"She played on a city baseball team during World War II -- not like 'A League of Their Own,' nothing as big as that," Julie Middlebrooks said. "She grew up in an area with baseball and she knows the rules better than I do. ... Baseball is an old good sport to her. And she takes a lot of pride. She has his bobbleheads, they sent us a few bobbleheads form [Class A] Lowell."
When Will was in elementary school, he would autograph pieces of paper, and Julie would put them on the fridge.
Grandma Procell hasn't yet seen Will play at Fenway Park, but Julie's hopeful that can happen this year, Will's sophomore campaign. A lot of Will's family just finished up a trip to Spring Training. His paternal grandparents, both in their 70s, drove all the way from Kansas. When the Red Sox had an off-day Wednesday, the family went to the beach.
"The job's a little different now, but I'll never change," Middlebrooks said. "I've always been really close with my family, my two younger sisters. One's athletic, one hates them -- they're completely different, so it's kind of nice to get both sides of it."
Will's mother needed surgery in early December. She had a herniated disc and had lost a lot of the feeling in her right hand and some in her right arm, too. As Julie described it, for a school teacher, "that's not a good thing."
Will was right there for her, helping out around the house.
"Evidently, [the disc has] been that way for years," Julie said. "It was very, very gradual. And when something like that gets bad, it gets bad really fast. But looking back, it went on for years. They took me in, popped that disc out and I have a bracket and four screws connecting my C5 and C6 veterbrae. It's the finest thing I ever did to feel better."
Immediately, Julie could write again, and her grip is coming back.
When he wasn't in Texarkana, Will was in Boston and the Dallas area, where he works out with his Spring Training roommate and Red Sox catching prospect, Carson Blair, as well as Blair's brother Elliot, an outfielder in the Giants' system. He also traveled to Europe, visiting Barcelona and Paris.
But the holidays were spent at home, in his childhood bedroom, in his comfort zone. He wasn't so much scared for his mother heading into the surgery as he was relieved.
"We were more just ready for her to be healthy," Middlebrooks said. "It had been like 2 1/2 years and it just started getting worse and worse and she was kind of avoiding the surgery because it's such a big deal and she didn't want to miss that much work. Once she finally was -- she got to the point where she could hardly lift her arm because of all the nerve damage. We were just like, 'it's time.'"
When Will was in Boston this winter, he appeared at nearly every team event, be it a charity visit, a day for the fans at Fenway or a Jimmy Fund announcement. At 24, he already seems a media savant, polished and engaging.
The personality has always been there, but it was kept under wraps.
"I think that's just like a confidence thing," Will said. "I don't think I was ever lacking confidence. Just kind of growing into the person I am. From 18 to 22, it's kind of like you're changing a lot. I finally feel like I'm kind of the person I'm going to be at this point. [But] you always think you're done changing, and then you look back and realize you weren't."
"Will was not shy as a child," Julie said. "He has had to learn a lot and overcome -- he wasn't timid in any way. Or scared. Very reserved, how about that. And then with his closest friends, he's always loosened up. So this has been a learned thing over the last years. Sometimes, I think that's what I'm most proud of is his growth as an individual, not as a ballplayer. Because he's learned, I told Thomas, we worried so much about no college. You know [Will] and I went out and he said, 'Mom, you have to let me follow my dreams. I know you want me to go to college on a scholarship, but you know, sometimes, you get one chance and this could be it.' I said 'Do it, fine. Do it. You better not screw up.'"
In 2008, a year after the Sox drafted Middlebrooks, they took another Texas high-schooler -- Blair. He's a catcher now, and for the past five years, he's been Middlebrooks' spring roommate. They room together near Dallas in the winter, too.
Here's Middlebrooks, a Major League rising star, still rooming with a kid who hasn't reached Double-A.
Blair and Middlebrooks met during instructional league play in 2008. Blair always assumed everyone in pro ball would run hard, but that's not always the case. Someone stood out.
"I was like 'Wow, who is this kid who is pushing himself?'" Blair said. "So, I just introduced myself to him and he's obviously a Texas kid. OK, so that's kind of why you're a hard-working guy. I don't know after that. I had a rough roommate at the time, so I just moved in with him and we've been real close ever since."
Middlebrooks has no brother, just sisters Lacey and Mary Frances, but Carson has become one.
