|Will Middlebrooks – Spring Training 2009. Photo taken by Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.net. Used with permission. (Watermark added by me just to see how it looks!)|
On September 9, 1988, the Cleveland Indians played the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Sox won that game 7-4. Mike Boddiker was the winning pitcher and Lee Smith got the save. (And, interestingly enough, the DH for the Indians that night? Terry Francona.) I was two years removed from high school and while I don’t remember where I was that night, it’s a fair guess that I was watching this game.
Meanwhile, on that same date in Texarkana, Texas, Will Middlebrooks was being born. Jesus, I was 19 then. I feel old. (Totally by coincidence, also on this same date: Kyle Snyder turned 11. I put this in here because I anticipate one or two people who know me pointing this out and I figured I’d beat you to the punch!)
Last year, Will played third for the Lowell Spinners. I was fortunate enough to see him play a handful of times. My first game at Lowell, last year, I chose him as my player to watch (full disclosure: we were there to see Kyle pitch but that night he ended up not being there). As I’ve stated before, picking a favorite just seems to happen. Before I got to that first game, I didn’t know who he was. We got there early enough to see him on the field and I decided to keep an eye on him. He’s relatively big (lists at 6’3 and 200 lbs) but he moves well on his feet. So I was intrigued. Then I saw him interacting with some young fans and I was hooked. I’m a sucker for a ballplayer who doesn’t forget the fans, especially one that makes the kids feel special, and I think honing those particular skills in the minors is as important as anything else. So I decide Will’s my player for the game and we wait for the excitement to begin.
In that game, Will struck out twice and made three errors, one which caused manager Gary DiSarcina to reprimand him all the way from his spot coaching first base using only violent sign language. I can’t do it justice. He was literally jumping up and down and waving angrily at Middlebrooks for not being positioned properly. Of course, this only intensified my desire for the kid to do well. At the end of that game (which was at the beginning of July), Will was batting .167. He went on to struggle for a while and then picked it up during the last month of the season. His season-ending stats might not have been stellar, but they were pretty damn good for someone who struggled as Will did to begin the season (especially considering that Lowell is a short-season team:
So Will’s on my list of players to keep an eye on. Hey, Mike Lowell isn’t going to be manning third forever and I much prefer Kevin Youkilis at first, so it doesn’t hurt to be on the lookout for new blood. This, of course, will only reinforce my friend Donna’s belief that I have “something” for players from Texas. (And will open up our discussion again about whether or not Kyle Snyder identifies himself as a Texan. Yes, we actually discuss such things.)
For the record, I don’t like Middlebrooks because he’s from Texas. I like him because he’s has a strong arm, decent moves on the field and a good bat when he’s feeling comfortable out there, (In an interview with Sox Prospects at the end of last season, Will admitted: “ I was real tense at the plate, trying to do a little too much, and not staying within myself.”.) and he’s twenty years old. That last one being important only in it gives him some time to make those adjustments and grow into a player who can, down the road, really help the Red Sox.
After deciding to follow Will’s progress, the highlight of his season came at the “Futures at Fenway” game in August. Will went 3 for 6 (the game went into extra innings) with a double and 3 RBI. With the scored tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th and the bases loaded with two outs, Will came up to bat and lined a single to center that scored Mitch Dening and won the game. Not too shabby.
The photo was the catalyst for this entry. Kelly O’Connor is spending the week in Ft Myers and she tries to spend as much time at the Minor League complex as she does watching the Major League guys. The complexes being apart makes it tough to jockey back and forth, but Kelly thinks it’s worth it. So do I. I’m a big proponent of paying attention to the guys coming up – and the guys hoping to come up who might never get that chance.
I’ll admit, I will always prefer following the Red Sox and Major League Baseball, but following the Minor League teams has its advantages too. We’re so fortunate in New England that we have all the options we do to see live baseball. So when the season starts and you begin to lament not being able to go to Fenway for whatever reasons, remember there are other places you can go to see fun and exciting baseball. The Minor League parks are more intimate. The games are less expensive (as are the food and beverages) and you might just see the next Jonathan Papelbon or Hanley Ramirez while you’re there.