This 60-game season has flown by faster than an Eovaldi fastball. In the Red Sox’ most frustrating moments, I prayed that this fruitless season would end, so that Chaim Bloom could take on the offseason head-on, acquire new pitching (and extend Martín Pérez), Sale and ERod could heal, and the team could start anew. But when I woke up today and realized it was the last home game of the season, I didn’t feel relief that this debacle was almost at its end; I only felt sadness.
In a normal season, I’d be at Fenway Park almost every home game. I miss the rush and mayhem of Fenway area when the team is home, forgetting to eat lunch until 4 PM, subsisting on tater tots and chocolate shakes from the Tasty Burger stand, running around like a chicken with my head cut off, but cherishing being in the midst of the mayhem. Last April, during a frigid doubleheader against the Red Sox (Chris Sale pitched a gem, Dustin Pedroia got a base hit, Xander hit multiple homers, they lost both games), I rushed home in between games to nap for an hour with a heating pad, before throwing all my layers back on (picture Joey when he puts on all of Chandler’s clothes on Friends) and heading back to the ballpark watch the Sox lose the second game. Almost exactly a year ago, the legendary Carl Yastrzemski threw out the first pitch to his grandson, Mike, who also hit his first home run in his grandfather’s old stomping grounds. I brought my dad to the game; his father had taken him to see Yaz play in the World Series, and he’d had a multi-homer game. I remember something special about every game, because Fenway makes baseball special, no matter what the scoreboard reads at the end of the night. 2019 wasn’t a good year, by any means, but now, I’d give anything to go back and relive each wonderful and maddening moment.
I pushed all of these feelings and memories deep down this year, because it was too painful to think about what we were all missing; because everything is just too hard and sad and frustrating these days, and I couldn’t handle being sad about baseball on top of everything else. Like many Red Sox fans this season, I quickly became numb, and joked with my friends, “You think you can hurt me? I’m a Red Sox fan!”
But then, about an hour ago, I opened Instagram to see Erin Bradley, wife of Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., paying tribute to her husband. Because not only is today the final home game of their season, it also very well could be JBJ’s last Fenway game in a Red Sox uniform.
And that’s what opened the floodgates for me. It was the last straw, the tipping point, the cherry on top of the garbage sundae that has been 2020. For the first time in a while, I broke Tom Hanks’ cardinal rule and cried about baseball.
There’s a very strong chance JBJ won’t be in Boston next year. For starters, the Red Sox have become Scrooges, and as one of the best outfielders in baseball, Jackie will command a sizable contract on the free-agent market, even after a season when the billionaire owners cried about losing money. There’s also rumors they’ll pursue George Springer instead, despite his injury history and the fact that he’s a Trashtro. And finally, there’s the fact that Chaim Bloom has been somewhat two-faced when it comes to Jackie’s future in Boston. After the trade deadline passed on August 31, he told the media that the Sox love Jackie, and want him to be here for a long time. Jackie then blew up his spot and told the media that the Sox had not discussed any kind of extension with him. That’s not a promising start to contract negotiations.
JBJ has deserved better for a long time, including from fans, the talk about his contract earlier this month, and especially tonight. He deserves to be appreciated for what he is: an excellent defensive outfielder who occasionally shows real promise at the plate -including this season – and has had some supremely impressive and clutch offensive moments. Who remembers his 29-game hitting streak in 2016? It’s the longest by a Red Sox player since Nomar went for 30 games in 1997, coming very close to meeting Dom DiMaggio’s franchise record 34 games in 1942. And there’s no 2018 World Series championship without 2018 ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. and his 10 RBI all on 2-out extra-base hits to carry them past the Astros, including that delicious grand slam off of domestic abuser Roberto Osuna. Jackie was never going to be David Ortiz or Mookie Betts at the plate, but he’s also far from the worst hitter on this team, and often has been better than simple stats indicate. His .280 AVG this season is currently 3rd-best on the team and his best of any season in his 8-year MLB career, as is his .355 OBP, which is 2nd-best on the team. And we never should have expected him to be anything more than what he’s proven to be over more than half a decade here. Jackie Bradley Jr. was here to be one of the best outfielders in franchise history, and his outfield predecessors – Rice, Evans, Lynn, to name a few Sox legends – have agreed that he is. Any spurts of offensive output was like a bonus, like the fourth Jonas Brother.
And tonight, he deserved a standing ovation from the fans and a triumphant maybe-but-hopefully-not-final game in front of Red Sox Nation. Mookie got to score the winning run on Devers’ walk-off hit in last year’s final game against the Orioles, and it was a sight to behold. He crossed home plate triumphant, celebrating with a ballpark packed with fans, and in retrospect, it’s amazing that that’s how his final game in Boston ended. Jackie Bradley Jr. will play in an empty ballpark, with artificial fan noise, no ovations, and no family.
Baseball isn’t real life, but I’ve always felt safer knowing JBJ was patrolling the outfield for us. His 17.1 career WAR is largely thanks to his defense; according to Jen McCaffrey, that’s the 7th-highest by any Red Sox player since 2003, or in the Curse Reversed Era. She also noted that from 2014-2019, he ‘led the American League with 55 outfield assists and led all of MLB with 20 double players as an outfielder.’ He plays the Fenway triangle like John Mayer plays guitar, he soars through the air to make insane grabs (kind of like his distant relative Michael Jordan), and he makes every one of those insane plays look flawless and effortless, to the point where most fans don’t appreciate how talented he is, because when you’re used to someone just being there, you take for granted that they always will be.
Rob Manfred has spoken about the possibility of having fans in the stands for the postseason, but that will be too late for Jackie Bradley Jr. The Red Sox offseason begins on Monday. Erin and Emerson Bradley won’t get to see him play in his last game. As usual, Major League Baseball cares more about money than their own players and families; players’ families should have been the first people allowed into the ballparks. There was more than enough room to ensure safe, social-distanced attendance; each player’s family could have had an entire section of seats to themselves. Many players’ families chose not to move with them when baseball returned in June, not wanting to uproot their children but also because the choice was somewhat decided for them, since they were not going to be allowed into the ballparks anyway. So, young players like Tanner Houck made their debuts without their loved ones, and now JBJ might be saying goodbye without his. One Red Sox player’s wife told me that she was upset that she couldn’t see her husband play this season, but “more heartbroken” for the young guys who couldn’t share their debuts with their loved ones.
Tonight might be Jackie Bradley Jr.’s last time calling Fenway Park home, and it’s a sad way to say goodbye. He might make one of his trademark diving catches or leap gracefully in the air to rob a batter of what would be a home run if anyone but Jackie was out there, and I just wish, more than anything, that I could blow out my vocal chords cheering for him. I wish I could thank him for every moment when I knew he’d be there to save the day. Because more than almost anyone in the last decade of this team, Jackie Bradley Jr. deserves a sendoff fit for a king, because in the outfield of Fenway, that’s exactly what he is.
I hope this isn’t goodbye, but if it is, thank you for everything, Jackie. I’m sorry we aren’t there to give you the sendoff you deserve.
Photo: Billie Weiss/Red Sox