Be­hind the D-backs’ bearded won­der

Fiery Archie Bradley has kept team, fans buzzing

The Arizona Republic - - FRONT PAGE - SARAH MCLEL­LAN

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.

Start­ing anew

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.”

PA­TRICK BREEN/THE REPUB­LIC

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.”

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