The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are tied four-all in the bottom of the ninth late in the 2016 season. Neither team has so much as a puncher’s chance of making the playoffs; both are mired in the midst of deep rebuilds. The atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park reflects that futility; the announced crowd of 19,453 is at best restless. Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was fond of saying that “no matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win one-third of your games.” In the midst of a 162-game season, this is just another.
Yet for former Georgia Tech standout Jed Bradley, the game is something more. It is his major league debut. Standing on the mound, he hardly has time to reflect on his tumultuous journey. Years spent bouncing around minor league clubs, bearing the pressure that comes with being a first-round draft pick. The difficulty of acclimating to life as a professional athlete. The trade that brought him from Milwaukee home to Atlanta. This was the payoff. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Phillies outfielder Tyler Goeddel is sent away swinging, and Bradley has his first ever major league strikeout.
This at-bat — captured by a soon-forgotten box score and a YouTube video with 353 views at time of writing — would be the highlight of Bradley’s short career in the big leagues. Yet Bradley’s story is far more interesting than any statistic might suggest. It is a story of frustration, redemption and now, a resumed education.
Bradley started playing baseball as a five-year-old. Living in rural Tennessee on a family farm, the sport was less a passion than a way to kill boredom. “It started as an outlet; I needed something to do,” he said with a laugh. “Thankfully, I was good at it.”
Bradley was more than good. He was left-handed, an ideal characteristic for a pitcher. He threw his first pitch at age 8. By age 14, he was committed to playing that position. It was his best shot at playing professionally. Pitching, lucrative as it might be, is physically demanding. It requires repetitive exertion of a concentrated muscle group, and without the right training, severe injuries are virtually inevitable. So Bradley threw himself into training and rehabilitation, making sure he was preserving his arm.
He continued to excel, and as the time came to choose a college, Bradley leaned towards the University of Michigan. He had lived in the state for much of his high school career, save for his senior year, and with former greats such as Barry Larkin and Mike Matheny as alumni, the pedigree was undeniable. On a whim, he accepted an invitation to a Tech baseball camp. He met head coach Danny Hall and was hooked. Ten days later, the would-be Wolverine was a Yellow Jacket.
It was only in his second year at Tech that Bradley realized he had a legitimate chance of being an MLB player. “The way things were lining up, I looked at my physical skills, I looked at the role I was going to play that year, and it kind of clicked. I could do this,” he said. When the time came for him to pause his education in favor of the major league draft, his family was supportive. They knew it was his longtime aspiration.
Yet the path was far from smooth. Bradley had potential in the eyes of scouts — physically talented but not nearly polished enough to play at the sport’s highest level. Spending years in hotel rooms from Oklahoma City to Helena, Bradley wondered whether he would catch a break. That break came in the form of a trade between the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves. Milwaukee would get cash or a player to be named later. Atlanta would get Bradley. It is the sort of quiet transaction that takes place too often to count. Yet Bradley remembers it as “the best moment of [his] career.” Just a few months later, he was taking the field in Philadelphia, making his major league debut. It was the realization of years of effort.
Unfortunately, it would not last. “I broke down a couple of times,” Bradley says, including an injury that he admits “funneled [him] to the door” of his professional career. He is quick to clarify that injuries did not force him into retirement. They just kept him from playing the game at a standard he found satisfying. In May, now a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he announced his retirement, sudden to outsiders but decidedly final to him, the result of a series of injuries.
What does the future hold for Jedidiah Bradley? Coming back to Tech was a foregone conclusion; his contract mandated that the Brewers pay for the remainder of his undergraduate education. Afterwards, he says, he is “kicking around a lot of options.” For the only Tech student who has struck out a Major League Baseball batter, those options are sure to abound.
Nowadays, Bradley is basically indistinguishable from any other student at Tech. He does his homework. He asks and answers questions in class. But beneath the surface, he is rich with experiences that few of his classmates have. He is the only one who can speak fondly of “shenanigans” in the Braves bullpen in the early innings of games. He is the only one who has firsthand experience with star outfielder Ender Inciarte, the only one who has demonstrated his craft in front of tens of thousands of people.
Don’t let his humility fool you. Jed Bradley is far from a typical student. He is a former professional athlete, a hometown kid made good and entirely at peace with his up-and-down foray into professional sports. In fact, he worries more about the potential for injuries in young athletes today than he does his own career. Yet Bradley is more than another athlete with a set of statistics meant to describe his career; he is a captivating person.