This is part of what drew the Red Sox to Will Middlebrooks.
After all, the first time that Sox area scout Jim Robinson got a chance to see the young prospect in preparation for the 2007 draft was when he caught him playing quarterback in a Texas state playoff game for Liberty Eylau High School in the fall of his senior year. In addition to arm strength and athleticism (not to mention leg strength -- Middlebrooks also boomed a punt of more than 50 yards in the game), the thing that stood out to Robinson was the leadership ability of Middlebrooks, the capacity to take charge of an offense, to command its trust and to guide it to victory.
It was in part with that background in mind that, back in Middlebrooks' first professional season -- one that started as an exercise in misery -- then-Lowell Spinners manager and current PawSox skipper Gary DiSarcina felt comfortable dropping a gauntlet in front of a player who was then 19 years old, at a time when he was struggling in 2008.
"The last thing I really pounded on him was to be a leader," DiSarcina once recalled of his pivotal conversation with Middlebrooks.
"Be the first one out here for the drills, take your ground balls, pat your teammates on the back. Be a leader, see the big picture. That's how I perceive Will when I look at him: middle of the order guy who is going to be a leader."
Fast forward to the present.
There is an evident difference in MIddlebrooks now as compared to a year ago. In his first big league spring training camp last year, the third baseman rarely could be heard while sitting in the far corner of the Red Sox clubhouse, a position in which, in his words, he was "getting smoked by the saloon doors" that swing open and shut between the clubhouse and the dining area.
Then, Middlebrooks' primary interaction was with longtime teammate Alex Hassan, who was likewise a non-roster invitee to big league camp. He wasn't shy, but Middlebrooks understood that his primary responsibility in the clubhouse was to familiarize himself with the big league environment by learning through osmosis from the team's veterans.
That education, Middlebrooks suggests, was helpful. But this year, even as he continues to learn about the big league setting, is different.
"Once I really grasped the whole idea of sitting back and watching these guys, learning about routines, it was awesome. It took me about a week or two to really get a feel for what guys were doing. But it did nothing but help me," said Middlebrooks. "This year it's a complete 180. Not that I'm not learning, not that I'm not still watching, but now I try to have a voice."
His location permits that. Middlebrooks sits roughly in the middle of the group of established big leaguers, between Dustin Pedroia and Stephen Drew. He's regularly in animated conversation with the members of the big league roster, sometimes serving as a foil to Pedroia's characteristic rants. He proudly displays, at times, his "Beautyrest Baggo" championship trophy, hard-earned through his victory in the eponymous NESN competition among Red Sox players.
But Middlebrooks does not limit his conversation or displays of confidence to the players who will be his teammates in Boston at the start of this year. He's also made a point of being accessible to the team's prospects who reside in the same corner of the clubhouse where he spent last spring training.
Before Xander Bogaerts left for the World Baseball Classic, for instance, the 20-year-old noted that one of the foremost aids he'd had in preparing to play third base for the first time in his life was Middlebrooks, who made a full-time move from short to third as a 19-year-old.
The ability to connect and help guide his peers is something that comes naturally to Middlebrooks, but it is also a responsibility that he consciously cultivates.
"I've been in that boat," said Middlebrooks. "I know how scary it is to come in here and to see David [Ortiz], to see Dustin. I just want to be that safety valve. I'm still the same age as a lot of these guys. Come talk to me. Come ask me questions. Don't be worried about asking Pedroia. Come ask me. I'm not going to blow you off. Not that they ever blew me off, but they're more likely to give you crap than I am. I'm going to help you out and I'm going to teach you what I learned.
"My parents have taught me that since I was a child: You may not be the best player, but you're going to lead and people are going to believe you are. When you have confidence, everyone else has confidence. That's why, I'm not really loud, but -- I know that swag is a terrible word, but it's fitting. There's such a fine line between being a confident [jerk] and having confidence in yourself and your teammates and your team. I think that's important after last year. I'm the first one not to look in the rearview mirror. I hate talking about it. But it's very important for everyone to come in here, have fun, have a confident attitude and just an approach everyday to a good workout."
The difference is evident to Hassan, who is now back in big league camp as a member of the Red Sox' 40-man roster, but who has yet to reach the majors. He is in position to appreciate the position that his longtime teammate -- with whom he's played at every minor league level and in every season since 2009 -- now occupies.
"Now he's been here for a year, No. 1, and No. 2, he's been successful. He has confidence from his experiences that he can feel comfortable here," said Hassan. "How he looks at himself is probably different from last year. Last year he sat in the corner never having done this. Now he's had some really positive experiences that have let him be more comfortable and let him know he really belongs."
It's a remarkable revelation in some ways. After all, Middlebrooks played "just" 75 games in the big leagues last year -- just under half a season's worth of contests -- before a broken wrist concluded his first season. But in that time, Middlebrooks showed plenty, hitting .288 with a .325 OBP and .509 slugging mark along with 15 homers, performing at a level that suggested that he could be a cornerstone player for the Sox for years to come.
"You start hitting homers and things like that, and you can do whatever the hell you want," laughed new teammate Mike Napoli, who worked out with Middlebrooks at the Texas location of Athletes' Performance this offseason.
There is truth in the statement. Still, it's striking how quickly Middlebrooks' position -- from understated and completely unproven prospect to vocal presence on the team -- has evolved, a fact that is not lost on the player.
"Last year was a year of so many firsts for me, it was unbelievable. It happened like that. The first time it hit me was right before Christmas," said Middlebrooks. "I was hitting in the cage and I thought, 'Wow, I'm getting ready for my second big league season.' I already had my rookie year; it's over. It went how I wanted it to, how I wanted it to go, minus ending early. I feel like I made a name for myself, I earned a spot, I gained relationships that I needed to make. I was happy with it.
"At the same time, that was very overshadowed by everything else [that took place on a 69-93 Red Sox team], which is tough. You don't want it to be overshadowed. But it leaves you hungry, and as cliched as it is, it puts a chip on my shoulder. I want to come in and help us win."
His conduct this year reflects that. And in that sense, Middlebrooks represents a somewhat fascinating presence on the team.
In a similar vein to how Pedroia emerged as the poster boy for an emerging wave of homegrown Red Sox talent in 2007, so, too, is Middlebrooks at the front of the coming infusion of Sox prospects. He is, in some respects, a vital part of the bridge to what is being referred to as "the next great Red Sox team," and with that position comes a degree of responsibility that the son of educators embraces.
He is close enough to the experiences of last spring to remember how impactful it was to receive advice from veterans like Pedroia, Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis, and thus to recognize what kind of weight he can now have on his younger peers.
"Not that I wasn't allowed to be myself, but I guess I wasn't. You don't feel like a part of the team. You feel like, 'I'm here to learn right now.' Now, I want to help those guys out," he said, pointing to the part of the clubhouse where he resided last year, and that now features players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Deven Marrero and (prior to his departure for the World Baseball Classic) Bogaerts.
And as for Middlebrooks?
"I'm myself now," he said.
For the Red Sox, the promise of such a proclamation appears to be considerable.