BOSTON -- Jackie Bradley Jr. forged a bond with South Carolina Gamecocks faithful through three years of understated leadership, fence-climbing defense and College World Series highlights amid team forays to Omaha, Nebraska, steakhouses. So it's no surprise that when he encountered some growing pains in his transition to the Boston Red Sox outfield, his former mentor tried to extend a helping hand.
During Bradley's lengthy stretch of sub-.200 hitting in 2015, former South Carolina coach-turned-athletic director Ray Tanner reached out with regular texts and phone calls to inquire about the kid's mental state. He was always available with an encouraging word or an offer to listen in the event that all those 4-3 rollovers and soft pop flies were preying on Bradley's emotions.
True to character, Bradley dismissed the overtures with quiet determination. He took full accountability for his shortcomings and told Tanner, "I'll get it going. I'll be fine." He waved off the support in much the same way he waves off outfield teammates on fly balls in the gap.
"I was just trying to pick him up, and you know what? It was a wasted phone call," Tanner says. "You don't have to pick him up. He believes in his ability, and he understands that not every day is a great day."
In theory, anyway.
Bradley turned the corner as a hitter in 2015, and now every day is a drag race down a straightaway. After being flummoxed by major league pitchers, marginalized by the signing of $72 million Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, and mentioned in numerous trade rumors, he's crossed the line from struggling prospect to the real deal.
Bradley's 29-game hitting streak ended Thursday night with an 0-for-4 against Colorado's Jon Gray, but this season feels, in every respect, like the start of something big. He's second to Boston teammate Xander Bogaerts with a .341 batting average and ranks among the American League leaders in doubles, on base percentage and WAR. The old perception of him as "all-field, no-hit'' can officially be dismissed as premature.
With his performance in April and May, Bradley has laid the groundwork for something far more enduring. In concert with teammates Mookie Betts and Bogaerts, he's brought a dose of energy and excitement to Fenway Park on a nightly basis. The kids have changed the look of the Red Sox roster and made David Ortiz feel like a spry young man of 35 or 36 on his MLB farewell tour.
Pardon them if they celebrate in public view. After Red Sox victories, Bradley and his fellow outfielders take part in a choreographed routine before joining the infield high-five fest. At the end of the shtick, the player deemed to be the star of the evening strikes a pose while the other two pantomime filming him.
And what's with the little courtesy bow that precedes the main event?
"It's almost like a ninja would do when he's going into battle," Bradley says.
Given everything Bradley, 26, has endured to reach this point, he's entitled to a little fun. After his freshman year at South Carolina, he got off to a terrible start with the Hyannis Mets in the Cape Cod League. In his junior year in 2011, his confidence took another hit when he suffered a wrist injury, slumped at the plate and fell to the 40th overall pick in the draft. So why treat baseball as some sort of unsolvable Rubik's Cube just because the travails are unfolding in the shadow of the Citgo sign?
"It's all just a matter of perspective," Bradley says. "What are you willing to beat yourself up over? At the end of the day, this is a game. I feel like I have the talent to play at a high level. It's a game of failure, and you can either beat yourself up about it or tell yourself how blessed you are to be in this particular moment, with this opportunity, and hopefully take advantage of it."
Swing only with two strikes
The family values instilled in Bradley from his boyhood years in Richmond and Prince George, Virginia, form the core of all he holds dear. He has a 24-year-old brother named Dominique (in honor of Dominique Wilkins) who recently finished barber school. His dad, Jackie Sr., drives a bus for the Greater Richmond Transit Company and has a lawn business on the side. Bradley's parents are divorced, and his mother, Alfreda Hagans, has remarried and lives in nearby Chesterfield. But his folks still have an amicable relationship and were both in attendance when South Carolina honored him at halftime of a basketball game over the winter.
"When you have two kids together, you need to have a great relationship whether you like it or not," Jackie Jr. says. "Me and my brother both instilled that in them. We told them, 'No matter what your differences are, we are the byproduct of you two, so you better act like grown-ups.'"
Like Washington Nationals outfielder Steven Souza and Red Sox teammate Robbie Ross, Bradley is distinguished by the "Jr." at the end of his name. It's less an homage to his dad than a bow to functionality: Father and son agreed early on that the "junior" designation would alleviate any confusion between the two, not to mention make things less confusing come mail delivery time at the family home.
