Everybody has their own Enrique Bradfield Jr. origin story — the moment they realized he was “different” than normal ballplayers.
His college coach remembers Bradfield’s speed and competitiveness during his first fall at Vanderbilt. An Orioles scout recalls the outfielder’s ability to change a game during his sophomore year at American Heritage School in Florida. His high school coach will never forget seeing an 11-year-old Bradfield patrolling center field during a travel ball tryout.
But perhaps no one knew Bradfield, the Orioles’ first-round pick in the 2023 MLB draft, was “different” before a random server at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Southeast Florida did about 16 years ago.
At the restaurant, a young Bradfield, about 5 years old, was glued to the television screen showing, of course, a baseball game. The broadcast showed a clip of Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson’s iconic three-home run playoff game, and Bradfield, born 14 years after Jackson retired, said excitedly to his father, “Look, dad, it’s Reggie Jackson.”
“The server looked at me and was like, ‘How does he know who Reggie Jackson is?’” recalled Enrique Bradfield Sr. “He had no idea how Enrique could know that. He always had that knowledge of the game, even from a young age.”
In Bradfield, who made his professional debut Friday in rookie ball, the Orioles got a college star with blazing speed and superb defense. But those closest to Bradfield — his coaches and his family — know there’s more to his game than those traits.
“He just loves the game,” his dad said.
Orioles first-round draft pick Enrique Bradfield Jr. has impressed people with his baseball knowledge since he was as young as 5. Many of his former coaches and scouts who have tracked his career have noted his instincts make him "different" than most players at his level. (Nick Wass/AP)
That love was evident even before Bradfield stunned the server. When he was 4, he would imitate batting stances he saw on TV, fake a swing, run around the house and slide into a mini base he got as a giveaway at a Florida Marlins game.
All that practice paid off. In three years at Vanderbilt, Bradfield stole 130 bases. He stole four bases in a game multiple times for the Southeastern Conference powerhouse, and he even stole home once. His speed is perhaps the main reason he was one of the top prospects in the 2023 draft class and why the Orioles selected him with the 17th overall pick.
“There’s no words to describe it. Just saying we’re proud? We’re beyond proud,” Bradfield Sr. said. “This has been his dream and he’s been working for this since he was a young age. We supported his dream, and now he’s getting to chase that dream.”
Enrique Bradfield Jr., the Orioles' first selection of the 2023 draft, poses for photos with general manager Mike Elias, to his left, girlfriend Lexie DeRoziere, to his right, and his family, including sister Yari Bradfield, left, and his parents, Jenny and Enrique Bradfield Sr., after a news conference at Oriole Park to introduce Bradfield. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)
The possibility began about 35 years ago, when Bradfield Sr. came to the United States from Panama at 17 years old. After finishing high school in the Miami area, he played center field at St. Thomas University in Florida, graduating in 1993.
“I give him a little hard time, saying that I was faster for him,” the elder Bradfield said with a laugh. “But for him, he’s a natural. I see him, his instincts, they’re natural. You can teach certain stuff, but they come automatically to him.”
When Bradfield was introduced at Camden Yards in July, it wasn’t his family’s first time at Oriole Park. In 2009, his sister, Yari, had a leadership conference in Baltimore, and the trip was naturally parlayed with a visit to one of Major League Baseball’s best ballparks.
They grow up so fast pic.twitter.com/PMgcRie8tf
“We’re a baseball family. That was in 2009. Who would’ve thought that all these years later we’d be here?” Bradfield Sr. said.
When his son began playing travel ball, it was clear to Bradfield Sr. that he was talented, even though he was one of the smallest kids on the team. But that doesn’t mean he thought his son would one day sign a $4.16 million signing bonus after being drafted.
“I didn’t know when he was 11 years old that he’d play professionally,” Bradfield Sr. said.
But someone else thought he might.
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About 10 years ago, Bruce Aven was asked to help evaluate 11 year olds during a travel ball tryout.
The American Heritage School coach saw players lined up in center field and was enamored by Bradfield, the scrawniest of the bunch
“I looked at the coach and said, ‘You see that little kid out there? He ain’t big right now, but that’s probably one of your best players,’” Aven recalled. “You could just tell he had instincts. You’ve got to have talent, but Enrique was born with talent.
“He’s a special kid.”
