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Commentary: If this is the end

It was 4:26 p.m. on Monday afternoon. My phone buzzed with a text message from one of my best baseball sources. I read it over and over again. “It does not look good,” read the words on the display of my BlackBerry. “There’s a good chance Jackie is done for the year.”

Jackie Bradley Jr. and Robert Beary celebrate on the dirt at Rosenblatt Stadium.

That couldn’t be right. I mean, this is Jackie Bradley Jr. we’re talking about. It can’t be over. There’s no way.

I couldn’t write it because I didn’t believe it. I waited on the follow up “just kidding” text but it never came. I waited. I kept waiting. Later Monday night, I spoke to another source. Reluctantly, he confirmed. I had to report it. I tried to get the point across that the chances of a comeback were slim. I wrote it, I knew it was true, but like everyone else, I didn’t want to believe it.

To be a credible member of the media, a reporter has to waive all bias. Report the facts, don’t get too close to the subject you’re covering and the list of journalistic no-no’s go on. But as a fan of baseball, as a fan of sport, there is no way to watch Bradley Jr. play and not be a fan. He is everything that is great about college athletics. He’s engaging, polite, funny, and a damn fine ball player, too. On and off the field, he does it the right way.

Major League Draft pundits around the country have touted last year’s College World Series Most Outstanding Player as a sure-fire first-round pick. Some early mocks had him going in the top 15 picks or so and labeled him as the top collegiate outfielder. The question came up more than once on the message board. “Any chance he comes back next year?”

No is an easy answer but instead, I’ve always chosen to spell it out a little bit differently. Players of his caliber go play professional baseball after three years. Enjoy this final year that he puts on a South Carolina uniform. You’re watching one of the best who will ever play here.

Now, if initial feelings from medical staff and coaches are correct, we won’t get to enjoy that final year. A little more than halfway through, a tendon in Bradley Jr.’s left wrist tore on a seemingly harmless dive in the outfield grass of Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, Miss. If he has surgery, the season is probably over. If he doesn’t, still, the season is probably over.

We were supposed to have at least 20 more games and if the stars aligned, maybe 30. The total could now be zero.

The beginning

February 1, 2009 at media day, Bradley Jr. had a baby face but all the potential in the world.

It was getting kind of late in the recruiting process and he didn’t have the greatest of offers. Virginia showed early interest but backed off. East Carolina and Virginia Military Institute were the top offers on the table. Then South Carolina saw him play and an offer was a no-brainer. There wasn’t a lot of scholarship money to give but Bradley Jr. accepted.

The later it got in his senior year at Prince George High School in Prince George, Va., the more his stock rose. He threw 101 mph from the outfield in a Perfect Game event but it was never high enough to be drafted out of high school. He was listed by Baseball America as the No. 40 best prospect overall ... in the state of Virginia. Not exactly high praise.

But the South Carolina coaches knew what they had. Just asking about him, there would be a glimmer in the eye of head coach Ray Tanner. He knew what he had entering fall practice and Bradley Jr.’s performance on the field his first few months on campus confirmed Tanner’s initial feelings. He had a special player.

Then-sophomore Whit Merrifield was South Carolina’s starter in centerfield, the spot where Bradley Jr. always played. With his cannon-like arm though, it was a natural move to right. He accepted the role and flourished. That was until October 2009 when he was working out in the weight room and he started feeling a bit funny.

He went to associate head coach Chad Holbrook and said there was something wrong. One arm was swollen, the other looked perfectly normal. Having a bit of knowledge of what was going on, Holbrook directly explained he had a blood clot and it was time to get to the hospital. In short, he could have died. Bradley Jr. eventually had surgery to remove an extra rib that was deemed the cause of the problem. There was a thought that Bradley Jr. may not play his freshman year. That was quickly dismissed but he was going to miss some time. He was going to miss at least a few weeks.

He didn’t. He started the opening game against Duquesne in the first ever game at Carolina Stadium. It was just the first step in a Freshman All-America campaign that saw him hit .349 with 11 home runs and 46 runs batted in. As a freshman, he hit in the leadoff role a good bit of the season and walked more than he struck out.

The injuries

With all that Bradley Jr. has been through during his three years at South Carolina, snakebit may be the right term. It started with the blood clot and the removal of a rib. He showed his perseverance by coming back long before the doctors thought he would. It wasn’t a freak injury but more like an unlucky occurrence.

During his time at South Carolina, Bradley Jr. has endured five injuries that have sidelined him.

Quietly, during his freshman season in a game against Tennessee, Bradley Jr. injured his right hand. It was the dreaded hamate bone. It was yet to break but he knew it could go at anytime. With the way he holds his bat, with the knob of the handle near the palm of his hand, the injury is more apt to occur.

In the preseason prior to the start of his sophomore year, he was lifted from a scrimmage. It wasn’t good. It was a broken hamate, an injury that was supposed to sideline him until at least the start of Southeastern Conference play. Even then, he would be so far behind with swings in the cage that he surely couldn’t pick up at the .350ish pace he left as a freshman.

Just like he did as a freshman, Bradley Jr. beat the doctor’s timetable by a month or so. He returned to the lineup as a defensive replacement and got his first at-bat against East Carolina the second weekend of the season. Of course, he roped a pinch hit single to right field in his first at-bat of the season and gave his team a chance to come back against the Pirates in the series rubber match.

Several weeks later, around the time he was supposed to come back from the broken hamate, Bradley Jr. was stepped on while swiping second base giving him a deep cut on his palm that required stitches. He could hold the bat and he was supposed to be out, again, for a while. But, again, he came back early.

