NEW YORK – He still looks like a teenager, this 22-year old man who can change the American League East. Jackie Bradley Jr. barely stands as high as the hook on which they hang his cap in the Boston Red Sox's clubhouse, looks at questions with wide enthusiastic eyes and wears jeans over a pair of gym shorts.
But most important, he carries none of the jaded disillusionment that has filled this room in the recent past. He plays smart and fast, and with a zeal that separates him from a division filled with overpaid dinosaurs. It is just one game, but on Monday, inside the canyon of Yankee Stadium, he ran and ran and ran and delivered a message in an 8-2 opening day win that said these Red Sox might not be the ones everyone expected this year.
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From the doldrums of the team that quit and the one that couldn't ever get started, Bradley flew across left field watching a Robinson Cano line drive scream over his head. It was the third inning, the Yankees had a man on second and this was their chance to get back into a game quickly slipping from their grasp. Bradley knew this was a tough play, so he headed to a place where he thought the ball would land, he leaped, twisted, felt the ball slip into his glove and stumbled toward the wall.
And then shrugged.
Is that the biggest left field you've ever played? Someone later asked, speaking of the vast expanse of green in which he caught that ball.
"I guess," Bradley replied. "As far as a major league [park] it was my first."
So, of course, it was his biggest.
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Yes, it's just one game and yet baseball's most important rivalry desperately needs Bradley to be real. Something has gone from the Red Sox in all the clubhouse purges. A lot is lost on the Yankees where the names and contracts are huge but the talent has grown small. Monday's crowd was underwhelmed. The fans could barely muster much of a boo for a Boston team they used to despise. It was as if the whole Yankee-Red Sox thing had died, because in many ways it has.
And while the Yankees remain bloated by desperation and past excess, Boston's new manager John Farrell has been preaching a new philosophy. He wants the Red Sox to be aggressive. He describes it as "putting pressure," on the other team. He wants this done with stolen bases, but he also wants this done by taking big leads and running aggressively. He wants other teams to be uncomfortable.
It probably wouldn't have been his preference to put Bradley on the roster this soon. He would not have wanted Bradley's first game to be in Yankee Stadium on opening day, but the kid had looked so good in spring training and the Red Sox needed players who would play that relentless style. What could Farrell do? The Red Sox batted him eighth on Monday.
In his first big league at-bat during the second inning, Bradley immediately found himself down 0-2 to CC Sabathia. There were two men on in front of him and he kept telling himself not to chase the sliders down low. Don't swing at pitches he couldn't hit.
Sabathia kept throwing low. Bradley kept refusing to swing. They battled like this for a few minutes until eventually Bradley walked. He kept an inning alive and the Red Sox wound up scoring four times. Looking back, Farrell said that walk might have been the most important moment in the rally.
Bradley wound up with three walks and two runs in his first game. He put pressure on the Yankees all game just as his manager asked. And he had a lot to do with turning a sunny opening day into the cold, empty wasteland it became by late afternoon.
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Afterward, he stood by that locker and smiled. He chuckled at the idea he might have been anxious in his first game. Especially given the setting. He just shook his head and said:
"I don't get nervous to tell you the truth."
Who knows where this goes? Who knows if Jackie Bradley, Jr., still without a big league hit, starts chasing sliders. Maybe the controlled aggression Farrell loved on Monday will be out of control by Friday. Perhaps the Red Sox will need to find another solution in their outfield.
"I can't think of how many five-tool players died in the minor leagues," Red Sox designated hitter Jonny Gomes said. "That sixth and seventh tool is what separates you."
But quietly, Gomes added: "He's off to a great start."
And so Yankee Stadium grew quieter by the hour. All those fears of what the Yankees might become with all the injuries, age and drama were alive on the first day of the season. By the top of the ninth inning the ballpark was almost empty. It felt cold and barren – a once mighty rivalry had been put on hold. The wind blew through vacant rows, napkins and hot dog wrappers swirled through the infield.
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Jackie Bradley, Jr. drew another walk. He stood on first and adjusted his helmet. A bright new 44 was on his back, given to him days ago by the Red Sox equipment manager for no apparent reason.
"I didn't ask for it," he said of the number. "I didn't ask for anything. Rightfully so. I just got here."
But then he smiled.
"A lot of guys wore this number," he added. "Hank Aaron. Reggie Jackson. There was a big running back too … "
He smiled again.
And somehow it seemed that the moribund Yankee-Red Sox rivalry – so desperate for someone to give it life again – might have found its savior in a man who still looks like a teenager.
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