"He knows my family, he knows me just as good as anybody does," Middlebrooks said.
"I guess [Will's] personality has come out more on the field now that he's having more success," Blair said. "Obviously, he's gotten a lot more confident and I think that's a big part of it. … He's pretty careful about the way he's perceived."
Privately, Middlebrooks can be confident enough sometimes that, in fun, Blair makes sure his head's not getting too big. Knocks him down a notch or two.
"I do all the time," Blair said. "I feel like that's my job. The kid's unbelievably talented and he's one of those kids that can just do freak things. And so I feel like as one of his good friends, I got to kind of keep him level-headed, knock him back down to earth a little bit."
It's not a bromance, but they know each other's tendencies. Middlebrooks' room is a mess. "I'm usually the one that cleans," Blair said. "His room can kind of look like a bomb went off."
The conversation usually isn't about baseball, although they'll talk hitting sometimes.
"But a lot of the time, honestly, it's stuff off the field," Blair said. "Just family, friends, girls, whatever. Just cause we hear enough baseball and he's got a lot smarter people to talk to about baseball."
They always say they'll cook, but wind up going out instead. Cooking takes too much time. Blair is said to be a big fan of the TV show "The Bachelor," but there's one TV, and Middlebrooks would rather watch sports. You can imagine what ensues.
"[A typical night] consists of me trying to watch a sports event, and him watching 'The Bachelor.' He's going to hate me for this," Middlebrooks said. "It's pretty laid back, we get back and we're tired, we're really tired. We get up here at 6 a.m. So by the time we get home, we just kick back and relax. We'll go grab dinner with a couple of guys or something."
Coincidentally, it's a TV set at home in Texarkana that Julie says has been her family's biggest change. Home life otherwise hasn't seen huge alterations.
The Middlebrooks' were always the family of 6-foot tall people in Texarkana. Even Julie is close to the mark, if not over it. Lacey, who's a Division I college softball player and Will were always in the local paper due to their athletic prowess. Because Julie and Tom have both worked in several school districts, people know them, too. Will's subsequent fame hasn't made for any higher profile for the family around town.
"We live such linear lives at home," Julie said. "Everything's pretty much the same for us except the children are not in the home anymore. Occasionally, when we finally got DirecTV and NESN and we'd seen him on TV all the time, we were like, 'Wow.' … The biggest impact it's made on our lives is we got a really nice big television."
While Lacey is similar to Will in her athletic pursuits, Mary Frances has taken a different route. She's living in Texas, taking art classes. The free bird of the family, if you will.
"She prefers to live life a lot more low key," Julie said. "She's not competitive like the other two. I used to joke that she was my breath of fresh air and the other two would look at me and frown."
In a way that many rookies don't, Middlebrooks endeared himself to teammates last year, including veterans. Julie explained that as a function of everything he was involved with as a child. He is a coach's son. He played on travel ball teams with kids sometimes four years older than him.
"When he was a year old, Tom took him to the field house," Julie said. "Didn't come back, didn't come back, didn't come back. They were doing something with equipment and uniforms and Will went off in another room and he had tried to pick up a shot put. And of course it rolled over on his finger and he was stuck until they found him. Bringing him back with this smashed finger. He's been around men and coaching and sports all his life."
Julie's Catholic upbringing leaves pride as a word she won't use, but it may be the most accurate summation of how she feels today about Will. The initial shock of seeing him in the Majors, of telling co-workers on last-second notice that she wouldn't be in school for a week -- that whirlwind has subsided.
But the Middlebrooks' remain thrilled, and nearly the same as they were.
"That initial feeling has a lot of shock in it," Julie said. "Now it's just kind of, gosh, I don't even know how describe it. ... I always tell my kids I want to see you content. And content includes all the highs and lows. And I don't want to you to stagnate. Keep treading. Keep moving. And there's a lot of joy for him.
"I don't know, sometimes we're a little bit in awe. I think, 'Wow, this is what he always wanted to do, he's doing it.' But Lacey's doing the same thing. She's headed in a direction and Mary is working on her art and I think something's going to grab her at some point. It's hard to describe how I feel. I just like to see him. I always joke, I'll pat him on the arm, and say you know, 'Sometimes, I just have to feel you.'"