All in all, Bradley Jr., by best count, was supposed to miss about 20 games his sophomore season. He played in 67 of South Carolina’s 70 games en route to the College World Series title. He started 61 games and led the team with a .368 batting average, tied for the team lead with 13 home runs, and knocked in a team-high 60 runs batted in.

This year, this injury, there could be a different outcome. For the first two and a half years, which includes a minor weightlifting accident earlier this season, Bradley Jr. has come back early. If you follow him on Twitter, you know the plan is to continue that trend.

But what is different about this year is, if he can’t come back early, he won’t come back at all. It will be over. One of the best players to ever put on the interlocking SC will have played his last game at South Carolina. It’s a sobering thought. It wasn’t supposed to happen. At least it wasn’t supposed to happen for a couple more months.

Most Outstanding

Bradley Jr. celebrates his MOP of the College World Series with associate head coach Chad Holbrook.

It was a 2-2 count, bottom of the twelfth inning. South Carolina was down a run and down to its last strike in the College World Series and Bradley Jr. was the final hope for his team. Ryan Duke, one of the top closers in college baseball, was on the mound for Oklahoma. He gave a fist pump and shouted in jubilation as what he thought was a fastball for strike three painted the corner. Home plate umpire A.J. Lostaglio disagreed. Full count.

“It was close,” Bradley Jr. said flatly following the game, “but it was off the plate.”

Cool as a cucumber in any circumstance, Bradley Jr. singled to right field on the very next pitch scoring Robert Beary to tie the ball game. He put the same swing on the baseball with the season on the line as he would if he was playing a fall intrasquad with nothing on the line. He came through. It was his first step in becoming the Most Outstanding Player in the 2010 College World Series.

In the College World Series, he hit .345 with two home runs and a team-high nine RBIs. Few would leave Omaha thinking there was a better college baseball player than the USC centerfielder. He was special and he did it on college baseball’s biggest stage and the folks at home took notice.

Shortly after returning from Omaha and just before departing for Team USA, Bradley Jr. swung by a local sports goods store, Todd & Moore, to pick up some national championship gear for some of his friends and family. He, of course, was recognized by patrons in the store, who asked him to sign a few autographs. A few turned into hundreds. A couple of minutes turned into a couple of hours. Eventually, staff members brought him a chair to sit down as the line got longer.

This year

It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that 2011 hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations the college baseball world and Jackie personally had for himself. He began the season without missing a beat leading the team in average and home runs in the early going. Then, steadily, those numbers tapered off.

SEC play rolled around and it just wasn’t happening. There were a few days in which Chick-fil-A spurred him to a big night, number three combos were being consumed like chickens were about to go extinct, and for a few days, all was right again.

Bradley Jr. had his bat inspected earlier this season against Clemson after hitting a home run at Doug Kingsmore.

But a back injury and more swings and misses curbed the chicken craze. When all is said and done, the final stats won’t look like that of a first round draft pick. He’s currently sitting at .259, which is ninth on the team. He is second on the team in home runs and tied for second in RBIs but it hasn’t been his year.

I’ve had more than one person tell me he’s spent time in the office of his coaches with tears in his eyes if not running down his face. It isn’t that he sees his draft stock dropping but he looks in the mirror and sees a player better than how he is performing. He wants to be an All-American again. He wants it not because of the acclaim that comes to him but because he knows that if he can put up All-American numbers, his team has a better chance to win baseball games.

There is pressure this year. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, or at least that has been his perception at times this season. Be it the pressure to perform for his teammates, the pressure to perform for scouts, or the pressure to continue to be the face of college baseball, it is a lot on a young man who has been on the earth for 21 years and eight days.

If this is the end

Even with the injury and a junior year that, at least statistically, leaves a lot to be desired, Bradley Jr. is still going to be at least a supplemental first round pick. There are seven figures in his future when the MLB Draft rolls around in June and that is going to be nearly impossible to pass up.

With the way that college baseball is set up, players have all the power over teams to demand high signing bonuses after their junior year. Wait a year, the signing bonus would be cut in half. Players of Bradley Jr.’s caliber should be expected to hang around for three years and then take the next step. Whether he plays again this year or not, we should all expect him to sign a professional contract and wish him the best.

Bear in mind that Tanner said on Tuesday afternoon that it is “unlikely” that he plays again. Bradley Jr. says on his Twitter account, “So they say I won't play this season anymore. I guess once again God has to prove man wrong to make him a believer.”

He’s done it before and perhaps he can do it again.

If Bradley Jr. has indeed played his last game, he will go down as one of USC's all-time greats.

But if this is the end, it is hard to not reflect back from February 1, 2009 when he first spoke to the media to April 23, 2011 in Starkville, Miss. when he went down with his latest injury. On the field, there was the home run-robbing catch at East Carolina his freshman year in the Super Regional. There was the College World Series. And, of course, who can forget the hot bat at Clemson this year. His play in centerfield just seems so effortless. Some think he’s cocky, he showboats, and big leagues when in actuality, he’s just that smooth.

Off the field, he’s just as good as he is on it. He keeps his grades up and his name out of the paper for the wrong reasons. He volunteers in the community, he signs autographs long after games are over, and he’s approachable and personable. Bradley Jr. has a contagious smile and engaging personality that will win him many more fans than his hits will win ball games.

He’s everything a school could want in a student-athlete. He’s everything a coach could want in a player. He makes those of us who promise to be impartial for the sake of their job want to consciously root for him.

This may not be the last time we write about him as, if past results hold true, he could be back on the field again this year. But as that text message Monday afternoon read, there’s a good chance it is over. If this is the end, thanks, Jackie. Thanks.

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