Baseball trades often leave fans feeling reflective; in the way one may have felt after having a good friend move away during grade school. Sunday’s announcement that the Red Sox had sent corner infielder Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox in a glorified roster purge to get full time at bats for rookie phenom Will Middlebrooks led me to experience those thoughts and emotions first-hand.
Some of my first impressions of Youkilis included wondering how such an unathletic looking specimen could last in the majors, and why fans kept booing him every time he came to the plate. As it turned out appearances can be deceiving and fans weren’t booing; they were simply calling out “Yoouukk,” an endearing refrain that became a Boston staple over the next eight and a half years.
Except for a .299 career minor league batting average and a propensity for drawing walks that led him to acquire the moniker of “The Greek God of Walks” in Michael Lewis’ iconic book Moneyball, nothing really stood out about Youkilis. In the intensely charged baseball town of Boston being so vanilla can make things even harder for players trying to establish themselves. As it turned out, Youkilis became a rare exception; a lunch pail player who carved out a niche with the Red Sox with his intense and effective play.
In looking back I realized that although Youkilis became a “star” with Boston, he never really quite fit in the way most prominent players do. Fans got a kick out of the doughy guy with the funny name, who managed to play some pretty darn good baseball. They seemed to appreciate the production that seemingly came in spite of what they expected he should be capable of. Even former manager Terry Francona affirmed such thoughts when he once famously scoffed at Youk’s nickname, telling reporters, “I’ve seen him in the shower, and he’s not the Greek god of anything.”
Youkilis’ inability to fit in was perhaps most visible with his teammates. When he came up as a rookie it was with the infamous “Idiots” of 2004. Between the idolatry of the perfectly coifed messianic caveman, Johnny Damon, and the panache of sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, Youk looked downright plain in comparison. He had no dominant skill, but played good defense, could hit a little, and was capable of occasional power. As he put in more seasons in Boston and his skills became more refined, he never assumed the mantle of a team leader. Ortiz has been the primary face of the franchise for much of Youk’s career, and when players like Damon and Ramirez left, their void was filled by the likes of younger players like Dustin Pedroia.
Perhaps Youkilis never became more of a leader because of his relationships with his teammates. Earlier in his career he was famously chastised for being too intense in the dugout after his at-bats that didn’t go well, as teammates grew tired of helmets and coolers ricocheting about the dugout. Youk also got into an altercation with Manny Ramirez in 2008, and in 2010 publically questioned the commitment of Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed the majority of that season with injury. Although nothing was ever confirmed, Youkilis was also whispered to be the player Josh Beckett angrily called out as the “clubhouse snitch” after “Chicken and Beer-Gate” this past year. Finally, new manager Bobby Valentine shocked many by announcing shortly after the start of this season that he felt his struggling third baseman wasn’t as invested in the game as he needed to be. Clubhouse politics are always a murky business, so these issues may lack the proper context required to fully know the true impact they had on Youkilis’ role with the team.
At the end of the day, you would be hard-pressed to indentify another player who played as intensely as Youkilis during his near decade career in Boston. He was part of two World Series winning teams, was a three time all-star, and consistently ranked among the more under-appreciated players in baseball. He never became a superstar and he never set any records, but he was an anchor for some great teams, and most important was the tangibility of how much he cared. He was nothing special all while being quite special. There have been few players in the history of the Red Sox who brought as much as Youkilis, and no matter how much his final season with the team fizzled, it’s sad to see him go, and like all good friends he will be missed.