Behind the D-backs’ bearded wonder
Fiery Archie Bradley has kept team, fans buzzing
Jay-Z spills from the speakers. Animated flames lick the video board.
And in a crowd that is buzzing with cheers are faces that have fake beards hanging from their chins.
It’s like a rap battle broke out at a “Duck Dynasty” convention next to a Criss Angel magic show. Except it’s not.
This is a Saturday night in September at Chase Field, and Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley has been called into the game, exiting the bullpen and
jogging to the mound as hysteria explodes around him.
“It’s an adrenaline rush and excitement like I’ve never felt,” Bradley said.
On a team cruising toward its first postseason berth in six years — a team that includes an MVP frontrunner, a Cy Young candidate and the best tradedeadline acquisition in franchise history — Bradley is a can’t-miss attraction.
He’s spawned a line of T-shirts, a personalized slogan (“Bring in the beard!”) and the surge in faux facial hair, with his now-trademark auburn beard becoming a sort of unofficial mascot of the resurgent 2017 Diamondbacks. The eighth inning, when Bradley usually appears as Arizona’s setup man, has become appointment television, and not just because of the party atmosphere that descends on the ballpark.
Bradley has emerged as one of the game’s more dominant pitchers out of the pen, carving out a spot next to Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and J.D. Martinez on this season’s Mount Rushmore of key contributors.
His ascent wasn’t unexpected — he was a first-round draft pick, with an upper-90s fastball, who oozed so much athleticism that he also committed to the University of Oklahoma as a quarterback.
But not until his role changed from starter to reliever did the seams on Bradley’s potential pop off, and amid this rise, he’s also been able to release the other undeniable legacy of this season: his personality.
“I definitely feel like this is the first year people, teammates, kind of everyone around me has seen really who I am, 100 percent,” Bradley said.
Two passions, one choice
Earlier that Saturday, Bradley settled into a chair on the patio of Butters in Scottsdale for breakfast.
He set his Tom Ford sunglasses on the table, ordered coffee with cream and began scrolling through his cellphone.
“I can’t find the score from last night, but their two losses were to Union and then they lost to Southlake Carroll,” he said.
Bradley’s referring to the high-school football team from his alma mater in Oklahoma: Broken Arrow, where he shined as the starting quarterback while also dominating on the mound. He began playing baseball at 4 years old but was smacking whiffle balls at 2. Later, in elementary school, he started football.
Growing up in a family of five kids, Bradley was the center of attention. He was hyper, was always on the move and had an infectious attitude that made others want to be around him. When he’d come into the kitchen for breakfast, he’d wail like Tarzan, letting everyone know he was ready to get the day going. His family called him the Tasmanian Devil and had to give him a baseball bat or golf club so he’d sit still for photos.
Bradley’s mom, Pam, was his principal, and she hand-picked his teachers so she could saddle him with someone who could harness his energy. One put a stationary bike in the classroom and had Bradley ride as he read.
“He wouldn’t slow down until his head hit the pillow at night,” Pam said.
Bradley was also fiercely competitive, not allowing his work ethic to cap him at average. His dad, Charles, played football at the University of Tulsa, and a grandfather, for whom Archie is named, starred at Oklahoma. The Sooners could have had another Archie Bradley in their program, as Bradley committed in 2010 to play both football and baseball, but after getting drafted seventh overall by the Diamondbacks in 2011, he chose baseball.
It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“Kind of a no-brainer, to tell you the truth,” Charles said.
Archie still misses football and paused when asked if he made the right decision in picking baseball before confirming he had.
“I absolutely love baseball more than anything,” he said.
Bradley doesn’t need a menu. Afrequent customer at Butters, he orders from memory.
California scrambler and cinnamonroll pancakes with cheese grits.
“The cinnamon-roll pancakes are a must,” he said.
The 25-year-old also knows what he wants for his baseball career: He wants to be a starter again, as soon as next season.
“I just feel like I can pitch more than one inning,” said Bradley, mentioning the twinge of jealousy he feels when he watches teammate Robbie Ray thriving — because he believes he has the same potential.
To be clear, he loves his current role in the bullpen. Bradley was shifted there in spring training, told with a week to go he didn’t crack the rotation but was too good to be sent to Triple-A, so he’d be the long guy out of the pen.
He felt he had been throwing just about as well as any other starter and had a five-pitch repertoire for the first time in his career. But he accepted the decision, feeling a special vibe brewing and knowing he wanted to be part of it.
Despite his preference, Bradley is open-minded to every role. He acknowledged his current post may be his calling. He’s also thought about being a closer, but only briefly. Bradley isn’t sure when he’ll receive clarity on the Diamondbacks’ plans for him.
“Right now, I’m a reliever,” he said. “I’m trying to be the best reliever in the big leagues.”
(He might be.)
“And if that’s the case,” Bradley continued, “then that’s how I want it to be.”
Through Friday, among all qualified major-league relievers, Bradley ranked first in ERA, at 1.22, and WAR (wins above replacement), at 3.9. He’s tied with the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen for the fewest runs allowed, giving up just nine in 662⁄ innings. The opposition is hitting
3 only .187 against him.
Bradley recognizes the impact he’s had, but only as a piece of the puzzle. What’s been most gratifying is the praise from his peers.
“When I come into the game, I know my teammates know I’m going to get the job done,” Bradley said.
