CLEARWATER, Fla. — Will Middlebrooks wore a bracelet Sunday morning on his left wrist. He received it from a friend this offseason to serve as a reminder of how he wanted to attack this season after feeling his career had reached a crossroads.
FEARLESS, the black bracelet said, in white lettering.
Middlebrooks had struggled to find the success he had in 2013 when he won a World Series as a rookie with Boston. He had been nagged by injuries and played mostly in the minor leagues. This season, he thought, would be different.
So the 29-year-old wore the bracelet when he reported last month to spring training, hoping to carve a role on the Phillies’ bench. He wore it Saturday when he raced into shallow left field, tracked down a pop-up, and felt his left leg bend under outfielder Andrew Pullin, who too was tracking the ball.
And Middlebrooks wore the bracelet on Sunday, after he learned he fractured his left fibula and also suffered serious ankle damage. His season is likely over, and his career, Middlebrooks said, is uncertain. His fearless season may have finished before it really started.
“Fearless to me is not being afraid to fail; bold, I guess you could say, is the term around here,” Middlebrooks said referring to new manager Gabe Kapler’s “Be Bold” mantra. “I feel if you play with a fear of failure, you don’t tap into how great you can be. If you question your every move, you don’t want to fail, you don’t want to mess up. So for me, it’s being able to play free and not question myself, and be OK with messing up and be OK with failing. Because it’s going to happen. You get out seven times out of 10 your whole career and you’re a Hall of Famer, right? It’s a game full of failure. You have to be OK with it and take it in stride and learn from everything you go through. That was my main goal. Be fearless and play hard. I told Kap, it’s the second game of the year. I haven’t played a meaningless game in my life. I’ve always had that attitude, but I was trying to take it a little further this year. I don’t look at that play yesterday as being reckless. It’s just a baseball play. What I told him is [that] in years past, I might have pulled up on that ball.”
Middlebrooks texted Pullin Saturday night when he was still at the hospital. Middlebrooks told the 24-year-old outfielder that everything was fine. It was a freak play, Middlebrooks said. Both players entered camp with long odds to make the Phillies and likely would have begun the season as triple-A teammates.
Middlebrooks was competing with a cast of others for one of the final spots on the bench. He can play all four infield positions, but played just 32 major-league games over the previous two seasons. Middlebrooks seemed to be on the outside of that race for a utility role, but perhaps his fearless attitude may have changed his odds.
“He made a decision this offseason that he was going to give everything he had on every play,” Kapler said. “He was going to play with fearlessness and play with reckless abandon, because he didn’t want to have any regrets. That’s exactly what he did.”
Middlebrooks wore his bracelet Sunday as he sat at his locker with his left leg wrapped from his foot to his knee. Teammates he introduced himself to only weeks earlier walked past and offered condolences. Middlebrooks planned to meet with a specialist, who would outline a recovery plan. Surgery seems likely.
“I think I’ll be fine,” Middlebrooks said. “If it takes two months, if it takes four or five months, I don’t know how long it will take. I’m not counting myself out. I plan on playing this year.”
And that would be pretty fearless.