It was a textbook case where the idiom “turnabout is fair play” directly applies.
From Ryan Mallett’s vantage point, some friendly and well-intentioned payback was in order. It only seemed fitting, considering Mallett had pulled the necessary strings that paved the way for his childhood chum from Texas, Will Middlebrooks, to attend a couple of New England Patriots games last season – sitting in primo seats no less.
Fast forward several months later, with the shoe now on the other foot. When Middlebrooks made his big-league debut for the Red Sox earlier this month, there was Mallett, soaking in the moment from his Fenway Park seat. Sure, the free tickets were a nice gesture and much appreciated, but to New England’s third-string quarterback, just being there to support a person (Middlebrooks) whose characteristics resemble more of him being a brother than a best friend, that’s what’s most satisfying.
“It made me excited to know that I could go to the game and actually know somebody on the team,” said Mallett in a recent phone interview. “I have more of a desire to attend the games.
“It’s exciting to see him out there finally. I’ve been waiting for him to get his chance,” Mallett continued. “Even before (Kevin Youkilis landed on the disabled list), I was thinking that it was time for him to go up. He was playing really good [with the Pawtucket Red Sox] and he got the call, so it’s kind of ironic.”
They may have traveled divergent paths that ultimately led to the same final result, that of reaching the apex of their respective sport. Yet perhaps more than anyone, Mallett appreciates and understands the many steps and checkpoints Middlebrooks had to cross off before officially becoming a starting third baseman in the majors.
In football circles, the jump from college to the pros is as straightforward as it gets. The time Mallett spent slinging passes for Michigan and Arkansas was the equivalent of Middlebrooks progressing through Boston’s farm system. When New England selected the 23-year-old in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft, Mallett officially earned the tried-and-true pro status that Middlebrooks would have to wait several years before achieving.
Yes, Middlebrooks became a professional the moment the Red Sox pegged him in 2007 as a fifth-round selection straight out of high school. As any baseball player will gladly tell you, it’s one thing to earn a paycheck as a minor-league ballplayer. It’s an entirely different matter once you’ve achieved MLB status.
In baseball circles, getting drafted merely represents the beginning, the first step taken in a journey that might not lead to an ending accompanied by a sign that reads, “Mission Accomplished.” The dream may fall short due to a variety of unforeseen reasons, the most bitter of pills to swallow stemming from that dreadful day when you finally come to grips that compared to your on-field contemporaries, your best simply isn’t good enough to keep going.
While Middlebrooks doesn’t necessarily meet the requirements of a long shot, there was no guarantee he would make it with a Red Sox franchise that saw fit to draft him in the first place. Like everyone else, he had to go through the progression of climbing each minor-league rung before graduating to the next one. Low A ball gave way to High A followed by Double A and finally Triple A, each level representing a new challenge for Middlebrooks to decipher.
Certainly it’s a far cry from what Mallett had to endure, where a few solid seasons in the collegiate ranks helped mold him into an NFL prospect. Contrast that to Middlebrooks, who waited nearly five years for his rite of passage to arrive.
“The whole journey, it’s special because we’re from the same town and we always talked about wanting to play in the pros. Granted our sports are not the same; you never know which way you’re going to go,” Mallett said, “but to see my best friend along for the ride, it’s just been fun to watch.
“This [Middlebrooks’ summons to Boston] isn’t the result of a couple months of work. This goes back 10, 15 years,” Mallett delved further. “I just think that when you get your chance, it’s the culmination of all that hard work. Now the question becomes ‘What are you going to do with your chance?’”
If one takes into account the cumulative body of work Middlebrooks has produced in the 2 ½ weeks he’s been a big leaguer, it’s offered proof that he’s worthy of becoming the heir to Youkilis at third base in the not-so-distant future. Granted, the fast start Middlebrooks got off to has given way to a cooling-off period – he’s hitting .275 following Sunday’s 1-for-4 showing in Philadelphia – Mallett feels that if there’s anyone who can handle the ebbs and flows that seemingly surface during a long season, it’s Middlebrooks.
“The only advice I gave him was to be himself and do what he’s always done. I feel like he’s done that for the most part,” Mallett said. “He’s knows there’s going to be ups and downs just like in life, so I don’t think [making the necessary adjustments] will pose a problem for him.”
The symbolic end of the Patriots’ offseason comes Monday as Organized Team Activities (or “OTAs”) get underway in Foxboro. That will give way to mini-camp with training camp shortly to follow. While Mallett is doing everything that goes with the territory of serving as Tom Brady’s understudy, he does so while keeping an eye on Middlebrooks and his diamond exploits.
To date, Mallett has attended “two or three” Red Sox home games, but hopes more are to come in the weeks and months ahead.
“I was just so proud of Will; I couldn’t wait to go the game,” said Mallett, his elation no doubt stemming from the May 2 night in which Middlebrooks officially joined his pal in realizing the goal they mapped out as youngsters. “It was just a real special feeling.”