Little League lessons: Major leaguers open up on childhood advice, toughest opponents

Jackie Bradley Jr. said failure is part of baseball and that you have to learn how to deal with it. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Today's major league stars started as children with dreams. So what have they taken with them from those early days when they were just learning the game? Lessons that carried them from Little League fields to big league parks.

When did you first know you could be a major league player?

Jackie Bradley Jr.: "I don't really think you thought about it. You thought about just watching it. You didn't really think about it being a possibility. You're a kid. You're not thinking about that then.

"I think it's more high school when you start thinking professional baseball or college baseball. It's a combination of things. You realize how dedicated you are to it, obviously how talented you are at a young age, and then actual people or teams that are interested. That kind of gives you an idea that you can do it."

Nelson Cruz: "I had skills as a child because I played basketball. I could run really fast. It wasn't all developed, but you could see that I had talent. I think it was in my second year that I became more of a man and started taking the ball. At 17, I started lifting weights and became a little more consistent. I had a good arm, more or else, but because I started playing late my development was a little late."

Aaron Judge: "Probably when I was 10, 11, 12, you dream about it. I was humble enough to know that it might not happen, but I was hard-headed enough to know that, 'Hey, if I keep working on this, I have a pretty good shot of doing it.'"

Anthony Rizzo: "When I was in high school and [was] told that I could make it."

Jeff Samardzija: "Probably sophomore year in college. I was playing football, but the way the baseball coaches talked about me, why they wanted me to play for them, I started throwing a little harder. Had a good idea that maybe I had a chance."

Jose Alvarez: "I played baseball since I was a young kid, and I started practicing more seriously when I turned 15, in an academy. That's where a scout saw me, and he chose me between a group of players he considered with enough skills and raw talent so they could play professionally."

Who is the best player you faced (before you were a professional)?

Bradley: "At that particular time, I would say Zack Cox. He played at Arkansas, and he just really lit us up. He lit up all of college baseball. Faced him in the Cape Cod League, as well. Same thing. He could just hit. He got drafted. I want to say the Cardinals drafted him. I don't know where he is right now. He was kind of a find-a-position-for-him type of guy. He could hit."

[Cox is playing for Double-A Erie this season in the Tigers' organization. He has spent seven seasons in the minors, including four years in Triple-A with the Cardinals and Marlins.]

Judge: "That's tough to say. I faced a lot of good kids growing up in travel ball. You face some teams. I didn't know their names, to be honest. They went out there and did their thing and was like, 'Who is No. 17 out there?'"

Samardzija: "We lost to a guy named Randy Hartog from Dyer, Indiana. Big righty. They ended up going to the Little League World Series that year. They knocked us out of the state championships. I ended up playing a little travel basketball with him later in life."

What is the best advice you received?

Bradley: "Failure is part of the game. Don't get discouraged. Everybody fails, especially in this game that we play. I learned that very early. I think if you know anything about numbers, the success rate isn't very high. In any other sport, you fail seven times [out of 10], it's going to be a little more difficult to succeed."

Edwin Encarnacion: [advice to his younger self] "First, I'd tell him to keep working hard. His hard work will lead him to success. I am a living example of that. I'd also tell him to stay humble. I never got too carried away with the 'top prospect' label. My goal was to get to the major leagues and I wasn't going to rest until I achieved it. I never stopped working towards my goal. But the most important thing I'd say to him, and to young kids today, is to never lose hope. They must have a lot of faith and that, combined with hard work, makes anything in life possible."

Yasiel Puig: [advice from Albert Pujols] "You have to work hard every day, you have to respect your coaches in order to be able to go back to where you were; we all go through these hard times if we don't pay attention. It is not about how many times you fall down but about how many times you get up. Thank God he put him on my way, and I will give my very best on the field so he can be proud of saying those words to me."

Rizzo: "Just have fun. It's the same game, no matter where or when you play. Little League, high school. The rules are pretty much the same. The competition gets more advanced."

Samardzija: "Be resilient, have fun. Those two things go a long way. You keep looking forward, you can't get too caught up in the past. You gotta move on and learn from it. Really just have fun. If you're having fun, then it's a little easier to bounce back and stay on the path. I'm a pretty intense guy myself, so I have a little more success when I lighten up a little bit."

Why did you choose baseball over other sports?

Bradley: "It's just what I wanted to do at an early age. That was my main focus. That's all I wanted to do. [Bradley's father, Jackie Sr., played college basketball at Fayetteville State but never tried to talk him into playing basketball over baseball.]

"They let me play all the sports. I played all the sports. But I knew at an early age that baseball was what I wanted to do."

Adrian Gonzalez: "I come from a baseball family. My dad played baseball all his life; my two older brothers. I come from an area in the north, Tijuana, where baseball is the No. 1 sport. They did not have a soccer team until recently, when Xolos arrived. It is mostly a baseball area, where a lot of baseball is played."

Judge: "I fell in love with it at a young age."

Rizzo: "I was really good at it. I played everything. Basketball, football, soccer, but baseball I loved the most and was the best at it."

Samardzija: "Just the purity of the game. I feel like there's more rewards day in and day out from baseball than any other sport. The little things that you take for granted, whether it's catching the ball in the pocket, or squaring the ball up on the barrel, getting a looking third strike. There's a lot of little things in this game that feel really good. And the games -- there's no practice. Every day counts. No need to practice. Just go out and play for real."

If you weren't a baseball player, what would your job be?

Bradley: "I don't know. I don't know. Like I said, I had one thing that I wanted to do, and I set my mind to it. I wasn't going to let anyone else tell me otherwise. I think that's what kept me focused and dedicated to it. I like to focus on the things I can control and just continuously work, and if it wasn't meant to be, then it wasn't meant to be and I'll start back over. But I never had any backup plan or anything like that."

Judge: "I'd be a teacher, just like my parents. I like helping people and teaching kids and teaching people. It seems pretty rewarding."

Rizzo: "Something in psychology. Why people do the things they do."

Samardzija: "Probably a fisherman. I'd be out on the ocean somewhere. Chartering, finding where the bite's at, no doubt. Mostly pelagic fish -- some marlin, some sailfish."