He knows this because they’ve told him — directly to his face, and indirectly through the conversations he’s overheard — and he’s also gotten word certain players around the league don’t like to face him.
“This is finally the way I feel like I’m capable of playing,” Bradley said. He credits health for the uptick. Adversity hounded Bradley as a rookie. He got drilled in the face with a line drive, damaging his sinus cavity and shaking his confidence. Later in the year, shoulder problems surfaced and his velocity dipped.
Even now, he said if he’s honest, he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of being a No. 7 overall pick. He had a ho-hum 2016, going 8-9 with a 5.02 ERA; the fact he avoided injury was perhaps the best result.
“No one’s like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ ” he said. “I got paid $5 million out of high school. No one gives one s--t. It’s like, ‘So what, dude? You haven’t pitched the way you’ve wanted to. You’ve been hurt, but you can still control this.’ ”
Bradley matured, and last offseason, he stuck with a training plan, one he identified the winter before, that crystallized how he needed to prepare. That structure is another reason he feels he’s been more successful this season.
He takes time off after the season ends, but he has a specific date for when he’ll start to work out and a deadline for when he wants to transform into baseball shape. He’s also been smart about his diet; he still enjoys soda and pizza, but in moderation.
“I could go into a game tonight and throw a pitch tonight and never pitch in the big leagues again,” Bradley said. “If that happens or if it doesn’t happen, regardless if I continue my success the rest of my career or I end up being terrible, I don’t care. At the end of the day, when I step back and look at what I did, I just want to say I did everything I possibly could to be as good as I possibly could.”
Online: D-backs vs. Giants at 1:05 p.m. today. Get updates at sports.azcentral.com “At the end of the day, when I step back and look at what I did, I just want to say I did everything I possibly could to be as good as I possibly could.” ARCHIE BRADLEY DIAMONDBACKS RELIEVER
All about the beard
Throughout breakfast, Bradley continually adjusts his hat, taking it off to flip it backward before turning it around again.
His style is eclectic; he’ll pull on Wranglers and cowboy boots, but also slip into Gucci shoes and wear a gold chain and ripped jeans.
This morning, he’s dressed in mostly black, all athletic gear, making the crimson mane on his face even more the focal point.
“I like the beard a whole lot better than when he had the long, greasy hair,” Charles said.
Bradley gets recognized often since trading in his clean-shaven look, getting stopped for photos and autographs. He’d never been one to keep a beard before; Bradley didn’t like how orange it appeared.
But he stopped trimming it after Halloween last year for no-shave November and let it grow. And grow and grow and grow until he got to spring training, realized he was doing well and decided to keep it.
“I knew the genes were there,” he said.
Beards run in Bradley’s family. Charles has one, and so do Bradley’s older brother, Jeremy, and younger brother, Alex.
“He was having to shave in elementary school,” Bradley said of Alex.
His new style, coupled with his prowess on the mound, captivated the Valley.
The Diamondbacks run a hype video when he enters the game, with “Public Service Announcement” by Jay-Z blaring as the soundtrack. They also started selling “Bring in the Beard” shirts.
The team checked with Bradley to make sure the extra attention wouldn’t add any pressure to his position, but he welcomed it.
“We typically try to focus on the team as a whole rather than the individuals, but Archie’s personality has taken on a life of its own and our fans cannot get enough,” Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall wrote in an email. “It would seem strange and would not be smart to ignore his passion, persona and magnetism.”
At some point in the last year, a light bulb flicked on and Bradley realized he’s playing a game to pay his bills. He’s reminded of that every game when the national anthem plays, if not before then. But his humble outlook is also rooted in his upbringing.
“If he got in trouble at school or anything else,” Bradley’s sister Bekie said, “(Pam) would say, ‘Who you are is more important than the baseball player you are.’ ”
It’s a message Bradley hasn’t forgotten.
“I almost feel like this responsibility to appreciate and live out every opportunity I can take in Major League Baseball for all the guys who wish they were doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Recently, he surprised a season-ticket holder by replacing her windshield for a commercial promotion. He threw a baseball into the old glass, and the two posed for a photo with her donning a fake beard.
Bradley doesn’t think he’ll get tired of this interaction, because his passion isn’t staged. It’s genuine.
“You want to make people happy,” he said. “Like, why would you not?”
So he has no issue handling the demands.
“If you want me to be the voice for this team, yeah, give it to me,” he said. “Give me the mic. I don’t care. I know I’ll say some wrong stuff, and I’ll raise my hand and own up to it.”
‘This is me’
Later that night at Chase Field, Bradley is called to duty with two on and two out in the eighth, charged with protecting a four-run lead.
He plans to throw a fastball down and away for his first pitch.
It clocks in at almost 96 mph, a strike. His second pitch is another fastball, this one topping out at nearly 97 mph.
Bradley wipes his brow with his forearm and then readies himself. This time, he gets the Padres’ Jose Pirela to connect on an 82 mph curve ball for a dribbler to third base. Lamb throws to Goldschmidt. Inning over.
The crowd salutes with its customary ovation, and as Bradley walks toward the dugout, a smile tries to sneak out from under the bill of his hat.
“Here I am,” Bradley said. “This is me. This is what I’m going to do. Let’s see what happens.”
Archie Bradley says he hopes to be a starting pitcher again, maybe as soon as next season. “Right now, I’m a reliever,” he says. “I’m trying to be the best reliever in the big leagues.”