This chapter in my life has made me laugh...and cry. In recent years, it's been more laughs. But there was a long period of my life where tears ruled.
I love baseball. Always have, always will.
Probably more than anything in my life, I wanted to be a good baseball player. I thought I was headed on that path for a couple of reasons. Number one, in eighth grade, I was pretty good...and I'll leave it at that. Number two, I wanted it so bad, and I was going to work twice as hard as I needed to work in order to be good.
If I lived in today's youth sports landscape, I'd have probably dropped all other sports for baseball by seventh grade (that would've been sad, glad I didn't have the option). I contrast that with my son, Tyler, who simply (thank God) cannot tell me whether he likes baseball more than soccer or soccer more than baseball (or anything more than golf when he has a good round).
I was never far from my baseball glove (Rawlings XPG3, Heart of the Hide). When I'd go to (EF Reference) "the courts" to play basketball, I'd bring my glove and a rubber-coated baseball to throw against the shed. On warm fall Saturday afternoons, I'd beg my dad to throw me batting practice, even though I'd have just completed a soccer practice or game. When I got to high school, I'd stow my glove in the bottom of my gym bag during basketball season and (against Coach Garvey's wishes), grab Tom Paranzine or Kenny Turnbull to throw with me, because I wanted my arm to be ready come March 1, the magical day when we were allowed to start baseball practice...usually in the gym or on the parking lot. My sophomore year, when JV basketball games were scheduled for 6:00 (before the Varsity games at 7:30), I'd get home from school and go to Verona "Nautilus" to get in a lift. My buddy Turnbull, a basketball guy first, was never happy to hear me say, "I'll trade a missed jumpshot now for an extrabase hit later," but that was my thinking.
I wanted to be good.
Looking back, I'm sure it was because I was Scott Bradley's younger brother that so many opportunities came my way. I can't BS anyone there, so any of my old mates who were throwing out those accusations in the late-70s, early-80s, you were probably right. The first opportunity I got was a roster spot on the legendary (multiple NJ state champion) Caldwell Legion team when I was a freshman. I'm sure there were better players out there than "Little Bradley," but I got a roster spot (and so did fellow freshman John McHugh, which softened the blow). It's not like I got a lot of playing time for Post 185, but I was on the team and used a lot as a pinch-runner (for Bob Pezzuti) and a little as a mop-up pitcher. Perhaps Coach Venezia's thinking was it would be better for team chemistry to have two happy freshmen than a couple of disgruntled seniors, I don't know. Johnny Mac and I were happy to be on the squad, that I do know.
The truth of the matter is, I was not even a great player on my high school freshman team. I was just another guy. The only difference was my love of the game. I was, seriously, over-the-top. It is not hard to understand why I was so gung-ho. At that time, Scott was down at UNC, tearing up the Tar Heels record book. In the summers, he was playing in the Cape Cod League. My attitude was, I see what's out there if I put in the hours...in the gym, in the cage, taking groundballs, etc.
By my sophomore year I was the starting shortstop at West Essex, and having a pretty good year. One day, Carolina coach Mike Roberts happened to be in New Jersey on a recruiting trip and came to see me play against Barringer HS at Newark Schools Stadium. While years later, Coach Roberts remembers, and will still laugh at Barringer's 300-plus-pound catcher (his teammates called him Capicola, which any good Jersey boy knows is pronounced "Gabagool") and his ill-fitting chest protector. Me? I remember having a big game. Made all the plays. Hit a triple.
It was that day that Coach Roberts told me that he thought I could play for Carolina, and that if I continued to work hard ("200 groundballs a day"), there'd be a spot for me in Chapel Hill in a couple of years. On the spot, I gave up basketball (not that anyone cared) and determined that the summer would be "all baseball." Soccer would be there in the fall, but summer was for baseball. I had to up the ante on my lifting. I had to work harder to get faster and stronger.
My junior year, after a winter of hard-lifting and running sprints up the hill next to the West Essex Junior High School, I took the field ready for a big season. What happened was a disaster.
Seriously, I've tried to erase most of the details from my brain, but I was truly horrendous. I recall missing three straight (boom, boom, boom) groundballs in one game. I recall fumbling an easy one-hopper in an extra-inning game, which cost my buddy, our pitcher Jimmy DiOrio the game. Mercifully, our coach Mr. Schnauffer yanked me from shortstop. I was a mess. Here I was, thinking about going to North Carolina to play ball, and I'm now a high school right fielder.
That summer (1981), I went back to the Legion team for my third season to realize that I was not going to be a starter there. The team was loaded up good. Even had some college freshmen who met the age requirements. What the hell was I going to do now? I wanted to play all summer long, and now I was nothing but a scrub on a team I'd made as a freshman. There were many nights I'd lie awake, just crying.
Why was I so bad at something I loved so much?
Thankfully, there was my dad, who went out and started a Babe Ruth team for me and some of my friends. And I remember a day when Caldwell Legion was playing and I actually had to tell Coach V I was leaving mid-game for Babe Ruth. Obviously, Coach was so unhappy that I was leaving in the middle of a Legion game (he'd given me a spot as a freshman!), but with tears in my eyes, I said to him, "Coach, I'm sorry, but I stink, and I've got to play in some games or I'll never get any better."
