Will Middlebrooks owns a Word Series ring from 2013 that will forever stamp him as a member in good standing with Red Sox Nation.
It’s not his only cherished championship bling. The Round Rock Express third baseman has a pair of UIL rings from his days at Liberty Eylau High School, when he played shortstop for the Class 3A title team in 2006 and was quarterback for the Leopards’ state football champs.
“I keep the World Series ring with me, and I’ve got the high school rings next to it,” said Middlebrooks, who smashed a 419-foot grand slam among three hits in Round Rock’s 7-1 win over Nashville on Sunday. “I like to bring them when I’m away from home for a long time. They are reminders of the payoff for the work I’ve put in, the success I’ve had.”
The 28-year-old, once Boston’s top prospect, is trying to re-establish his major league credentials and is off to a solid start with two homers and seven RBIs in his first four games.
This is a player who smacked 15 home runs in just 267 at-bats as a rookie for the Red Sox in 2012. He drilled 17 in 374 at-bats the next season when Boston won the American League pennant and beat St. Louis in the World Series.
Instead of that launching his career into orbit, a broken wrist zapped his power, and the past three years have been frustrating, with stops in San Diego and Milwaukee before Texas.
“I’ve had to rebuild my swing,” he said. “I lost a lot of bat speed after hurting my wrist. The flaws in my swing were exaggerated by the lack of bat speed, so I’ve really had to learn how to get myself in good position with my body and control my movement better so that I can drive balls. It’s been quite a process.”
Express batting coach Jim Presley sees progress.
“I knew he was a good, young player in Boston but didn’t realize he had so many tools,” Presley said. “Will’s back on the right path. I think he can hit 20 to 25 homers and drive in 75 to 80 runs in the majors. It also helps that he has a great attitude.”
Middlebrooks signed with Texas last November in part because they had an opening at first base, a position he also plays. However, before camp opened, the Rangers signed Mike Napoli.
“It was a little bit disappointing, but I understand the business and Nap’s a really good player,” Middlebrooks said. “I’ll do everything I can here. When you’re a veteran, there’s a certain maturity level, and I like to take a leadership role. Guys around you watch you, listen to you. I want to set a good example.
“I heard a quote from one of my buddies: ‘Be where your feet are.’ I love baseball, love competing, and right now that’s in Round Rock.”
Middlebrooks, who married CBS NFL reporter Jenny Dell on Valentine’s Day last year, had plenty of support this weekend. His family made the 5½-hour haul from Texarkana just in the nick of time Friday night for his first-inning home run.
“My parents ran into traffic in Waco, and they were literally walking down the steps to their seats when I hit it,” he said. “So that was pretty cool.”
His dad, Tom Middlebrooks, has been a baseball and football coach at Liberty Eylau for 35 years. His sister Lacey was a standout collegiate softball player at Tulsa, posting a career 34-10 record, 2.00 ERA and .295 batting average. His mother, Julie, is an art teacher, and younger sister Mary is an artist.
Middlebrooks, who played at Dell in the 2006 state tournament, is proud of his family and Texas roots.
“I’m a die-hard Cowboys fan and have always been a Rangers fan,” he said. “And Texas high school football, it is just in my blood. I grew up around it with my dad coaching. I just loved it. It was such a good time in my life. We played the underdog role against a lot of teams but found a way to get it done.”
Asked what kind of quarterback he was, Middlebrooks said, “I could throw it pretty well, but we ran a lot. We had a pretty good back, LaMichael James.”
Middlebrooks, who passed up a baseball scholarship at Texas A&M, was an even better punter. “He could have been an NFL punter,” James, the former Oregon star and San Francisco 49er, told the Boston Globe.
Baseball has worked out pretty well, especially that 2013 season, which included a three-homer game in Toronto. “In my last at bat, I thought I got the fourth one,” Middlebrooks said.
“It was one of those seasons where you want to pinch yourself,” he said. “Seems like it was just the other day. I learned things that season from guys like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz that I’ve carried with me for the rest of my life. Like how to be a leader, how to respect the game.”
Middlebrooks said he still gets stopped a lot by grateful Red Sox fans.
“Every single day, at least during the season,” he said. “I sign their Boston caps and other things. It was a special time, and the fans help keep the memories alive.”
NEXT UP FOR EXPRESS
Monday: vs. Nashville, 7:05 p.m., Dell Diamond. Nashville’s Chris Smith (6-8, 3.93 in 2016) vs. Round Rock’s Eddie Gamboa (6-4, 2.68)