NEW YORK — There is no better life for a little boy growing up in Texas than to be the son of a high school football coach. So once he was old enough to keep up, Will Middlebrooks tagged along with his father to watch practice.
One day, just after he turned 8, Middlebrooks brought a bat and a ball with him. As his father was inside the fieldhouse watching film, young Will tossed the ball up and hit it as far as he could across the practice field.
Looking up, he wondered if he could hit the ball over the press box and onto the field on the other side. Yep, turned out he could.
“I must have done it for an hour,” Middlebrooks said. “I would hit the ball over the press box, run around and pick it up and then hit back over to the practice field. It was fun.”
You know what happened next, of course. Middlebrooks hit the ball a little too low and there was a loud crash.
“I smoked the window of the press box,” he said. “My father came running out and he couldn’t believe I had done that.”
Back home, it was decided that Will would pay for the window with some money he had received for his birthday. He had to learn a lesson.
Tom Middlebrooks learned something that day, too. His boy sure could hit.
That little boy with the big swing is 24 now and will be starting at third base for the Red Sox Monday when they open the season against the Yankees.
In time, the painful 2012 season might come to be remembered more for it being the year Middlebrooks made his debut with the Sox and not the 93 losses the team suffered.
Middlebrooks hit .288 with an .835 OPS before a fastball broke his right wrist in August. There were 15 homers, 54 RBIs, and a 41-29 record when he was in the starting lineup.
“We’re going to be looking at him as a guy we’re going to count on in the middle of that order, fifth or sixth,” manager John Farrell said. “Not to say that he can’t progress even beyond that at some point, certainly has the potential to. He’s a legitimate power bat at third base.”
Middlebrooks was given a chance in May when Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list. The rookie proved to be so good that Youkilis was traded in June.
Middlebrooks also faced up to the problem of fitting into a clubhouse that had grown disgruntled with manager Bobby Valentine and a steady drumbeat of injuries and losses.
“It was fun,” Middlebrooks said. “I liked the challenge. But at the same time it’s hard. I was new to the whole big league atmosphere. I’d miss a ball and I’d get ‘Youked’ by the fans. I was like, ‘Come on.’ But I liked the pressure. It made me work harder.
“The biggest thing was that everything was overshadowed by losing and I hate losing. I wasn’t used to that and it made it a tough year. I kept my head down and pushed to get better.”
A solid baseThe drive to keep going forward came from his family back home in Texarkana. Tom Middlebrooks, who grew up in a military family, has been a football and baseball coach for years. Julie Middlebrooks is an art and music teacher who required that all three of her children do well in school.
“That was non-negotiable,” Middlebrooks said. “Mom is very, very intelligent and she worked hard in school. We did, too.”
Even his two sisters pushed him. Will had a few years on Mary Frances, who is now a sophomore art student in college. But Lacey was only two years younger and made her own headlines in the local paper.
“We would fight for everything, even the front seat of the car,” said Lacey, who is 12-2 with a 1.42 earned run average for the nationally ranked University of Tulsa softball team, a .337 hitter with six home runs. “We both wanted to be No. 1 in whatever we did.
“We were blessed to have parents who understood the games and we were naturally talented and athletic. Will was the best in high school, but he still worked hard. We have a very driven and intense family.”
By the time he was 18, Will was quarterbacking Liberty-Eylau High’s football team and was a pitcher and shortstop in baseball. He was All-State in both sports — no small feat in Texas — and sifted through scholarship offers.
“He was a Division 1 athlete and could have been an NFL punter. He is one of the best athletes I’ve played with in my life,” said San Francisco 49ers running back LaMichael James, who played with Middlebrooks at Liberty-Eylau. “He could have picked whatever he wanted to do.”
Middlebrooks settled on Texas A&M and was prepared to play football and baseball before the Red Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. They offered a bonus of $925,000, convinced they had uncovered a gem.Continued...