I figured I'd never wear a Caldwell Legion uniform again. But, my dad was behind me and Coach V was understanding. Clearly, he could see my pain. I don't think I missed any more Legion games, but I didn't play much for a long stretch. Slowly but surely I started to play better (albeit at the lower Babe Ruth level) and because our Babe Ruth roster was so small, I started to pitch a bit. I've probably never had more fun than I had on that Babe Ruth team. We'd all just gotten our drivers' licenses, which made the road trips, way up into Morris County, full of laughs.
As the summer wore on, some strange things happened. The Legion team went on a tear, winning a bunch of games (18?) in a row. And one night, Coach V felt it was OK to insert me back into a game. I came up to pinch hit and did something I only did once in my life (post 8th grade). I went deep. Hit one out onto the basketball court at the Kiwanis Oval.
Next thing you know, our second baseman got injured and I got some more playing time. Then, a little later on, I was asked, "Can you give us an inning" on the mound, and I actually threw the ball well (it ended up being a freakish summer in so many ways because, for a month out of my entire life, I had a really good curveball...it later disappeared). Our team continued firing on all cylinders and, incredibly, I was contributing. I was a utilityman. I'd play second some days, third others. I actually became a relief pitcher who got the call on a number of occasions. We rolled through the County Tournament and started advancing through the States. In the quarter finals, we came up against our Essex County rivals from Irvington and we were out of arms. So, doing little more than throwing it over the plate, I threw a complete game. We were to play in the semi finals of the double-elimination tourney that night against Paterson, the team that had given us our only defeat earlier in the tourney. We blew them out. We were in the state finals.
I was not in the starting lineup for the state finals against powerful and undefeated Brooklawn. But as the lineups were being announced, Coach V came up to me and said, "We're in trouble. We've got a bunch of sore arms. Can you throw?" I had thrown nine the day before and only had three innings left under Legion's 12-innings/72 hour rule. But I said, "Of course, I can throw. It's the state championship. Let's go."
I got shellacked. And we were done.
The Legion run got me fired up more than ever for my senior season of high school baseball. I accepted that I'd been beaten out for shortstop by John Salvato (our best position player and hitter) and would play wherever the coach wanted. That turned out, mostly, to be in the outfield. I also pitched (not well...the curveball disappeared) and our team was pretty bad. Meantime, Coach Roberts told me I could still come to Carolina and walk-on (to this day, I have nothing but praise for Coach for keeping his word...even though I was not close to being a Division I player). Coach said, "Keep working hard...get stronger...don't stop working." And I did not.
Senior Legion season was bizarre. We were really good, but too many guys knew it. We breezed through the regular season with a great record and went to the states, where we accordingly got drummed out in the early rounds. There would be no repeat run to the finals.
The day after we lost and were eliminated, I got in my dad's packed car and drove South to Chapel Hill. Again, I'm sure because I was Scott Bradley's brother, I was allowed to practice with the varsity all fall of my freshman year and played on the JV team in the spring. Every day I was taking groundballs next to future major league Gold Glove shortstop Walt Weiss, and in my mind telling myself, "Keep working hard, you never know, maybe you'll be a late bloomer." I played half the innings (like everybody else) on the Carolina JV team, playing doubleheaders against junior college programs, with Game 1 typically starting around 8 p.m. I can still remember my friends, all beered up, heckling me from the balcony of Ehringhaus dorm. "What are you doing down there, when you could be here!" they'd shout, and cackle. They'd bring speakers out on to the balcony and blast Van Halen during our games. A couple of years earlier, I'd have been offended, but now reality was starting to set in. I was never going to be good.
I went home that summer after freshman year and played for the Belleville Braves in the Essex County League. I would cut grass all day, come home, grab a sandwich and my uniform and drive somewhere along the Parkway to play against fellow college-aged guys who couldn't give it up. It was actually a fun team. A bunch of Belleville Italian-American guys who accepted me, (and even took me and my Lacoste shirts out to a few Newark discos from time to time).
I went back to Carolina to give it one last try, but halfway through the fall, I'd had enough. I asked Coach Roberts if I could hang around the field, throw batting practice and hit fungoes and he said, "Sure." I felt it was a fair compromise, and Coach ended up letting me make a lot of the trips with the team (including big roadies to Florida, Maine, Arizona State and Mississippi State). I actually dressed out in uniform (mine said "Tar Heels" on the back, not "Bradley") and made many, many life-long friendships with a lot of guys who could really play.
I'd still get sad from time to time. How come I wasn't any good? Isn't hard work supposed to pay off? But I never stopped loving the game..and eventually, I was able to laugh it off.
And, as you know, I love telling stories, so I'll close with my favorite Jeff Bradley baseball story, one my UNC boys have heard a million times, but still ask to hear again. There was this old man named Gene, who went to every Caldwell Legion baseball game, year in and year out. Gene was hard of hearing and wore a massive hearing aid. When he spoke, the whole world could hear.
So, on the day we were eliminated from the states my senior year, Gene came up to me with his big toothy smile and he patted me on the back. "I remember you when you were a FRESHMAN!" Gene shouted, heads turning everywhere. "I remember telling people, that Jeff Bradley, when he gets a little bigger, he's going to be ONE HELLUVA BALLPLAYER!"
And then Gene patted me on the back again, and caught his breath.
"You NEVER GOT ANY BIGGER!"
How can you not laugh at that?