A few years later, Bradfield became one of the rare freshmen to start on Aven’s varsity team at American Heritage, a high school program in Florida that regularly pumps out Division I players. Bradfield was originally behind a few other players in center field, including Justin Connell, who was drafted in the 11th round by the Washington Nationals in the 2017 draft. But it took Aven only a couple weeks to recognize the undersized freshman was his best bet at one of the most important defensive positions.
“I told all the other center fielders that they need to go find another position because it would be Enrique’s,” Aven said. “It was evident. Enrique makes clean routes, reads the ball quick and makes adjustments like nobody else in the outfield.”
A year later, Trent Friedrich, now an area scout for the Orioles, first saw Bradfield play, and he scouted the outfielder throughout his high school and college career.
The Orioles introduce the team’s 2023 first round pick Enrique Bradfield Jr. during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)
“I knew then that he was just different,” Friedrich said during Bradfield’s introductory press conference. “He impacted the game in so many different ways, and so it’s been really fun ever since he was a sophomore in high school, following that through high school, and then coming into my area at Vanderbilt and being able to watch him the last three years. So he’s just been different every step of the way.”
A player who was often named as a high-end comparable for Bradfield throughout the draft process was Kenny Lofton, one of the most valuable outfielders of his generation thanks to his speed and defense. Aven sees the similarities, and that’s coming from a former big leaguer who once played in the same organization as Lofton.
Aven was drafted by Cleveland in 1994 and reached the majors three years later, playing in parts of five MLB seasons. He overlapped with Lofton during spring training, and Aven recognizes similar qualities in Bradfield.
“Kenny Lofton just brought energy to the team, and you could tell he loved to play,” Aven said. “That’s Enrique. He has a way of impacting everyone else around him.”
Vanderbilt outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. plays during an NCAA regionals championship game against New Mexico State in 2022. (Amanda Loman/AP)
Shortly after the Orioles drafted Bradfield, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias described the selection as a “premium college player from the most premium conference there is from the most premium program that there is.”
The head of that program said Bradfield is the best defensive outfielder to come through Vanderbilt.
“I want to be respectful of everyone,” longtime coach Tim Corbin said. “But he is. He knows that. I know that.”
Like his freshman year of high school, Bradfield started from the beginning of his time at Vanderbilt. At 19 years old in perhaps the best conference in college baseball, Bradfield hit .336 with 47 stolen bases. In his three-year career, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound lefty hit .311 with more walks (131) than strikeouts (122). The success made Bradfield, who wasn’t drafted in the pandemic-shortened 2020 draft, a lock for the first round in the 2023 draft.
Enrique Bradfield Jr. just stole home to tie this game for @VandyBoyspic.twitter.com/eEL9JEpdGr
When Bradfield first arrived at Vanderbilt, he reminded Corbin of the type of leadoff hitter from yesteryear — speedsters who would bunt and wreak havoc on the basepaths.
“I just felt like he was an old soul from a competition standpoint,” Corbin said, also noting how that could bode well for Bradfield as MLB’s rule changes favor fast players.
Elias didn’t want to predict how quickly Bradfield, 21, could rise through the Orioles’ system, but given his age, experience in college and “plus-plus” defense, it’s not inconceivable he joins other top picks in the organization who have done so.
“It’s just so hard to say what’s going to happen with people,” Elias said in early July. “I definitely have no reason to believe that he won’t move quickly, but we’ll see when he gets there.”
It’s early, but his first two games in the Florida Complex League this weekend couldn’t have gone much better. Hitting atop the order, Bradfield went 2-for-2 with a walk and a stolen base in his debut Friday. On Saturday, he went 2-for-4 with a walk.
“His biggest adjustment is going to be offensively,” Corbin said about Bradfield, who hit .279 this spring and managed 15 homers in 191 college games. “But the other parts of his game don’t concern me one bit. There’s not going to be a defensive player that plays to his ability. He’s just a kid that plays the center field position like few have ever played it.”
Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin, left, high fives Enrique Bradfield Jr. after he stole third base against Mississippi State in the first inning during a College World Series game in 2021. (Rebecca S. Gratz/AP)
In his 21 years at Vanderbilt, Corbin helped develop scores of major leaguers. In 2023, about a dozen former Commodores have appeared in the big leagues, with more than 30 in the minors.
None, the college coach said, have the combination of speed and defense Bradfield has. Corbin, like Aven, Friedrich, Bradfield Sr. and the Carrabba’s server, believes there’s something special about Bradfield.
“He’s just different.”