I’ve lived in Boston for 11 years now and it’s a city that is, to put it mildly, obsessed with curses — no doubt the result of its close proximity to Salem’s long-entombed witches.
There’s the classic “Curse of the Bambino,” which lasted 86 years. The “Harry Sinden Curse,” purportedly responsible for the Bruins’ prolonged drought between Stanley Cup appearances. The tragic “Curse of Len Bias,” which cast a cloud over the Celtics organization for 9 years. The “Victor Kiam Curse,” which turned an already futile Patriots organization in the late 80s into a punchline when, as team owner, Kiam sided with his players after a sexual harassment episode with a female reporter, then doubled down by saying that the Boston Herald was “asking for trouble” by assigning her to cover the team in the first place.
And then there’s a much more recent curse; one well-known across Red Sox Nation, but not so much among San Diego Padres fans. It’s called the “Curse of Jenny Dell” – a.k.a. the soon-to-be Mrs. Will Middlebrows. Legend has it that she’s the reason the third baseman has never fulfilled his immense potential as a professional baseball player.
Middlebrooks and Dell – at the time a sideline reporter for NESN – began dating late in the 2012 season, announced their engagement in 2014, and ended up packing their bags for San Diego in December after A.J. Preller acquired him for catcher Ryan Hanigan. Now of course, the Padres’ Opening Day third baseman is into his second month with the El Paso Chihuahuas. And while the specter of her “cursing” him is absurd, it sure makes for a compelling story from a numbers standpoint.
When the two first started going out, Will was putting up some pretty heady numbers for the Red Sox, including a .288 BA, .325 OBP, .835 OPS and .509 SLG over 76 games. Then, as their relationship progressed in 2013, his on-field performance regressed. Over 94 games, he hit .227 with a .271 OBP, .696 OPS & a .425 SLG. Fielding errors climbed to 10, and his Rdrs/yr (defensive runs saved above average) went from -6 to -12 in 2013. And 2014 was even more bleak, yielding just 2 HRs and 19 RBI in 215 ABs, a .191 BA, .256 OBP, .522 OPS, and a cringeworthy .256 SLG.
The outcry across Red Sox Nation was as venomous as it was predictable. Ms. Dell ended up “leaving” NESN for CBS Sports, but that only served to ramp up the rhetoric aimed at her boyfriend-turned-fiancee. Adam Kaufman of the Boston Globe wrote, “It would be foolhardy to depend on a guy beset by injuries and inconsistency, and who has never played a full major league season, to suddenly be ready, able, and productive.” GM Ben Cherington added, “I’m sure it’s frustrating for him and frustrating for us to some degree because we know he has the talent to perform better. He’s got the ability to do that. The staff is trying to find ways to unlock that, and he’s trying to find ways to unlock that. It hasn’t happened yet.” And there was this from Sox manager John Farrell: “We want to believe in Will because the skill-set is there, …but I think, where we are as a team, we have to see if there are any upgrades that make sense for us.”
That’s a quote that could just as easily come from Interim manager Pat Murphy, or A.J. Preller, or Mike Dee this year in San Diego.
The real curse here – sorry, conspiracy theorists – is that Middlebrooks is injury-prone. Pure and simple. The guy’s slipped on a stray bat in an on-deck circle. He’s dealt with a fractured wrist and finger. Multiple back and calf strains. An additional wrist sprain. And as any trainer will tell you, compound injuries impair a player’s ability to produce.
All that being said, Will has proven to be as gritty, determined, and relentless in proving his worth as they come. “I don’t doubt myself,” he told Alex Speier of Boston’s WEEI prior to being traded. “The struggles I’ve been through, I still don’t doubt myself. I know what I’m capable of. Do these guys have decisions to make? Of course. That’s part of the game.”
Well, ever since the decision was made by the Padres front office to send Will to Triple A El Paso, that confidence in his own abilities has (knock on wood) paid dividends so far.
In 11 games, he’s produced 15 hits, 10 RBIs, a .326 BA, .313 OBP, .813 OPS and .500 SLG. And fielding-wise, he’s logged 6 POs, 10 Assists and 0 errors. In short, the kind of numbers that made him so attractive to both Preller and Cherington in the first place.
The problem, of course, is that Yangervis Solarte is red-hot for the Padres now, and has an iron-clad grip on third base for the foreseeable future. Meaning that all Will can do is “continue to grind it out,” as he puts it, and hope for opportunities down the road to materialize.
“Might take a week, might take two weeks, might take a month, might take two months,” Murphy said of Middlebrooks’ Triple-A stint. “We need the Will Middlebrooks that can impact the game, be an everyday player.”
In the meantime, Will also has an upcoming wedding to plan with Ms. Dell. They’re registered at Bed Bath & Beyond if anyone would like to send the happy couple a little something on their list (http://registry.theknot.com/jenny-dell-will-middlebrooks-february-2016/1786986). And the big day is set for February 14, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
That’s a nice, convenient 40 minute drive from Peoria, where the Middlebrooks will be headed ten days later when Position Players report to spring training camp.
After that, they’ll either be headed west to San Diego, or east to El Paso, depending on the numbers he puts up. And, of course, whether the “curse” that’s bedeviled him for so long can finally be broken.