“Unlike a lot of high school players these days who are on every showcase circuit in the summer and play baseball 12 months a year, he wasn’t doing that,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “He was a football player. He was a guy with a great family from a small town in Texas and not doing the baseball travel thing. There was so much potential.”
For the son of two educators, the idea of giving up college seemed foreign. But Middlebrooks saw pro ball as his best option and the family debate was on.
“Evidently people saw me as holding him back from baseball,” Julie Middlebrooks said. “But it was a hard decision for everybody.”
As the deadline to make a decision approached, Middlebrooks went back to his mother.
“I’ll never forget the day,” he said. “We were really deep in discussion. I was like, ‘Mom, I want to go. This is my dream and what if it never happens again?’ ”
That settled it.
“He needed me to respect his decision and I did. He was headstrong about it,” Julie Middlebrooks said. “It was hard on everybody in our family because he would be leaving home.
“But what we didn’t realize at the time was how strong our family unit was. When he went through the lower levels and played on the smaller stages, we saw what kind of person he had become. He could handle it.”
Turning pointMiddlebrooks struggled in his first season of rookie ball with Lowell before manager Gary DiSarcina sat him down.
“He basically said to pull your head out of your butt. You’re a good player. I don’t know where your confidence went, but you need go get it back,” Middlebrooks said. “That was the turning point in my pro ball career. He didn’t yell at me, but he told me how it needed to be.”
Middlebrooks couldn’t go into the batting cage just to get loose before a game; he needed to use the time to get better. It wasn’t that he had to work harder; he had to work smarter.
“In high school, I would go through the motions, go out and play, and beat everyone’s butt. I couldn’t do that any more,” he said.
His father saw his son change, both as a player and as a person.
“I think some of what he went through in high school prepared him for it,” said Tom Middlebrooks, who grew up a Red Sox fan in Oklahoma because he heard so many games on Armed Forces Radio. “His being a quarterback helped make him a leader and helped him learn what he needed to do.
“Once he started to focus on baseball, I could see how much better he was getting. By the time he got to Portland for Double A, I knew he had a chance.”
Once he made the majors, Middlebrooks stuck close to veterans Mike Aviles, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia to learn more.
“When to get to the field, what to wear, how to go about the media, and the coaches. There are so many little things that you have to do to be a professional and do things the right way,” Middlebrooks said. “Those guys were great to me.”
Middlebrooks also learned the potential and peril of being an athlete in Boston.
“It’s weird and yet it’s neat when people recognize you. It’s what you want,” he said. “A lot of guys get frustrated that people want them to sign. But this is what I wanted my whole life. I want to make a difference in a positive way and help out. That’s why I do this.
“I like to say I’m a pretty good judge of character. You know when someone is after you for the wrong reasons and they have bad intentions.”
Middlebrooks gained some perspective over the winter when he traveled to France, Spain, and Italy with his marketing adviser, Ed Cerulo.
“My first time in Europe,” said Middlebrooks, who marveled at the cathedrals of Barcelona, the Eiffel Tower, and the beaches of the French Riviera. “It was an amazing experience.”
Watching the great Lionel Messi play for FC Barcelona at Camp Nou was a pleasure, if only because Middlebrooks hasn’t watched too many games from the stands in his life.
“I loved seeing how passionate the fans were,” he said. “It reminded me of Fenway. I had a year I’ll never forget with everything that happened to me.”
Looking aheadMiddlebrooks is eager for the season for reasons beyond baseball. Lacey, once she graduates, has a job waiting for her in the Boston area at a baseball and softball academy. She also will be one of the ballgirls at Fenway Park and stay with Will at his apartment.
“I’m following my own dream,” said Lacey, a communications major who interned with the PawSox last year. “It’ll be fun to be around Will again.”
In June, once school gets out, Julie is bringing her mother to Fenway Park for the first time. But Georgia Procell, 90, doesn’t want to fly. So Julie will accompany her on the train.Continued...