SALEM, VA. — Several thousand people milled about the concourse at Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium, many of them college students enjoying discounted beer night for last Thursday’s game between the Salem Red Sox and Potomac Nationals.
The game itself seemed an afterthought. So maybe only half the crowd bothered to notice when the Nationals smacked a pitch to deep center field in the seventh inning. Few turned their heads as Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. raced toward the ball, beat it to the 25-foot wall, jumped straight up, fully extended his lanky limbs and caught the ball, stealing a likely triple.
There was just a smattering of cheers after the night’s best play, by the home team’s best all-around player. But the Red Sox organization is taking notice of Bradley, the former USC star who is dominating the Single-A Advanced Carolina League in his first full professional season.
As of Tuesday, he had played 31 games this season and led the league in batting average (.389), runs (32) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.082). His .507 on-base percentage ranked first among all minor league and major league players. He had reached safely in 26 straight games.
Nobody expects Bradley, 22, to rocket up to Fenway Park this season. And as he sat in the dugout before last Thursday’s game, even he acknowledged that it’s still early in a 140-game season that will be “a very long haul,” he said.
Yet it is difficult to envision Bradley playing the rest of this summer in Salem, tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the western edge of Roanoke. A promotion to Double-A Portland seems inevitable, and even Triple-A Pawtucket might not be out of the question.
“If he continues to stay healthy and he continues to work, it would not surprise me if he has another stop or two this summer,” said Salem manager Billy McMillon, who played at Clemson.
Baseball America offered this projection: “If Bradley gets back to his old self at the plate, he could reach Boston by the end of 2013.”
Bradley would like to become the 35th former Gamecock to reach the majors.
Health is Bradley’s primary goal. As a freshman at USC, he had an extra rib removed near his collarbone. As a sophomore, he broke a bone in his hand. But he started from Day 1, missed just three games in those two seasons and was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 College World Series. His combined batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentages in his first two college seasons: .358, .562 and .452.
Then he missed 27 games last season because of a torn wrist tendon that limited him even when he returned. His batting, slugging and on-base numbers in 2011 dipped to .247, .432 and .346.
“I look at it as just a year of overcoming,” he said. “It was a down year. So what? I don’t live in the past. I’m not going to let my past affect my future.”
He was looking forward to a fresh start in Salem because of his 2011 struggles and the fact that his last-minute signing with Boston limited him to what he called “a little tease” of 10 combined games in Lowell and Greenville.
“I was actually very anxious to get ready for the season,” he said. “I don’t have any expectations, no numbers. I just want to play a full season healthy. Everything else will handle itself.”
He said he isn’t surprised at all by his hot start, and that his anxiousness after so much time away from baseball last year didn’t stem from doubts about what type of pro he would be.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t think I could do something,” he said. “I think I can do everything. That’s just the confidence that I have.”
The Red Sox liked the potential he showed in 2009 and 2010, and drafted him 40th overall last year, in the supplemental part of the first round. He was the 16th USC player to get picked in the first round, or its supplemental part, and the first since Justin Smoak in 2008.
Bradley got a $1.1 million signing bonus that was $270,200 more than what MLB recommends for the No. 40 pick — a testament to how much the Red Sox value his upside, which he is demonstrating now.
“I think going back, these are some of the same type of things he’s done earlier in his career,” said Boston’s director of player development, Ben Crockett. “We certainly thought very highly of him on both sides of the ball. There’s not a specific plan in place for Jackie at this point (to be promoted), but we’re happy about the way he’s gone about his business in Salem.”
When Bradley arrived at USC, he showed off his arm strength to teammates by standing on home plate at Sarge Frye Field and throwing the ball over the center field wall. Bradley said he “can just sling it” because of his 6-3 wingspan, uncommonly long for someone who is 5-10.
Last week in Salem, he stood on the foul line in front of the third base dugout and nailed the top of the scoreboard in right center field. His teammates have already stopped marveling at his defense. Thursday’s leaping catch is “routine for him,” said left fielder Brandon Jacobs.
Bradley’s father, Jackie Sr., chuckles at the memory of his son’s Little League coach playing him at catcher when he was 12 years old, because he could throw out baserunners from his knees.
“Nobody wanted to run on him,” Jackie Sr. said.
Bradley’s father and mother, Alfreda Hagans, live in Richmond, so they’ve been able to attend several of his home and road games. Bradley used part of his signing bonus to pay off his dad’s truck and buy his mom a Lexus. He took some more and bought his “dream car” — a $70,000 Cadillac CTS-V sedan with a “white diamond” paint job, black rims and a “JBJ42” license plate, to honor his favorite player, Jackie Robinson, who wore No. 42.
Few things about his life are the same as they were at USC.
He is adjusting to playing every day, and doing it in front of fans not nearly as enthusiastic about the actual games. After Thursday night’s game, the team bus left at 6:30 a.m. Friday for Myrtle Beach, beginning a stretch of 41 games in 40 days to end the season’s first half. He is making friends in Salem’s clubhouse, but admitted the environment is “definitely different” from college. Every minor league player is chasing a promotion above all else.
It is all still very new, just 41 games into his professional career. The balls he received late last summer from his first pro hit and home run — marked with the opponent, pitcher and date — are still rolling around in the bag where he keeps his baseball gear.
They are constant reminders that he is here, at the place he worked so long to reach. He stared out toward the field late Thursday afternoon and considered that thought. After a brief pause, he amended it.
“I’m working my way there,” he said.