and a week later, we got him in the fold."
Of all the players Tanner recruited and signed in his 16 years as South Carolina's head coach, none were more special than Bradley.
An all-state player in high school, Bradley was rated the 40th best prospect in Virginia in 2008. He made an instant impact at South Carolina, hitting .349 with 11 home runs to become a Freshman All-American. A year later, he was one of the best players in the country, hitting .368 with 13 home runs and 60 RBI and earning Most Outstanding Player in the CWS.
Bradley credits his ability to exceed expectations to his parents, Jackie Bradley Sr. and Alfreda Hagans.
"It's been instilled in me since I was a young child with my parents, just knowing that nobody is ever going to give you anything, you have to go out there and work for it," Bradley said. "You don't want to be handed things because sometimes people take that for granted, but if you put the work in and show that you really want what you are going after, then I think you have a bigger appreciation for why you are doing certain things."
It was that work ethic and attitude that led to instant success at South Carolina.
"Instinctively, he was way ahead of his teammates," said former head coach Chad Holbrook, a Tanner assistant when Bradley played at South Carolina. "He just knew how to play the game, the way he went about his work in practice, the way he went about becoming the best center fielder in baseball."
Holbrook recalls how Bradley used batting practice to work on his defense, tracking balls in the outfield and trying to catch every one.
"It wasn't just batting practice to him. It was as much about defensive batting practice," Holbrook said. "Every fly ball that he didn't catch, he took it personally. He was gifted in so many ways, his instinct, his savvy, his confidence in himself, his belief and, obviously, the character that he had."
It was that character and confidence that impressed Tanner most. Those traits carried over to Bradley's approach and calm demeanor on the field.
"He's not easily upset," Tanner said. "And he's also not a celebratory type of guy. There is a happy medium in there. A lot of guys are ecstatic after great days, whether you are pitching or hitting. They also crash on the bad days. He was very much a level player."
As a coach, Tanner spent a lot of time coaching players not just on the fundamentals of the game, but on attitude, demeanor and how to handle adversity. Few were better at it than Bradley.
"The game is hard, the game will beat you up. The game will cut your heart out if you allow it," Tanner said. "But it is a game, and you have to understand that it is a game of failure.
"It is also a game of opportunity. So if you are up there with a man on third and one out, it's an opportunity to drive that run home. It doesn't mean you failed if you hit a line drive at the third baseman or you took a great swing and popped up. It's not a game where you are perfect, and you have to understand that you can't beat yourself up and you can't go into situations worried about failure. You have to think about opportunities to be successful. Some guys can do that very easily, some guys can't. Jackie is as good as I have ever seen."
"Even when he was struggling here, he never got too down on himself," Holbrook said. "Sometimes the failure of this game can break a player and break their confidence and their work ethic or their attitude. Not Jackie. He was not going to let the bad games or bad streak or bad stretch affect him the next day, and that's hard to do. He does that to this day."
Bradley credits Tanner and his coaches at South Carolina with helping him develop that attitude. It helped him through batting slumps and helped him remain patient when he was injured in 2011 while his team was building toward another College World Series run.
"Failure is going to happen, it's how you are going to deal with it," Bradley said. "Adversity comes at you in all kinds of ways. I had three different injuries while I was in college, each year. There are a lot of trials and tribulations that are going to come your way, but you have your teammates to lean on, the coaches, you've got a lot of support and just knowing that people have your back is the ultimate feeling."
When he struggled early in his pro career, Bradley often leaned on Tanner or Holbrook for advice and encouragement. His former coaches never doubted that he would eventually figure things out and emerge as a successful major leaguer.
"I would pick up the phone and call him, knowing that he was struggling," Tanner said. "He says, 'I'm going to get it. I know my numbers aren't there, but I'm going to get it. I know I can play at this level and I know I belong. I will get there.' Never has there ever been any doubt or insecurity about him. It's not arrogance and conceit, it's belief that he can play with the guys he's playing with in the big leagues."
"While he might have been down from time to time, he always felt he was going to do great things," Holbrook said. "He just had great confidence and belief in himself."
Those are all lessons that Bradley learned at South Carolina — lessons that have carried him through the good times and bad in Boston.
