Will Middlebrooks is going into his first full year with the Red Sox, taking over as the everyday third baseman and putting together the pieces that he hopes will make him a staple in the Boston lineup for years to come. When it comes to who he’s styling his game after, he points to a player who will be situated very close to him in the lineup: David Ortiz. But it’s not necessarily for the reasons that come to mind.
Sure, Middlebrooks would love to bash some home runs, and he’d certainly like the popularity that comes with being one of Boston’s biggest producers for many years. But when Middlebrooks thinks of success beyond a few at-bats or the length of the season, Ortiz provides the perfect template for more than performance. In Middlebrooks’ eyes, this is the guy who has figured out how to make the most of being with the Red Sox.
“I’ve been watching him since I was a kid,” Middlebrooks told Joe McDonald of ESPN. “He’s one of the main players I like to watch — not because he hits homers. It’s his personality. His personality — he’s so outgoing, and he’s very personal with the fans, and that’s the same personality I have. He’s the perfect guy to learn from.”
Middlebrooks could do nothing but good last year, being called up earlier than expected and lifting the Red Sox as one of the few players performing at a high level for much of the season. While a wrist injury knocked him out for the last part of the season, he accumulated 15 home runs, 54 RBIs and a .288 batting average over just 75 games — numbers that translate extremely well when projected over a full season.
Going into his second year, expectations are going to be higher — not just for the sophomore third baseman, but also for the player that many Red Sox fans are pinning their hopes on as the team looks to return to glory.
It’s a challenge Middlebrooks sounds ready to accept.
“I would give anything to play here my whole career,” Middlebrooks told McDonald. “Everyone wants to play in a market like this. Everyone wants to play on a team like this. Well, not everyone, because it does take a certain player. There have been plenty of players to come through here who hated it. It’s hard to play here. If you don’t like pressure, you don’t want to play here. But I like it, and it motivates me to do well, because I don’t want to disappoint anybody.”
While the Red Sox have heard a lot of talk in recent years about finding good “clubhouse chemistry” — quality, team players who will push for the common good — finding raw talent that thrives under pressure is another question. Picking up a utility infielder or an extra arm who can fit in with the rest of the team is one thing. Finding an elite player who makes the most of Boston’s unique challenges requires something more.
“I realize to play in Boston you’ve got to be a special kind of player, and that’s not me blowing smoke,” Middlebrooks said. “It’s hard to play in Boston. There’s a pressure to win in Boston. I’d rather play here.
“I don’t mind the fans being [ticked] when we lose — I like that, because that means they’re behind us. They want us to do well, and that’s what I like. I like the pressure to win.”
For lessons in that, Middlebrooks doesn’t need to look much farther than Ortiz, who made his name in the biggest moments in Boston. And, while Middlebrooks will be trying to emulate Ortiz, he already has a fan in the veteran slugger.
“He’s a good dude, a very humble kid,” Ortiz said. “This year is going to be the year I’m going to try to help him the most, because in your second year when pitchers start to figure things out about you, you need to have that support, and he’s my boy.”
Ortiz said he loves the many questions Middlebrooks asks, and that he has encouraged Middlebrooks to stay hungry as his Major League Baseball career develops.
One lesson Middlebrooks seems to have already learned well is that he’s reporting to a lot more people than just himself, his teammates or his coaches now. It took him just a season to get used to the idea of Red Sox Nation.
“I’m not playing for just my family anymore,” he said. “I’ve got a real big family in Boston now, so I want to do well, and I don’t want to disappoint the fans.”
Those are statements that project just as well as the numbers.