"My father always said, 'If you ever get in trouble, I'm not going to jail for you,'" Bradley says.
Bradley was too much of a baseball rat -- and sufficiently blessed with ability -- to have time for trouble. He swung a bat from the right side until age 8 before taking up switch-hitting from 8 through 12. After seeing almost nothing but right-handed pitching, he began to hit exclusively from the left side. But he'll still take some righty hacks when the mood strikes, and he plays golf right-handed.
As a youth player, Bradley was fortunate to cross paths with Donnie Brittingham, a dedicated coach and mentor who encouraged free thinking. In Bradley's first year of American Legion ball, player and coach agreed that he would never swing at a pitch until there were two strikes in the count. Bradley ran up a few whiffs, but the experiment helped him appreciate the art of shortening up, fouling off balls and staying alive when he was on the defensive.
By the time Bradley reached Prince George High School and scouts started coming around, the first thing they noticed was the glove. Tanner -- whose South Carolina program produced the likes of Adam Everett, Brian Roberts, Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak over a 16-year span -- was bowled over when he first saw Bradley play center field for the Richmond Braves' AAU team at a tournament in Atlanta.
"It was 100 degrees, and he was the first one on the field between innings and the first one off," Tanner says. "He played the game with tremendous respect. He played it hard, and he played with great composure and poise. He showed you characteristics where you would say, 'That works on my team.'"
Tanner meticulously cultivated those skills during Bradley's three years in Columbia, South Carolina. Rather than have outfielders take pregame fungoes from coaches, Tanner thought they were better served tracking balls during live batting practice. So South Carolina pitchers would get out of the way while the team's outfielders worked up a sweat. Those days were the genesis for the routine that Bradley fondly refers to as "power shagging."
Bradley raised his national profile when he hit .368 with 13 homers as a sophomore and won the Most Outstanding Player Award in Omaha for the first of two straight national title teams, but his draft stock fell when he suffered a displaced tendon in his left wrist and slumped to .259 as a junior. He got pull-happy and tried to hit with more power, and his natural all-fields approach suffered as a result.
The Red Sox were undeterred. As a member of Team USA in 2010, Bradley played in the same outfield with future big leaguers George Springer and Mikie Mahtook. Amiel Sawdaye, Boston's amateur scouting director, was particularly struck by Bradley's assertiveness during team workouts in Cary, North Carolina.
"The two corner guys were major league outfielders, and they didn't have a chance to catch a ball," Sawdaye says. "It's a really big outfield, and Jackie just roamed it and took charge."
The Red Sox had a surplus of early selections in the 2011 draft, and veteran scout Quincy Boyd consistently lobbied on Bradley's behalf. After picking pitcher Matt Barnes 19th, catcher Blake Swihart 26th and pitcher Henry Owens 36th, the Red Sox took the plunge and invested the 40th choice in Bradley. Appropriately enough, Hall of Famer and South Carolina native Jim Rice was at the podium and called Bradley's name.
Sawdaye and his staff added Betts in the fifth round and Travis Shaw in the ninth to make for a gargantuan draft haul. Even though the road was halting for Bradley, former general manager Ben Cherington saw enough flashes to stand firm when rival executives thought they could steal Bradley at a discount price. Red Sox executives took note that Bradley never pouted or sulked while riding the Boston-to-Pawtucket shuttle during several demotions to Triple-A ball.
"These guys have the luxury of taking 48 hours to report when they get sent down, and some of the players do," Sawdaye says. "If you get optioned down at 9 a.m., you don't have to go down to Pawtucket and play that night. But Jackie was always there. Whether he was in the lineup or not, he was always there wanting to play."
From shuttle to stardom
In hindsight, certain flashpoints and watershed events dot Bradley's path to budding star. Every setback or challenge had value as an opportunity to self-assess, experiment and learn.
Bradley showed a heightened commitment to his craft in the winter of 2014-15 when he moved to Fort Myers, Florida, and worked with Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. While Bradley has always been coachable, some people in the Red Sox organization wondered if his quest for self-sufficiency might stand in the way of him asking for help when it might be needed.