"It all comes down to perspective and how you view certain things," Bradley said. "I am blessed to be put in this situation where not many people get the opportunity to play at the highest level. I may not be doing very good (at times), but I am doing alright for myself."
He's doing better than alright after last year's breakout season. He got off to a torrid start, putting together an impressive 29-game hitting streak, demonstrated unexpected power, and was named to the AL All-Star team. And in the process, he joined outfield mate Mookie Betts as one of Boston's most valuable and popular players. Along with rookie and former Arkansas star Anthony Benintendi, they form arguably the best outfield in baseball.
Tanner believes Bradley is already the best center fielder in the game. He finished second to Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier of Tampa Bay last year.
"I don't care if you are talking about a three-year veteran or a 10-year veteran, I would put him in center field against the best in baseball," Tanner said. "I knew he was that kind of defender. When he threw up all those home runs last year, I'm thinking, 'I didn't see that coming.' But when he is using the other side of the field, he is a complete hitter.
"He is a really good baseball player. If you are going to play 162 games, that's the kind of guy you want in the lineup, because he is going to play every game the same."
Of all the highlights from last season — and the list keeps growing with his majestic home runs and play in the center field this year — there were two moments that stood out above the rest.
One was the birth of his daughter. Bradley and his wife, Erin Helring, welcomed Emerson Claire Bradley on June 2. A month later, he made his first all-star game appearance, a moment that was shared by his family and friends, who flew to San Diego to celebrate with Bradley and watch him play.
"That was pretty special because I don't get to see my family as often as I would like," he said. "So for them to all come together one special time to help me celebrate the great achievement of being an all-star, you can't even put it into words how special that was to me."
Last season's highlights rivaled another special moment in Bradley's career — leading the Gamecocks to the national championship in the 2010 College World Series. Bradley was instrumental in South Carolina rallying from an opening-round loss to Oklahoma. He hit a three-run homer and had four RBI in an 11-4 win over Arizona State. He had the game-tying single and scored the winning run in a rematch with Oklahoma. He had hits in the two wins over Clemson, and then went 2-for-5 in a 7-1 win over UCLA in the final series.
And then came the dramatic 2-1, 11-inning win over UCLA to win South Carolina's first baseball national championship.
"Just winning the final game and being the first major sport in South Carolina history to win a national championship, that just kinda speaks for itself," Bradley said. "As long as our school has been around, and we are finally able to win something, it all goes back to the preparation and dedication and the work each and every person put in, from the staff to the president of the school … ."
A year later, Bradley returned from injury for Game 1 of the CWS and had a key hit in the ninth inning of a 5-4 win over Texas A&M. He then went 2-for-5 with an RBI double in a 7-1 win over Virginia as the Gamecocks went on to win their second straight national championship.
Bradley still keeps in touch with teammates from those teams, especially fellow major leaguers Whit Merrifield, Sam Dyson and Christian Walker. Holbrook and his family flew to Tampa earlier this spring to see Bradley at spring training. And he keeps in frequent contact with Tanner.
And, of course, he still has a big following among Gamecock fans. He hears from them all the time, reliving those memories from the national championship seasons.
"You hear people saying that they had been waiting for X-amount of years for something like this to happen and it feels pretty special that you were able to help that come to a reality," Bradley said. "It was unbelievable. I was just fortunate I was able to be a part of it."
Bradley still follows the Gamecock program. He tweeted a photo on Feb. 17 of him watching South Carolina's Opening Day game. And, of course, he followed along with Gamecock Nation as the men's and women's basketball teams made their magical runs in the NCAA Tournament.
"Every single time I get the opportunity to come down to South Carolina that always brings back great memories of great teammates and great coaches and just the overall city and the fans and my teachers," he said. "It was just such an amazing atmosphere for me to be a part of and for me to grow and mature. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Those were some of the best times of my life."
And Bradley continues to give back to the university and the baseball program. He comes back to Columbia during the offseason to work out with current players and is always available for advice.
"What he has done for the baseball program can't ever be measured," Holbrook said. "He will be coming back to this place when he's through playing baseball.
"He will be a Gamecock forever."