PAWTUCKET, R.I. — In so many ways, it was just like not-so-old times.
Will Middlebrooks struck his pose in the right-handed batter’s box. Gary DiSarcina stood about 100 feet away, coaching third base. A hitter and his manager at a minor league ballpark in an old mill town roughly three-quarters of an hour by car from The Hub of their baseball universe, Fenway Park.
Perhaps it seemed they were standing apart the first time they were brought together; in the summer of 2008, in a placed called LaLacheur Park. Except that the skinny kid who once underwent the growing pains of a young pro as a Lowell Spinner wasn’t so skinny anymore. And to his once-and-again skipper, was no longer a kid.
“He’s a grown man,” DiSarcina said Wednesday, following the first appearance by Middlebrooks on his injury-rehab stint with the PawSox. “I saw him taking (batting practice) yesterday and I was just amazed how the ball sounded off his bat, how he looked in the batter’s box. Even during the game, I had flashbacks to Lowell, but (of) a filled-out grownup.”
Middlebrooks is no longer the 200-pound teenager plucked out of Class 3-A Liberty Eylau High School, with its enrollment of approximately 700 students, in Texarkana, Texas. Five years older and 20 pounds heavier, he is the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, in Pawtucket as he recovers from lower back problems.
Though struggling at the time of his late-May injury, caused by a collision with catcher David Ross, Middlebrooks hit 15 home runs and drove in 54 runs in 267 at-bats for Boston in 2012. Before Middlebrooks, no Red Sox rookie hit as many homers since Ellis Burks belted 20 in 1987. Local writers voted Middlebrooks the club’s Rookie of the Year, despite starting the season in the minors and ending it due to a wrist fracture on Aug. 10.
But back in mid-July of ’08, a month into his pro career, a much younger and thinner Middlebrooks was batting .187. Older pitchers in the New York-Penn League, which is comprised mostly of college draftees, were overwhelming him.
Numbers aside, DiSarcina didn’t like what he was seeing. Mainly because of what he wasn’t seeing. So he sat down with Middlebrooks for a heart-to-heart talk.
“I wanted him to understand that he could compete. At that point in time he wasn’t competing when he got in the batter’s box,” DiSarcina recounted. “It was a reality check. He’s a big kid, a proverbial big fish (in a) small pond, where he came from. He was a young high school kid making a position change from shortstop to third (base) in a college, short-season league. And he was getting confused with sliders and change-ups. He was swinging at everything.
“I think about halfway through, at least from my perspective, he stopped competing in the batter’s box. You just kind of give him a reality check. Not scream and yell, but just talk to him. Ultimately, it’s up to the player to perform. After he left (Lowell), other coaches and staff members got to positively influence him.”
On July 20, 2008, Middlebrooks went 3-for-3. He hit safely in nine of the next 10 games, and he kept hitting until the season stopped and his average rose to .254.
“(He had a) huge impact,” Middlebrooks says of DiSarcina. “When you’re coming straight out of high school into pro ball, this is a big step you’ve got to make. Not only as a baseball player, but as a human being and growing up and becoming a man. He helped through a lot of that. He helped all of us. Just a big part of my life, he helped me grow up a lot.”
“Every now and then during everyone’s career, they need to reassess what they’re doing,” DiSarcina summarized. “For me, that day was: compete. ‘You need to compete in the batter’s box.'”
A few hours after reiterating his 2008 message to Middlebrooks, DiSarcina watched the Boston third baseman bat for the PawSox. His club trailed Charlotte, 4-3, in the bottom of the seventh inning. With two on, the count reached three balls and a strike.
Already possessing two RBI from an earlier groundout and single, Middlebrooks drove the next pitch to right-center field. It left the park, giving Pawtucket a lead it never relinquished.
Middlebrooks rounded third and slapped hands with DiSarcina. He and the PawSox were on their way to winning the competition.