During a May 2015 series at Safeco Field in Seattle, Bradley skipped an optional hitting session, and hitting coach Chili Davis asked him about it the next day. Bradley replied that he had gotten in plenty of work on his own. Then he gave the matter additional thought and approached Davis to renew the conversation.
"He came up to me a little later and said, 'Is the perception that I don't care?'" Davis recalls. "That was a legitimate question. I didn't know how to answer that at the time. So I told him, 'Sometimes, even though you don't think you need extra work, it's nice to come out and show that you care a little more.' From that day on, if we had early hitting, he showed up."
Now and then, a fresh set of eyes can discern a minor flaw that might make a difference. During the depth of Bradley's despair last season, Boston pitcher Rick Porcello noticed that Bradley was employing a "double load" at the plate that caused him to be late on fastballs. Porcello conveyed the observation to Davis, who broached the issue with Bradley in the cage the next day. Bradley went back to using a small leg kick that he had employed at South Carolina, and the trigger mechanism was so fluid and natural, it was a wonder he had ever strayed from it.
"It allowed him to gain ground on the fastball," Davis says. "When you're gaining ground on the fastball, it's tough for guys to trick you consistently with off-speed pitches, because you're also gaining ground on off-speed pitches. You're catching curveballs before they break the way they're supposed to break."
The hitting streak was a testament to Bradley's all-fields approach. Of his 44 hits during his streak, 15 went to right field, 14 went to center and 15 went to left. He has also been death on the soft stuff, hitting .333 against breaking pitches since the streak began.
Through all his recent success, Bradley remains grounded and approachable. Some hitters might immerse themselves in a cocoon once a hitting streak approaches 30 games. Before Wednesday's game against Colorado, Bradley arrived at the ballpark at 1 p.m. for a 7:10 game and sat down for back-to-back interviews with national media outlets.
He is still growing accustomed to life in Boston, where frigid April temperatures around the batting cage and the chaotic roadways are a world removed from his formative years in the South. Bradley's wife, Erin, is expecting the couple's first child in June, and this year they decided to rent a place within walking distance of Fenway Park for the sake of convenience.
When Wade Boggs hit safely in 28 straight games in 1985, he took sustenance in a daily regimen of chicken. In several interviews, Bradley has expressed his fondness for Ben & Jerry's ice cream. If he keeps hitting like this, Lord knows what it will do for sales of his personal favorite, Strawberry Cheesecake.
"Jackie's an electric player. It's contagious when you have somebody out there busting it like he does on a day-to-day basis. It puts a fire under you and keeps you on your toes. He's a really confident guy and he's dedicated to the game. You can tell he wants to be great. And he puts the work in to be great." Red Sox outfielder Chris Young
With his youthful energy and all-around game, Bradley helps sell Boston fans and the media on the value of patience and the danger of snap judgments. One inning, he's lofting a ball off the Green Monster for a double. An inning or two later, he's gracefully gliding into the gap for a catch or making a baserunner pay with his powerful throwing arm.
"Jackie's an electric player," says Red Sox outfielder Chris Young. "It's contagious when you have somebody out there busting it like he does on a day-to-day basis. It puts a fire under you and keeps you on your toes. He's a really confident guy and he's dedicated to the game. You can tell he wants to be great. And he puts the work in to be great."
It's not just veteran teammates and longtime Red Sox fans who are falling under the spell of "JBJ." A lot of baseball fans in Virginia and South Carolina have suddenly started paying closer attention to Red Sox highlights and box scores.
Ray Tanner monitors the proceedings and texts Bradley routinely to touch base and cheer on his former protégé. Some nights, when Tanner is off to bed, his 10-year-old daughter, Maggie, will commandeer his phone and text Bradley with a sentiment of her own. She'll tell him, Jackie, you rock!!! -- or something to that effect. And without fail, Bradley texts back with a sunny response to brighten her day.
Bradley has always been one of Maggie Tanner's favorite South Carolina Gamecocks, for two reasons in particular.
"He always had time for her, and he smiled," Ray Tanner says. "Jackie is a good soul."
With the benefit of patience and time, Jackie Bradley Jr. has also proved that he's an honest-to-goodness Major League Baseball player. The people back home will tell you they knew it all along.